The other day, while I was watching Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs, I found myself stuck for a reason that I disliked it so heartily. After all, it was competently directed, and the actors were game, skillful, and very well suited to their characters. Even the plot beats were almost note for note with the original, and yet there was a heart and soul missing from the proceedings that infuriated me even more than any other undercooked narrative could have.
But why? I’ve seen my share of “Eh, not that good, not that bad” movies in the past, and never before have I felt like I did with Straw Dogs. It was toward the end of the film, during the siege and subsequent bloodletting, that things began to make sense to me:
Here was a film, I thought, that completely missed the point of the original. It updated all the things that were superficially important to the story, and tried to leave all of the more elemental ideas and subtext regarding masculine violence completely unchanged. It did a disservice to those ambitions, though, by trying to streamline and underline those same ideas. It lit them brightly, taking them out of the shadows and thereby robbing them of much of their menacing and frightening vagueness – the very same ambiguity and uncertainty that was the explicit point of the original. A monster lurking in the shadows is terrifying and riveting until the lights are turned on and you can see that it is just a cat.
The original Straw Dogs was existentially terrible not for what it said about its characters, but for what it said about the people watching it. The feelings one had while watching that movie were a reflection and indictment of their own attitudes regarding what was transpiring. By laughing at David we were in fact laughing at the entire idea of a person like David; we were complicit in the crimes perpetrated against him. By cheering or feeling empowered during David’s successful repulsion of the men attempting to break into his house, the viewer was actually cheering their own assumed moment of power in a similar situation.
This is to say nothing of the controversial “rape” scene. The scene is meticulously designed to inflame a man’s sense of selfish ownership over a woman, in addition to his sense of masculine protectiveness and general human compassion – not necessarily all at the same time. That entire sequence is practically a litmus test for the type of person you are. It speaks to you beyond the narrative. It sticks with you and haunts you by telling you what you are inside.
It should come as a shock to no one that this complexity is missing from the new film. By the end of it all we are clearly meant to be 100% on the side of David and his wife. Still, the rape and the murders and the shame were all left intact. So shouldn’t that have counted for at least a little bit of something? Should not some power remain by dint of simple structural reenactment?
No. It absolutely does not, and the reason is the same that our museums are safe from dinosaurs. No matter how ferocious something is, or how well you put its bones back into the right order, if its time has passed, its time has passed. The flesh, the blood, the sinew, and the environment that forged that creature are lost to us. We have only what remains of it, the lingering artifacts of its life. And while those bones might show us the beast – just as seeing a film now will show us the most superficial aspects of that film – taken out of its own time something is missing. From there, simply drawing a picture of those bones or carving them quickly out of wood makes them even more removed from the power and danger of the original creature.
And that’s the thing; the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs isn’t even the bones of the original. Straw Dogs 2011 isn’t a remake of a film – it is the remake of the idea of a movie, drawing inspiration only from the dead, inanimate remains of its predecessor, lacking all understanding of its original vitality. It can in no way conjure the strength or power of the 1971 original, because that animal is dead and will never, ever be able to be brought back. Even if the original Straw Dogs was made today for the first time – if 1971 somehow lost this film and its instead was brought to life in 2011 – it would not hold that same power, because this is not the same world. You see, Straw Dogs 1971 is just bones now. It is a relic, the remains of something else, the remains of what it was when it was originally released.
That is not to diminish the power and meaning of Straw Dogs 1971 in its own time, or even now. At the moment in time that it came out, in that year, with all of the various social, cultural, and historical components that made up the environment it was released into, its meaning was even more powerful and important. It’s very being was formed in response to a world that was undergoing changes that are intangible to us now. The creation of that film was a response to and attempt to understand a number of very current, very immediate situations. It is that passion, that unrepentant ardor, that suffuses Straw Dogs 1971 with its lingering power over us, the same way the mystery and might of a dinosaur still haunts our collective imagination. It is more than just the images if the film – it is thoughts and ideas wrought from societal momentum. It is what the film stands for, just as much as what it simply is.
What, then, was the environment of the new release? What void of cultural knowledge or understanding did it seek to fill? What was the artistic necessity for this film that will continue to color its memory for those who seek it out years from now? The short answer is that there most likely was none. Considering the current political climate, a more timely remake would be something along the lines of Falling Down, or Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. The time for Straw Dogs, as it was created before, came and went. Without adding anything more modern than cell phones, without updating the core emotional or intellectual thrust of the story to better reflect a more modern understanding, Straw Dogs 2011 did itself no favors. By underlining thoughts and ideas well explored and well known, it only served to act as a pale representation of a former, vital text.
This, at its heart, is the problem with many remakes, perhaps all of them. They don’t understand that most of the works they are aping were called for – they were born and raised out of a necessity of one kind or another. Time and place matter just as much as originality and artistry, and time and place cannot be remade. This is why the remake of The Manchurian Candidate was, in my opinion at least, not as egregious or ill informed as many would have thought. It came at a moment when paranoia about stolen elections and enemies living within our own society was at its height once again, and could have again been tapped for a meaningful cinematic experience. However, it bungled this idea by making the enemy a corporation, completely failing to grasp the real horror and concern of the nation at the time. It had the fleeting glimpse of a re-created social momentum, but failed to tap it.
So what does this all mean? In a commercial sense it means nothing. Studios will trade on the cultural cache of classic films like Straw Dogs or The Manchurian Candidate from time to time. They will do this for money, and they will do it with the expectation that the core story of the film was the primary factor in its importance, not the soul or the meaning it held in the moment of its birth. It also means, however, that somewhere out there is the kind of person who can see the reason, see the necessity that these films filled in the first place, and that person could end up creating something more than the sum of the parts of a long dead beast.