It’s an oft-heard complaint that the only movies that are made these days are sequels and remakes. And certainly that seems to be the case with the biggest movies coming out this year– Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Ghostbusters, and the movie I just saw– Disney’s The Jungle Book. Sequels are easier to explain– a movie made money, so they make another movie with those characters and get more money. But why remake a movie? What do we gain by telling the same story again? And not simply repeating a story structure like Tolkien, Lucas, and Rowling did with the Monomyth, but actively taking a specific story and telling it again. Disney in particular seems to be remake-crazy, with many of their best (selling) movies from the official animated canon getting or have gotten live-action remakes this decade. What to we as an audience gain from telling these stories again? Some would say that it’s “bringing these stories to a new audience”, which would be a fair argument specifically for Disney because of their “Disney Vault” where they seal away their movies until a timer goes *ding* and suddenly it’s time for an anniversary edition, but for many movies you can go to Netflix or Hulu or Amazon and at the very least get a DVD in the mail. And if that fails, there’s always eBay. Why go to the trouble of funding the production of a movie that already exists?
I mean, aside from the potential return on investment.
I’m going to argue against remakes first, because it’s the easier argument, and because much like Goofus and Gallant, you should see the bad example first, so you know what not to do.
I am under no illusions that many remakes are in fact studio mandates. Movies like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho is often put under the microscope as to why remakes are ostensibly useless, and even the idea behind the project seems more like an exercise from a film school textbook than an actual movie that would go to theaters. Many remakes fade from memory like a particularly unmemorable cover song of a classic– remember the remake of The Manchurian Candidate? The one with Denzel Washington? Yeah. Of course, it can work the other way as well– somewhere on the internet you can watch two people argue for an hour and a half about whether or not Disney’s Beauty and the Beast culturally overshadowed the importance of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête— but often the criticism leveled at remakes is comparing them to the original and many do not hold up. It’s a double-edged sword. As seen in the Psycho example, if it’s too similar, it’s seen as pointless. On the other hand, a movie like Maleficent is just as much at fault for drastically changing the story of Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty in ways that many audiences reacted negatively to. I mentioned in my last post that Frozen was Disney lifting themes (and an actor) from Wicked, but the same could be said for Maleficent, and even more so. If you’re even vaguely aware of the plot of Wicked, you can guess the plot of Maleficent pretty easily. Given these two extremes, it seems like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” in terms of changes from the source material. So…
Let’s say you just saw a samurai film. It was an awesome samurai film, a film like you want to make. In fact, you want to make that film. The problem is, you are not a Japanese filmmaker, and you don’t make films for a Japanese audience, who would understand the history of the samurai and why people hired them. “The History of Japan” hadn’t explained that for everybody yet.
But people like Westerns, right?
I’m not saying that this is the True Story(tm) behind John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, but it is one of the most famous good remakes of a movie (in this case, Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai) that it became a classic all on its own. Both films are of equal importance in their respective countries’ cinematic histories, and The Magnificent Seven exemplifies how to remake a movie for a “new audience”– namely by writing in their language. And I’m not talking about converting from Japanese to English, but the differences in genre and story that are made to accommodate an audience that might not be familiar with the cultural context of the original. Samurai rose to prominence during the Heian period of Japan where, as stated by Bill Wurtz, “…the royal palace turned into such a dreamworld of art that they didn’t give a s— about running the country” and if you lived outside of Kyoto (specifically the palace) “How are you supposed to protect your s— from criminals? Hire a samurai.*” Conversely, the Wild West as it is generally portrayed in the typical Western is a lawless place where the lone Sherrif (or just a passing Cowboy with a set of morals) protects the village/town from roaming bandits. Sturges just changed it from one guy to seven.
Some might argue that The Magnificent Seven doesn’t really fit the standard formula of how a remake works, and that it’s more adaptation than remake. Either side could be argued, but let’s look at a more traditional remake pair: Freaky Friday. The original movie (starring Jodie Foster) was a standard body-swap story, where the Mom and Daughter switch places for a day, and wackiness ensues. It’s nothing you wouldn’t find outside of a standard body swap fanfic. The movie released in 2003 not only updates the story (Mom now has a career as a psychologist as opposed to being a stay-at-home mom, Daughter has to take a standardized test and is in a pop punk band) but actually gives the story a plot. The original was more or less a series of events– the 2003 version gives them a deadline for when they need to switch back. The sense of mutual understanding has more impact by the end of the movie because to switch back, they had to understand each other.
There are ways to remake movies that do not utterly destroy the source material. There are some people who think that if people really want to remake things, then they should take ideas that were really good but poorly executed and make them better (many cite the transition of concepts from Herman’s Head to Inside Out, for a recent example). But ultimately, what do we gain from remakes? In my opinion, perspective. Art reflects us. What we believe, what we want, what we fear. Making a movie puts that point in time in it’s own 2 hr time bubble that can be revisited again and again. After all, why do so many Gen Xers rewatch John Hughes movies? When you remake a movie, ideally, you are taking a story out of that bubble and putting it in one that fits this time and place. It’s asking a list of “what-ifs?” What if the Ghostbusters were women? What if Annie was black? What if pot turned the world into a musical, instead of a horror film? Even within a few years, things can change drastically. We value different things, we are fundamentally a different society.
Hamilton could not have premiered the same year that 1776 did.
We’re still going to groan when they announce remakes. That’s not going to stop. But in the end, it’s just another movie. If you want to worry about whether or not it’s going to be good, you need to know the creative team, you need to see who’s going to be in it, etc. I remain cautiously optimistic about–
Wait, they’ve remade The Magnificent Seven?
Oh, for fu—