Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why we're so upset about remakes

Remakes are nothing new in Hollywood.

We act as though Hollywood is completely out of ideas, but the truth is, Hollywood was always out of ideas. At least, you have to reach that conclusion about Hollywood's past if you want to reach that same conclusion about Hollywood's present.

Did bloggers scream and yell when The Jazz Singer (1927) was remade 27 years later in 1954? (And then, again, 26 years later in 1980?) Were there conniptions when Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was made in 1931 and again in 1941? The length of time between an original and a remake has even been much shorter -- the classic Marx brothers comedy Duck Soup (1927) was remade only three years later as a movie called Another Fine Mess (1930). Numerous films had multiple remakes before anyone reading this post was even born. (In fact, for a handy and close-to-complete list of film remakes, check out this page on the ever useful wikipedia.)

I think there are two reasons we consider the current spate of remakes to particularly offend our sensibilities:

1) The people with the loudest opinions on the topic -- people of my generation -- are finally getting to the point where the originals of these movies were made in our lifetime. You notice we don't get nearly so upset about remakes of movies we've never heard of.

2) The movies being remade don't really seem like classics, the way we've come to define "classic."

The remake of Point Break -- which has a screenwriter attached (Kurt Wimmer), and which everyone has been fretting about lately -- seems like a perfect example of both.

For those who can't believe they're remaking Point Break, it seems like all too recently to us that the original came out. Twenty years goes by in a flash, I guess.

But more than anything, it doesn't seem like a "classic" -- it seems like a guilty pleasure, a B movie people embrace as more of a cult film than anything else.

But who says you can't remake cult films? There are numerous examples of that phenomenon, too.

There are two schools of thought on when a film should be remade:

1) When the original was so great that it simply begs to be introduced to a new generation;

2) When the original was a good idea that was slightly botched, and someone wants to get it right.

Of course, this tends to open up the potential field of remakes to almost anything.

However, the difference these days may be that there's a third reason to remake a film: to reintroduce it to the same generation. With films like the new versions of Point Break and Total Recall in particular, the smart money is on the fans of the original films flocking to the remakes in droves. That's consistent with the general Hollywood mentality to reboot, repackage and rebrand.

I think Total Recall has caught some of us by surprise in part because, like Point Break, we don't really consider it a classic. Even though Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall is a film I love, I'd be hard-pressed to define it as a "classic." It may be one of the smartest films Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever appeared in, but it's certainly a lesser film in his canon in terms of sheer name recognition. Or maybe it's just that straight remakes of Arnold Schwarzenegger films -- rather than reboots, of which there have been many (The Terminator, Predator) -- make us feel old. First Conan the Barbarian, now this.

I think the reason these films make us despair about the state of Hollywood is that they make us ask this question: "What won't they remake?" There's an implication that if you remake Point Break and Total Recall, it's because you've gotten to the bottom of the barrel and already remade the more obvious, credible choices.

But thankfully, that's not the case. Back to the Future has not been remade, and has in fact not even had a new installment since 1989. (Let's not ponder the role of Michael J. Fox's health in that particular decision.) Ditto Ghostbusters, whose last (and, modestly, only its second) entry was also in 1989. (I'm well aware that Ghostbuster 3 is moving forward, but at least it's not a remake.) And we can even go back to older movies. Citizen Kane turns 70 this year, and has yet to be remade.

And some of the movies being remade actually do seem like obvious choices. The remake of Footloose, which comes out next month, is one such movie. I guess that means it qualifies as a "classic" in the way Point Break and Total Recall do not. While the appeal of those movies was somewhat selective, simply everyone saw Footloose. And especially with Glee doing as well as it has, Footloose meets the classic definition of needing to be introduced to a generation that hungers for it. Likewise, it does not surprise me that a Dirty Dancing remake has been greenlit.

And if it's really an issue of considering it blasphemy to remake the movies in question, consider it a compliment. Nothing commits a movie to the annals of film history more than to be revisited down through the years with new versions. With any luck, it'll actually introduce fans of the new films to the films that inspired them.

So as you are bemoaning the decision to remake films from your childhood, consider where you'd be without the remakes you grew up on: Little Shop of Horrors, The Fly, Scarface, Three Men and a Baby and The Thing.

Oh yeah, stay tuned for the second Thing remake, also coming out this fall. Actually, it's a prequel, and actually, John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing may not have been an actual remake of The Thing From Another World (1951), since both films were different interpretations of John W. Campbell's novella Who Goes There?

