What's in a remake?
That is, if you’re to believe most people’s complaints about the film industry these days. People complain about this as if it’s something new but it’s not. Hollywood has always subsisted on recycling old ideas. When enormous amounts of money are at stake, the tried and true will always triumph.
I went to see the reboot/prequel of The Thing over the weekend and was struck with what a bizarre failure it was. It expended far too much energy connecting to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), itself a remake of Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World (1951), while lacking the paranoid atmosphere and spin-tingling horror of that film. Much of its problem stemmed from its use of generic CGI to depict the alien’s effects, leaving the animation unremarkable. For Carpenter’s film, Rob Bottin used practical effects to depict the alien’s hideous transformations. The result was fleshy and terrifying.
While not technically a remake, the 2011 version of The Thing got me thinking about what makes a good remake. I adhere to the rule that a film should always be judged according to its own merits and not in connection to any other work of art, be it the original film it was based on, the book it was adapted from, other films in the genre — whatever. However, when dealing with remakes, the desire to compare the remake and the original is hard to avoid.
The best remakes hold to some golden rules. If the original is good, the remake should respect the original, but not simply remake it shot for shot. If they do remake it shot for shot, the film is redundant. There are some exceptions to this rule with successful films being mostly shot for shot remakes. A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), is the best example of this. But for the most part these remakes turn out like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho: horrendous.
A key to success with a remake is understanding the audience the remake is being made for. If you’re remaking a film with fans of the original as your intended audience, don’t. Fans of the original will inevitably be the most hostile to the remake, regardless of how good it is.
Take the new The Thing film. It seems to be aimed at fans of the original but there is no way in hell fans of the Carpenter film would appreciate the vapid attempts to replicate that film’s paranoia, or take away the wonder of the titular monster. The filmmakers could argue that by stressing the new film’s fidelity to the old, they were attempting to create new audience interest in the original, but if that was the case, they should have just re-released the old film in theatres.
A good strategy for crafting a good remake is to remake a bad movie. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy (1999) are good examples of this. They take a good idea from a bad film and just run with it, leaving little resemblance to the original project besides the shared name and plot catalyst.
The best remakes are vastly different creations than their originals. Compare Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) to the Hong Kong film its based on, Infernal Affairs (2002). Or compare The Magnificent Seven (1960) to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). The Departed and The Magnificent Seven are both great remakes of great original films. What they do is take the basic plot of the original and transplant it to a completely different cultural setting. The change in setting assumes a change in what the specific cultural audiences are looking for. The Departed changes the locale from Hong Kong to Boston. The Magnificent Seven moves the action from feudal Japan to the Wild West. Both films reinvent the original Asian setting in new American ways.
Some people may not even realize that The Departed and The Magnificent Seven are remakes. If they knew that before seeing them, they may have had an automatic prejudice towards them because the word “remake” is used as a pejorative.
The term “reboot” is Hollywood’s cheap work around that mostly does away with stigma inherently attached to a remake. By labelling a remake a reboot, the discussion of the film automatically cashes in on the success of Batman Begins (2005) and Casino Royale (2006), making the remake seem gritty and artistic instead of vapid and monetarily-driven.
Remakes will never go away. Filmmakers will always want to give their own spin on older movies, whether it be for artistic or monetary reasons. What audiences need to understand is that there’s no inherent flaw in a film being a remake. There are ways to make a more effective remake and some remakes are pointless, but these have more to do with the artistic decisions surrounding the film’s creation and not the fact that the film is a remake.
People often say that originality is dead in Hollywood. This isn’t entirely true. What people need to understand is that originality is dead in general.
When evaluating a remake, look beyond its source material. 2011’s The Thing may look bad in comparison to the 1982 version, but its failure is not contingent on its connection to its predecessor. A bad remake is just a bad movie. Nothing more profound than that.