WHAT MAKES A REMAKE?
Roe McDermott on the two questions filmmakers need to ask before remaking a classic.
Autumn DeWilde’s Emma – officially punctuated as EMMA., full-stop included, but that’s frankly just awkward – is currently in cinemas. While her adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic story of mischief, matchmaking and marriage is pretty to look at, the film feels oddly flat. Anya TaylorJoy highlights the titular character’s selfishness, though not her charm, and the supporting performances are too one-dimensional to be truly empathetic.
Most notably, the film doesn’t offer a modern interpretation of the material, nor fresh insights into the themes of class or feminism, leaving this version trailing far behind previous iterations. Douglas McGrath’s 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow was the first film version since 1948, and was a charming, star-studded period take on the rom-com. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless was an ingenious modern interpretation, exploring the lives of Californian teenagers.
These adaptations asked and answered the two questions that DeWilde failed to – the two questions that should be required for any adaptation or remake to get funding. Namely: what was the main appeal of the original? And what will the new adaptation add?
Failing to answer these questions causes most remakes and adaptations to fall short of the originals. Producers of last year’s live-action take on The Lion King,
for example, refused to recognise that the appeal of the original lay in animation that allowed the characters to be expressive, empathetic and loveable. These traits were all but eliminated in the hyper-realistic remake, which offered nothing new or interesting beyond the visuals.
In contrast, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women respected what made the novel beloved, while playing with the chronology to add urgency and emotional insight, and fleshing out occasionally underwritten characters such as Amy and Meg. It also offered modern feminist insight on the gendered challenges facing its female characters, as well as the economics of marriage and the creative process.
Likewise, Armando Iannucci recognised that the charmingly eccentric characters of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, along with its observations about class were what endeared the novel to readers. He highlighted these aspects in his adaptation, while also using colour-blind casting to give the film contemporary relevance.
These questions of original appeal and fresh insight are important, especially since we have another year of remakes and adaptations ahead of us. Even at first glance, films like The Grudge, Secret Garden and Black Beauty seem to add little to their source material. On the other hand, the creative teams behind The Witches, Dune and Gretel And Hansel are at least attempting to play with theme, visuals and genre.
It’s like Picasso’s famous quote: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” If a remake or adaptation is simply a rehash that only exists because time has passed since the last iteration, it has failed to justify its artistic existence. But for a filmmaker to take a story we know well, and make us see both the original story and the world itself in a different way? That’s greatness. More of that, please.