Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On versions

During a recent piece comparing Let the Right One In and Let Me In, in which I stated that the two films were of comparable quality, I also stated that this seemed like one of those situations where whichever one you saw first, you'd probably like better.

I went on to describe my belief that this is a widespread phenomenon in general -- the first of anything you consume is the one you like better. Assuming you like it at all, that is. If you happened to watch Gus Van Sant's Psycho first, and then followed it up with Alfred Hitchcock's, I'd have to assume you'd find Hitchcock to be the superior version.

But not necessarily if you actually liked Van Sant's movie, even though I use it as an example because so few people did. If you liked Van Sant's Psycho, you might think, "What is this old, grainy version of the story that steals all of Van Sant's camera setups?" Ha ha.

But I have a kind of serious point here. I contend that, especially in the case of songs you like, you might attach to one definitive version of it, and not like the other versions quite as much. That might be true whether you were first exposed to the original, or a remix, or a cover.

So I thought today I would put to the test my "first seen, best seen" theory by examining a bunch of movies I've seen, where I've also seen a remake of the same film. Will I like whichever version I saw first, best? I actually don't know, because all I've done so far is identified the pairings. I'm saving the actual judgment for real-time, as I write.

I have to say, right from the start, that it's a pretty inexact science. I'm sure somewhere there will be an example of a pairing where I saw the vastly inferior version of the film first, and will recognize that as such. But will this really blow my theory out of the water? I'm going to say "no," because we're talking about situations where you like the first version you saw. Is that cheating? I don't think so.

I also should mention that my theory does, by its very nature, have the potential to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And by that I mean, a vast majority of us see the better version of a film first, simply because remade films were often classics in their original form, and most film buffs watch the original before they watch the remake. But there are a number of films among the following pairings where I definitely saw the newer version first, and then went back to see the older one. And besides, remakes are not necessarily only of good films, or of films that fully lived up to their potential. In fact, in the piece about the two "Let" vampire movies, I quoted Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson, who thought that only bad films should be remade.

Okay, just a little more bookkeeping to take care of before we get started. Which films don't qualify in this discussion?

1) Multiple reinterpretations of the same famous character. I'm not going to consider Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to be a remake of Disney's Robin Hood, any more than I would consider The New World to be a remake of Disney's Pocahontas. We all know that there are characters in our popular consciousness who get regularly revisited in forms that don't constitute remakes of the other films dealing with these characters. (See also: Dracula, Ebenezer Scrooge, The Three Musketeers.)

2) Genre shifts. I don't think I'm going to consider Adam Shankman's Hairspray to be a remake of John Waters' Hairspray, because there was an intervening step in which the story became a Broadway musical, and Shankman's film is based on that. (See also: The two versions of The Producers.)

3) Taking the essential plot and updating it. Courage Under Fire uses the same essential plot dynamics as Roshomon, but I don't consider the former to be a remake of the latter. (See also: O vs. Othello, A Fistful of Dollars vs. Yojimbo.)

4) Multiple versions of the same source material. No new versions of movies based on Shakespeare's plays can be considered remakes of the other versions. There were three Hamlets made within a 10-year period -- Franco Zefferelli's (1990), Kenneth Branagh's (1996) and Michael Almereyda's (2000). None are remakes of each other.

Well, let's not get bogged down in rules. It basically comes down to, I'm choosing the ones I'm including for reasons that make sense to me, and that's that.

Ready? I'll list the film I saw first in each pair. In more or less alphabetical order by one of the two titles:

1) Vanilla Sky (2001, Cameron Crowe) vs. Abre Los Ojos (1997, Alejandro Amenabar)

Winner: Vanilla Sky. Amenabar's film probably didn't stand a chance, because of how passionately I feel about Crowe's film. The visual bombast and great soundtrack are two of the things I love about Vanilla Sky, so Abre Los Ojos felt comparatively quiet on its lower budget.

2) Can't Buy Me Love (1987, Steve Rash) vs. Love Don't Cost a Thing (2003, Troy Beyer)

Winner: Can't Buy Me Love. It was a childhood favorite, and I still think fondly of it. Beyer's modern urban update is actually pretty good, but Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey) on his riding lawnmower wins out any day.

3) Chaos (2005, David DeFalco) vs. Last House on the Left (1972, Wes Craven)

Winner: Last House on the Left. Then again, Chaos is one of the most loathsome films I have ever seen, so this violates the rule that states I had to like the first version I saw. (I have not seen the movie Last House is based on, Ingmar Bergman's 1959 The Virgin Spring, nor Dennis Iliadis' 2009 remake of Last House.)

4) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart) vs. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005, Tim Burton)

Winner: Willy Wonka, hands down. It's arguable whether Burton's terrible film is a remake of the original or just another version of the book, but I'll include it just so I can shit on Burton's film in a public forum.

5) City of Angels (1998, Brad Silberling) vs. Wings of Desire (1987, Wim Wenders)

Winner: Wings of Desire, but with a big asterisk that kind of proves my point anyway. City of Angels is a very flawed film -- I don't even know that I necessarily give it a thumbs up. But what I couldn't help noticing when I finally saw Wings of Desire last year was that I felt the plot was much more focused in its Hollywood remake. I know intellectually that Wenders' film is obviously the better film, but I did find myself impatient with it because I was expecting the more straightforward narrative structure of Silberling's film.

6) Dawn of the Dead (2004, Zack Snyder) vs. Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero)

Winner: Snyder's version. I really wish I had seen them in the reverse order, because Romero's movie seemed soooo slooooow to me -- both in terms of the speed of the plot, and the speed of the zombies. So instead of getting to appreciate one of history's seminal zombie films, I was laughing at its corniness compared to Snyder's kinetic and bloody remake.

7) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise) vs. The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008, Scott Derrickson)

Winner: Wise's version. This one is really easy, as the remake is absolutely terrible. Even a good version wouldn't have stood much of a chance, though, because I've always appreciated the original -- it was my dad's favorite movie growing up.

8) The Dinner Game (1998, Francis Veber) vs. Dinner for Schmucks (2010, Jay Roach)

Winner: The Dinner Game. This one actually had the potential to upset the applecart, because although we liked the French original, my wife and I were marveling over how little of it we could remember, even though we saw it within the last couple years. When we both hated Dinner for Schmucks, it was no contest in favor of the original.

9) Point of No Return (1993, John Badham) vs. La Femme Nikita (1990, Luc Besson)

Winner: La Femme Nikita. But again, I hated Badham's film -- hated it -- so this hardly counts in this discussion. Am a bit ashamed that I actually saw the remake before the original, but I was still only in the beginning stages of my film geekdom back then.

10) The Flight of the Phoenix (1965, Robert Aldrich) vs. Flight of the Phoenix (2004, John Moore)

Winner: Aldrich's version. I watched them weeks apart so I could review both for my site, and so the original could inform my review of the remake. I have a slight preference for the original, though the remake has its strengths as well.

11) The Hitcher (2007, Dave Meyers) vs. The Hitcher (1986, Robert Harmon)

Winner: Meyers' version. This was a bit like with Dawn of the Dead, where I thought the newer, radder version was surprisingly enjoyable and had a more streamlined plot, while the original was boring and poorly constructed by comparison. So sue me.

12) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Segel) vs. The Invasion (2007, Oliver Hirschbeigel)

Winner: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's a classic, so of course this wins. I should see the 1970s version as well. Though I should say, I didn't hate The Invasion as much as most critics seemed to. I thought it was okay.

13) Lolita (1997, Adrian Lyne) vs. Lolita (1962, Stanley Kubrick)

Winner: Lyne's version. I know, heresy. But here's my theory working again -- I really liked the version with Dominique Swain and Jeremy Irons, and had this as my standard for the definitive version of Nabokov's novel. Even if the original version was directed by the great Stanley Kubrick.

14) The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer) vs. The Manchurian Candidate (2004, Jonathan Demme)

Winner: Frankenheimer's, though I do like Demme's.

15) Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner) vs. Planet of the Apes (2001, Tim Burton)

Winner: Schaffner's. I don't actually think Burton's is terrible, but it's not good. Besides, how could Mark Wahlberg ever duplicate the inimitable Charlton Heston?

16) The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot) vs. Sorcerer (1977, William Friedkin)

Winner: The Wages of Fear. Sorcerer is actually a pretty good attempt, but it has a lot of excess plot stuff from before the real action begins, which really gets in the way.

17) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) vs. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003, Marcus Nispel)

Winner: Hooper's. Again the original is of course superior, but I thought the remake was a worthwhile enough effort.

18) Three Men and a Baby (1987, Leonard Nimoy) vs. Trois Hommes et un Coffin (1985, Coline Serreau)

Winner: Three Men and a Baby. At the time I saw both, I would have preferred the former just because it had actors I recognized and was in English. So, not a great example maybe.

19) The Time Machine (2002, Simon Wells) vs. The Time Machine (1960, George Pal)

Winner: Wells' version. Though I may be remembering it that way primarily because I really enjoyed the turn-of-the-century period design on display at the start of the 2002 version, as well as some of its later special effects. Pal's original may be the better version, but I'd probably rather re-watch the Wells version.

20) The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) vs. The Wiz (1978, Sidney Lumet)

Winner: The Wizard of Oz, of course. It's questionable whether this actually qualifies because The Wiz is based on an urban, Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz rather than on Fleming's movie. But 20 seemed like a good round number, so why not.

And 20 is definitely a good place to stop.

So, prophecy self-fulfilled? I guess so. There definitely wasn't any movie on this list where I felt strongly about both versions, and liked the one I saw second better. Does that prove anything? I don't know, maybe not. Would I write this post again, if I had it to do over again? I don't know, maybe not.

Also, there were some pairings I could have discussed but didn't. Are Last Man Standing and A Fistful of Dollars clearly both remakes of Yojimbo, or are they just the dynamics of Yojimbo reimagined? Same question for The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Do you consider Red Dragon to be a remake of Manhunter, or are they just two competing versions of Thomas Harris' novel? And what about the only sequel I can think of that might also be considered a remake of the original, Evil Dead 2 and Evil Dead?

Well, one thing I determined during the course of accruing this information from my movie lists is that there are a lot of movies where I've seen one version but not the other. In fact, I identified 61 other movies I've seen that either have an original version, a remake, a competing version or some other film that's sort of the same.

Maybe one of these other versions will finally buck the trend of my apparently iron-clad rule.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't watch a lot of remakes, so I can't really comment on comparing those. I did see both Planet of the Apes movies and definitely like the older one better. Same with Willy Wonka.

I feel the same way about music, although anything that is a remake of a Beatles' song automatically gets trumped by the original. Oddly, one of my favorite songs is "Such Great Heights" and I love 2 versions of it. The Iron & Wine version is the one used in the M&Ms add from 3+ years ago. It is slow and romantic. The Postal Service version is more upbeat. I read somewhere it has been used in a UPS ad.

I looked up the remake of Can't Buy Me Love (one of my all time favorite teen movies) and can't believe how awful the poster on IMDb looks.