The rules of the remake
The cinemas are coming down with remakes. are about to be joined by a remakes of and Joe Griffin on when to remake – and when to let it lie and
REMAKES ARE nothing new, but they’re clogging up cinemas these days. In coming months and weeks we’ll see Dinner for Schmucks (based on the French farce Le Dîner de Cons), Let Me In (remaking Let the Right One In) and Dog Pound (based on Scum).
Next year will bring, among others, reboots of Footloose, Near Dark, Red Dawn, My Fair Lady and Straw Dogs.
Will Let Me In be a smart reinvention, like The Fly, or a lazy retread, like Psycho? Will Straw Dogs be a vibrant update like Dawn of the Dead or an unhinged embarrassment like The Wicker Man? It all depends on the following remake dos and don’ts . . . were disastrous. Film historians will look back and marvel at the decision to replace Caine with Jude Law in those two misfires. And the less said about Sylvester Stallone’s Get Carter the better.
Just as remakes don’t benefit from bigger star names, classic, grungy horrors never benefit from bigger budgets, as demonstrated by new versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left and House of Wax. Also, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland had to be really special to erase memories of the beloved originals. Instead, they’re arguably Burton’s three worst films. Michael Mann’s 1989 TV movie LA Takedown was respectable, but he was wise to revisit the story in 1995 with the added resources of movie stars and studio chequebooks. With a bigger scope, and the combined acting muscle of Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, Heat was not only much better than LA Takedown, it was positively iconic. Looking back a few decades, Hitchcock’s remake of his The Man Who Knew Too Much also benefited from star power (James Stewart) and a bigger budget.
Don’t be afraid to remake your own film.
Don’t try to understand what made the original work. The 1960 Ocean’s 11 (famous for being the only film to feature the full Rat Pack) had a breezy charm and high star wattage, but little else. Steven Soderbergh’s version had a similarly famous cast, but it also boasted a much tighter script and far slicker direction. Soderbergh built on what worked in the original and improved on it.
By contrast, Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky had the same plot and leading lady (Penélope Cruz) as Abres Los Ojos, but sacrificed intrigue and pace for pop-culture references and bombast.
Trust the history books. Yes, history is littered with bad, bad remakes, but film-makers cling to the hope that theirs could actually eclipse the original. The aforementioned Heat as well as The Maltese Falcon, The Fly (see below) and John Carpenter’s The Thing are testament to that phenomenon.
Exploit modern events and technology. Fantasy films have a good track record for breathing new life into old classics. David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Peter Jackson’s King Kong took terrific original stories and added imaginative and modern special effects. Abel Ferrera’s under-rated Body Snatchers had eerie creature design (and a welcome new military setting), and Dawn of the Dead, I Am Legend and The Crazies added post-9/11 paranoia to the mix.
Think about changing the setting. The remake of The Karate Kid moved the story to China, accentuating the main character’s alienation. The Magnificent Seven (below) took The Seven Samurai (below left) from feudal Japan to the Wild West, and added American optimism and six-shooters while maintaining the classic story.
Romantic meddling is a staple of classic literature and theatre, and it made sense that petty actions would be carried out by modern teenagers in Cruel Intentions (which remade Dangerous Liaisons), Clueless ( Emma) and especially 10 Things I Hate About You ( The Taming of the Shrew).
Scrubs up badly: Gus Van Sant’s lazy retread of the Hitchcock classic is a fine example of how not to remake a beloved film