It gets messy. So let's just take the movies on a case-by-case basis, and see how they go.

Lord knows, we'll have plenty of opportunities to do so.


Travis McClain said...

I'll never forget being taken to see Batman in 1989 by my mom. She had grown up with the TV series starring Adam West, and strange as it may be for people who know me to hear this, it was my mom who was the enthusiastic one. I was indifferent. Of course, by the time it was over, my mind was blown and I was in love. My mom, however, was horrified at what they had done to Batman.

I've tried over the years to point out to her that the TV series she knew wasn't really representative of the way Batman had been in comics. It never made a difference; she didn't read the comics and in her mind, Batman was a wholesome guy who would never have slept with Vicki Vale.

I just kind of laughed at all this. I actually did read the comic books, and as any comic book reader can tell you, you get used to keeping up with different incarnations of the same characters. At one point, I was watching Batman: The Animated Series and reading the tie-in comic book to that (the outstanding Batman Adventures), I read the mainstream Bat-comics that all crossed over into one another, as well as Legends of the Dark Knight, an anthology series primarily set in Batman's early years. There were also the live action movie sequels, and countless comic book one-shots and mini-series (such as Batman vs. Aliens which I swear to you is real). The Adam West era was just one more incarnation to add to the list when I found reruns of that to watch on TV.

Then came 2002, and I took my cousin to see Scooby Doo. I thought they had gone way too far with the adult humor (I was embarrassed to watch some of it with my cousin), and then they revealed the villain to be...Scrappy Doo. Now, I understand there are fans who never liked Scrappy (I'm not one of them), but that to me was entirely uncalled for. I was insulted as a Scooby fan. They could have just omitted Scrappy if they didn't want him in the movie, but to make him the villain?

Of course, my cousin failed to understand my indignation. She was seven and hadn't spent her childhood with Scooby cartoons the way I had. The more I tried to articulate why that movie had been a travesty, the sillier she thought I was. When I came home later, I said to my mom, "I finally know how you felt about Batman."

Daddy Geek Boy said...

The problem with the remakes, and therefore the outrage behind them, is that they are not being made in the spirit of "let's improve the original." They are being made because Hollywood is afraid of material that doesn't have brand recognition right now. So they're digging up our past, remaking it and selling it to the next generation. By in large, the remakes, reboots, sequels and adaptations of TV shows haven't been stellar.

I think us movie fans would rather see an original story than another retread of a movie that had it's moments, but wasn't a "classic." The casting and direction made POINT BREAK what it was, not the story. Remake it and you run the risk of losing what made it special.

Travis McClain said...

I think the "originality" argument is interesting but a little dubious. If you take a look at the most prolific movies, the majority of them were based on books in the first place: The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Planet of the Apes, Doctor Zhivago, Jaws and most of the Disney canon were all adaptations.

Yet if you mention those titles, most people conjure images of Judy Garland, Marlon Brando and Omar Sharif rather than book covers. Even some of the less iconic movies were adaptations: Sideways, Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Bubba Ho-Tep and American Psycho are some standouts from the last decade that were all based on books. Furthermore, Ghost World, A History of Violence and Road to Perdition were all adapted from comic books/graphic novels. They were all terrific movies, and a few of them actually improved over their source material.

Even that assortment of adaptations gets glossed over, though, because however many people forget they weren't original stories there are even more who forget about them entirely in a sea of reboots and sequels. It seems the last decade has been dominated by Harry Potter, Twilight, Batman, Star Wars, Transformers and Saw movies, and little else but that's simply not true. It's only the fact we're inundated with promotions for those franchises that makes us think that's all that's being made these days.

Thaddeus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thaddeus said...

Sorry, V, i 'm with Daddy Geek Boy here. Some people do get outraged because they consider a film sacred - like not wantin a red sox player to go to the Yankees or such. You make it all sound like shouting "death to any and all cover songs!"

Other people are just pissed at the focus on "branding" and well-known properties. That what honks me off. It's just money-grubbing - I know because the quote from the news article was that the new PB would take center on extreme sports, not necessarily surfing. But "point break" is a bloody surfing term! So just make a new extreme sports movie! Hell, Vin Diesel's xxx did that... Ugh.

Your point on the fact that remakes have always occurred is good. Since I mock remakes often, I wrote one article in their defense, and made the same point, listing some of the tales told ten+ times over, as well as a few others. I'd link to it, but that would be cheap of me.

