Why Remakes Don’t Work
Inspired from the insight my colleague offered in the Straw Dogs remake analysis, I began thinking about how Hollywood is perpetually fixated on seizing past profits and past glory. It invariably begins some simpleminded exec – that should never have risen to their position in the first place – convincing themselves that moviegoers will automatically flock to a remake of an earlier successful or iconic film. Aside from the obvious reasons this rarely works, I have found there are some subtle reasons why the remake path almost always leads to disappointment – and often spectacular train wrecks!
So, if I could give this hypothetical misplaced movie executive some advice, perhaps some remake rules to live by, it might go something like this;
Is this movie a child of its era? If so, would it lose all its social or civic impact if presented to today’s audience? Our exec might say its easy to modernize any movie and he would be drastically wrong! Lets look at a few examples. Red Dawn comes to mind and an excellent film for, in my mind, addressing something unthinkable for its time (invading heartland America, and by Soviet Russians no less). Given that premise, and given the fact that it wasn’t considered a hit, what does a remake offer that will be compelling and engaging to modern audiences? I am betting our exec would respond with a few uhs and the sound of crickets would be loud and clear! I mean hell, the Red Menace is no longer the Red Menace and though post 9/11 has introduced us to terrorism, where would be the connection for an audience to a remake of this film? It’s nowhere in this case! When remaking topical content you better bring something new or different to make it worth giving it a budget!
Taking topical to an even higher importance, what about socially conscious film? Would the late 70’s Warriors movie hold up as well today as it did then? Not without a supply of assault rifles! What about Taxi Driver or Hotel Rwanda? Without that fresh connection to its relevant time frame and fresh social issues, many movie remakes would equally breakdown! In this case breakdown would mean the remake is drastically inferior to the original!
Lastly, if the remake is striving to turn an otherwise serviceable movie into something much bigger or that expounds on the original then you better stick to the plot of the earlier film so as to not lose continuity and provide superiority to the original. Or, failing that, you should provide a new twist to the original story elements that creates a deeper visceral impact to the familiar setting! Examples to illustrate this rule would be John Carpenters The Thing, which takes an excellent 1951 B-movie and twists ‘the thing’ into something wholly beyond the vision of Howard Hawks and creates whole new swaths of dread and horror in the movie when its clear you may not know ‘the thing’ from your workmates! This enhancement changed the entire tone of the film and lent itself to a higher pitched terror that the original couldn’t dream of. So in this case the remake is now the benchmark for the storyline and as often happens, enjoy iconic celebrity! As for the other side of the stick, ala sticking to the vision of the original, make it compelling or take your ass home!
A good example of the straight up tackling of an iconic original would be Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong! Not only did he understand the visual structure of that early film, he understood the heart of the story. So, as a filmmaker gifted with all the modern CGI tools at his disposal he explored the fascination between the beauty and the beast and painted that love story across the screen in such a way that would have made the original filmmaker proud.
I can already hear the exec sigh in exasperation, but this it what it takes to hope to have a chance to be as good as an original.
Lets tie this all together with 4th and final rule, chemistry! This is probably the most important rule of all. It applies to so many films that were done well. It is also the toughest quality to emulate since it is such a fickle fairy. So stop and ask yourself, is this remake a remake of a powerful character driven film? Does the excellence on the screen come from actors that made or set careers spinning from the movie? Do you have someone to bring something different or more to that role? Are you stepping above the benchmark as the rules set above? If not, then step away from the remake! You don’t have what it takes!
Does this mean you can never do it? No. It can be done especially when the characters are clearly defined and possess room to grow. Batman Begins and particularly The Dark Knight rise to places only the comic would dare to go and this is achieved in the face of many Batman movies! Not only that, but who would have the balls to take on the icon of the Joker and succeed in one-upping Jack-freaking-Nicholson? Christopher Nolan. He would make Batman darker than anything anyone would imagine and he unleashed Ledger and Eckhart to a movie going public that wasn’t expecting them.
All this shows is when you go remake, you better go larger and better, or you better take your ass home.
I got my beady eyes on you remake,
P.S. Sorry Jack, to me, after watching Heath ‘become the Joker,’ I was reminded that you only played him.