In the roll-call of cinematic artistic credibility, remakes and reboots loiter in the doldrums, somewhere between J-Lo rom-coms and gonzo porn. Despite this, Hollywood fling umpteen remakes every year leading to accusations of a dearth of imagination in the film industry and a plea for a return to the creativity of the good old days.
But in the good old days, remakes were the norm. In the silent era, when films could only be watched in the cinema, remaking popular films was an integral part of the industry’s business model with popular films being remade multiple times in the space of a couple of years. Some filmmakers, including D.W. Griffiths, even remade their own films in hopes of replicating their original success. In the era of sound, this model waned but remakes of foreign films for a domestic audience became commonplace.
In the early days of the film industry and today remakes and reboots tend to be driven by straightforward commercialism. In recent years, we have seen a wave of horror films originally from the Far East, particularly Japan and South Korea. These films are actually cheaper to make than original horror films because intellectual copyright royalties are paid to Japanese and South Korean writers who generally command a lower fee than American writers. One executive at Fox said that shareholders feel much more comfortable with remakes than original concepts because they have already proven themselves to have a successful formula.
Remakes of foreign films for a domestic audience is easy to justify to stockholders and critics alike. A film that is more relatable to a domestic audience and starring home-grown actors will always bring in more ticket revenue than a foreign film, and subtitling and dubbing are an audience turn-off. When it comes to remaking domestic films, filmmakers need to work harder to justify their choice.
Sometimes films are remade taking advantage of modern technology and larger production budgets to realise the potential of mediocre film. A prime example of this is Ocean’s Eleven which was originally a tedious and largely forgotten Rat Pack vehicle. With exciting action sequences, location shooting and modern camera techniques, as well as snappier writing, the remake was a huge hit. Little Shop of Horrors began life as a cinematic experiment – an attempt to make a film in one day. It was unilaterally appalling. The remake, making use of 1980s music, special effects and puppet technology is a cult classic.
Another way to justify remakes is to take an established story and remodel it to suit the current cultural paradigm, with varying degrees of success. For instance, the rebooted Ghostbusters exchanges the central male characters for female ones. This smacks glibly superficial tokenism and it remains to be seen if the film will defy snap criticism. One remake that realigned a film to suit a more gender-equal model in an interesting way is True Grit. The original was a typical Western masculine romp. The remake made the focal point the resolutely unglamorous female character and her story and the result was a more nuanced, intelligent and noteworthy film than the original.
Sometimes remakes seem to come from a more complicated political place. Thomas Leitcher has written; “Remakes seek not only to accommodate the original story to a new discourse and a new audience but annihilate the model they are honouring.” Slavoj Zizek references I Am Legend, a remake of the 1954 film The Last Man on Earth as an example of this. In the original, Vincent Price is a doctor who finds himself in post-apocalyptic world swarming with vampires. He seeks to create a serum that will cure vampires, while simultaneously butchering the infected in their sleep. In the end, he is executed publicly and realises that he was the bad guy in the story. In the remake, the doctor character sacrifices himself, killing the vampires so that humanity might survive.
The original film was based on an Italian novel, written as the country was emerging from fascist rule. Italian intellectual life was marked by deep contemplation. Essentially, Italians were coming to terms with being the bad guys. In 1950s America, American’s identity as the world’s good guys was more secure than ever, so playing with moral boundaries in this way did not induce any cultural anxiety. They could play with the hero discovering they were the bad guy in fiction, because in their political reality, this was impossible. In the present day, Americans are not so secure in their moral impeachability. If a film implied that the good guys might really have been the bad guys all along this would inflame anxiety, not alleviate it. And so, the ending is changed so that the hero is always the good guy.
Remakes are hugely popular, whether critics like it or not. All traditions of storytelling, verbal, written and visual betray a human impulse to hear the same stories over and over again. But as Gus Van Sant’s much ridiculed, shot-for-shot remake of Psycho shows, the assumption that a replication of a classic will necessarily create a great film is a false one. Remakes must enhance; whether technologically, culturally or even ideologically. We can blame the maligned reputation of remakes on pointless re-imaginings pumped out purely for commercial gain, particularly if it seems as though studios are just fucking with us. Drop Dead Fred remake starring Russell Brand, anyone? Unfortunately, it’s in the pipeline…