Travis, for purposes of this news, it feels unfair to debate originality on book adaptation grounds. Basic story has to come from somewhere, & when a movie isn't made by hacks, there's room for creativity & change in screenplay & direction. The real issue is that the recent slate of remakes are often flat & boring & unimaginative. It's like if Johnny Cash's cover albums were flawed attempts to do nothing more with the tunes than the original singers. It's like a singing competition where everyone chooses the top 3 tracks from last week.

Vancetastic said...

Funny story, Travis. We all arrive at that moment in our lives eventually, don't we?

DGB & Thaddeus, I definitely see where you're coming from and I would say that a lot of the time, I'd be coming from the exact same direction. However, sometimes I just get sick of hearing the same arguments over and over again. Resolved: Hollywood remakes a lot of films. Resolved: Hollywood is generally cowardly in terms of exposing itself. Resolved: Hollywood may be out of ideas.

However, just as I got sick of hearing every Star Wars fan in the world say they hated Jar Jar Binks, I also get sick of the standard line of discussion on remakes, reboots and endless sequels. (Even though I have, at times, been guilty of contributing to that very line of discussion.) Through this post I intended to examine why there has been a shift in our awareness of remakes lately, and I realized it's because we have reached the age where the original movies were made in our lifetime. I don't necessarily think there's anything more sacred about the movies that are being remade now than the movies that were being remade at any time in Hollywood's history -- it's just we're now the ones they're sacred to, whereas we weren't previously.

I just think it's dangerous to say that this is emblematic of current problems in Hollywood, when the trend has been around for such a long before our current era.

DGB, was Point Break really "special," in the end? (I've only seen it like 1.5 times, so it's sort of a serious question.)

Thaddeus, it's true, I don't want to see Point Break set at the X Games!

Thaddeus said...

V, your reply makes a lot of sense. I too agree that harping over the same points is pretty dull. Even tho Jar Jar was painful, it's useless to just fixate on that one thing, or to approach everything that follows with an entrenched cynicism (my own term).

And I respect you owning up to the fact that you've done the same thing in the past, too. We all have, unless we just mindlessly accept whatever entertainment comes down the pipe. It's funny how things can bother us differently at different times (or not at all), but yes, at some point complaining simply becomes "nagging" or "whining" - that's never good.

The only further thing I will add in opposition (sorry for not pointing it out before, because I don't wanna sound too stubborn here): I'd like to believe that it's less about the movies being remade from our own lifetime and more that most of us must have read (a) the news about the unprecedented number of remakes, reboots, and sequels coming out in 2011 and 2012, and (b) the Disney exec saying that "story matters less than tentpole releases and name recognition."

Those two bits of news suggest an incredible amount of creative stagnation from the major American film industry players. For people who are passionate about film, or hate shelling out hard-earned dollars for unimaginative retreads (e.g., Friday the 13th, Straw Dogs, Nightmare on Elm Street remakes) it is a massive WTF.

Travis McClain said...

I respectfully disagree with Thaddeus about how fair it is to expand our discussion of originality to include the proliferation of adaptations. Those films are considered ahead of original screenplays for precisely one reason: they are already "branded" for the readers.

As for Point Break, if we're perfectly honest it was little more than a guilty pleasure/novelty cult fave until Hot Fuzz made it okay to praise and then Katherine Bigelow became a critic's darling with The Hurt Locker, which instantly boosted the credibility of her entire filmography.

If I work backward to the era of my (our?) youth, the 1980s, here's what I find in a cursory look at the Flickchart list of the Best Movies of the 1980s:

The Untouchables - 1959-1963 TV series

Scarface - 1932 film

The Blues Brothers - SNL sketches

The Princess Bride - novel by William Goldman

The Shining - novel by Stephen King

Blade Runner - short story, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Phillip K. Dick

Full Metal Jacket - novel, The Short Timers by Gustav Hasford

Raging Bull - memoir, Raging Bull: My Story by Jake LaMotta

Stand by Me - novella, "The Body" by Stephen King

The Thing - novella, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Batman - comic book

Grave of the Fireflies - semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka

Amadeus - stage play by Peter Shaffer

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind - manga by Hayao Miyazaki

Akira - manga by Katsuhiro Otomo

Who Framed Roger Rabbit - novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf

They Live - short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson

Once Upon a Time in America - novel, The Hoods by Harry Grey

Re-Animator - short story, "Herbert West--Reanimator" by H.P. Lovecraft

The Natural - novel by Bernard Malamud

The Fly - short story by George Langelaan

The Verdict - novel by Barry Reed

The Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Back to the Future, Part II
Evil Dead 2
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The Road Warrior


Movies That Received Sequels and/or Were Remade
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Back to the Future
Die Hard
The Terminator
An American Werewolf in London
Beetlejuice - spawned an animated TV series and a reboot was just announced
Escape from New York
Lethal Weapon
Spaceballs - spawned a short-lived animated TV series
A Fish Called Wanda
National Lampoon's Vacation
First Blood
The Karate Kid - sequels and a remake!
The Return of the Living Dead
The Lost Boys
Beverly Hills Cop

Several of those movies qualify in multiple categories; for instance, The Fly was not only adapted from a short story, but there had already been a movie adaptation...and both movie versions had their own sequels!

Also absent are such series Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, RoboCop, the Revenge of the Nerds series and the entire Disney canon--nearly all of which were adaptations and many of which have spawned sequels.

Also, I did not cite the various Monty Python films; their films were not part of a contiguous narrative but clearly they were "branded" by virtue of being made by the famed comedy troupe.

Thaddeus said...

Travis, I love a passionate, respectful debate, and I appreciate your reply.

I never thought that Hot Fuzz made it cool to like Point Break again because it seems like HF was mocking PB, as well as the Bad Boys pix. Remember that the simple, man-child cop was the one who loved it. I think lots of dudes always liked that movie because it was action-packed and "manly," and ladies liked it because of half-naked Keanu and Swayze. Plus, Lori Petty.

As for the adaptation thing, from the very start of cinema, they retold old stories. And it's weird to say that people know these tales only from the film versions, but then stress that studios ride on the popularity of the original books. That's why I wanted to leave adaptations out, because it sort of muddies the basic argument we started with - whether the remake backlash is about people's extreme nostalgia, whereas I say it's about cynicism at a tired, predictable industry. For me, it's far easier to focus on one argument at a time...

That's a great list, and thanks for taking the time to compile it. Even on my blog, I can find it irksome to compile so much data. But I look at it this way - someone can love a book and start planning how to fit it into the film format. A good example is the recent The Count of Monte Cristo pic; that's 1500+ pages, unabridged, novel. A screenwriter or director can have a specific vision of how to tell an old story in a new way. I accept that.

What's really bothersome is that folks decide to remake a movie, and they're literally thinking about redoing that other movie, not the basic story or specific aspects of it. From what I've heard of the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, the makers said "Ok, we're gonna do *that* shot again, and we have to do that shot, everyone loved that. And we need a new Freddy because the Englund is too old now, nobody knows him now. Ooh! And we should really clarify exactly what they meant when they said Freddy used to hurt the neighborhood children. That was really spooky."

Am I clarifying why it bothers me so much? There's little art there, and *absolutely* no vision - other than images of dollar signs dancing through execs' heads.

Travis McClain said...

My Hot Fuzz citation was intended mostly tongue-in-cheek (though most of the people I know who are enthusiasts of Point Break or the Bad Boys movies are actually quite similar in taste to Nick Frost's character).

Back to the nature of books and adaptations, I entirely agree about the possibilities before screenwriters as they work to translate what worked in print to what will work on screen. I've explored the topic myself in a previous blog post (shameless self-promotion: ) and I respect that each time someone takes a whack at those stories and characters that their hands are tied in a way that writers of original works are not.

And it's weird to say that people know these tales only from the film versions, but then stress that studios ride on the popularity of the original books.

If I might clarify, I emphasized that studios favor adaptations to wholly original screen stories because the books are ready-made for the marketing department. They already have demographic data telling them how different kinds of readers responded to the book. No one has to figure out what the hook of the movie will be, or what groups are likely to be interested in it.

There was no question when they decided to make the Twilight movies who their target demographic was (girls and women from their teens to their 30s). Previously, vampire movies--even more overtly romantic ones--marketed more directly to potential male viewers. Think to Interview with the Vampire; even though it played up the beefcake of Cruise and Pitt, we guys were meant to be reassured that guys we liked were in it.

It's no secret that young male viewers are the most active movie-goers, but that the most successful releases also engage females. (It was no coincidence when Titanic became the highest-grossing movie of all time.) Knowing you're making a movie that's already a hit with the elusive teen-to-thirties female demographic is pretty encouraging.

If this sounds minor, think of the times you've felt entirely deceived by a misleading marketing campaign--or later found a gem of a movie that you originally overlooked because it was mis-marketed. Adaptations greatly cut down on that confusion.

There's no denying that there are far fewer book readers than movie viewers. That's just basic math. But even without reading the books ourselves, they enter our pop culture awareness.

As for your last point about mindless recreation, I couldn't agree more. I know a lot of people knock Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but their real problem with it is that it isn't a shot-by-shot remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I've not read the original Roald Dahl novel, but I'm given to understand that in many ways, Burton's films hews more closely to Dahl than did the previous film (though both took great liberties with their own subplots).

Personally, I'm in the minority that favors the Burton film--but then, I was never a fan of the earlier version. It was still a profitable movie, but since its release the prevailing perception appears to be that it was the lesser of the two films and that the deviations from the earlier film were what soured people on it. That sends a message to studios that they need to keep their remakes on a pretty short leash. We really have only ourselves to blame for telling Hollywood we will reject too much deviation.

Vancetastic said...

I've dropped out of the discussion for a couple rounds, but Travis, your most recent point floored me. You are totally right that Burton's take on Willy Wonka/Charlie was ripped for being too different from the original film. "He took all the joy out of it" is what most of my friends (and I) say. In this case, I guess joy = familiarity.

Final proof that Hollywood is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. I guess the conclusion is that remakes of any kind are soulless -- either they are too similar or too different, and both insult us in some way.

In a different forum (and I believe you were part of this forum too, Travis), we discussed how movies like Inception spoil us -- they are original, high-concept, AND successful. And they make us feel like every movie can be this way. But every movie can NOT be this way.

Travis McClain said...

In a different forum (and I believe you were part of this forum too, Travis), we discussed how movies like Inception spoil us -- they are original, high-concept, AND successful. And they make us feel like every movie can be this way. But every movie can NOT be this way.

It wouldn't have been a forum discussion involving me; I found Inception boring and familiar. I liked it better when it was a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "Frame of Mind."

Also, while Nolan has wowed me with his two Batman movies (and I dig The Prestige), watching his films is like watching a psychopath try to imitate human emotion. In Inception, DiCaprio--a terrific actor--was essentially reduced to having to tell us he was upset. That scene where he's trying to talk his wife down off the ledge should have been emotionally powerful, and instead it felt perfunctory as though the screenplay simply read, "Cobb yells to tell us he's upset and now traumatized. He will be referred to as Traumatized Cobb hereafter."

Vancetastic said...

Well, it was a forum where you theoretically could have been involved. You might not have been taking the pro-Inception position (or any position since it doesn't sound like you remember it), but the point is, it's true that a movie like Inception confuses studios. For a moment they think "Wait ... CAN we greenlight original screenplays?" So they try one other, it flops, and they go back to business as usual.

Then again, the point was also made that Nolan probably had to prove himself as many times as he did before any studio would allow a movie like that to be made. There are not enough creative minds working today with Nolan's track record to make a movie like Inception a regular occurrence.

Travis McClain said...

I give Warner credit for believing enough in the movie to spend that kind of money to produce and advertise it the way they did, but if you pick apart at it long enough, you can see different ways in which they were conservative and shrewd (if not timid). For instance, recall that Inception had an IMAX release, which all but guaranteed it would at least open strong. Take a look at the advertising campaign:

Prominently featured on every poster is, "From the Director of The Dark Knight," and there were character posters for the recognizable ensemble cast members. In fact, this is an overlooked part of the success of the movie. Nolan has established a stable of actors, much like Ingmar Bergman did. We see enough of the familiar names together and it becomes a branding shorthand. DiCaprio, despite being the A-list star of the movie, was something of a novelty as a Nolan first-timer.

The message from Warner was, "You don't know what this is about and it's okay because you know who these people are and you like them." In fact, not knowing what the story was about became part of its marketing!

The familiarity of director and cast, then, became its own brand in much the same way that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang enjoyed being connected with James Bond; Ian Fleming wrote the book, Albert R. Broccoli produced the movie version, screenplay adapted by Roald Dahl (who had also adapted You Only Live Twice), and both Gert Frobe (Goldfinger) and Desmond Llewellyn (Q) are in the cast. It's not at all a Bond movie, but Bond fans generally consider it an outlier of sorts.

(Of course, in 1968 the big draw was that it featured Dick Van Dyke in a movie comparable to Mary Poppins--another form of instantly recognizable branding.)