On Movie Remakes

I’ve started seeing ads for the upcoming movie Ghostbusters. Anyone who’s been paying attention will know that there’s been quite a stir over it, with complaints ranging from the unnecessary remaking of a “classic” to the deliberate choice by the moviemakers to have the cast be all female this time around. I’m not going to wade into that debate, other than to note that some of the humor in the original is dated, a good number of the people complaining weren’t alive when the original came out, and that I think they might have been better served if instead of an outright remake, they did a sort of “spinoff” and had the movie be about a “branch office”/franchise of the Ghostbusters ™ working in another old city (Philadelphia or Boston, perhaps).

Hollywood remakes movies all the time. It seems that with every announcement of a remake, certain film buffs/purists get all up in arms over the lack of originality or the “desecration of a classic”. Except when it comes to a “reboot” of a superhero movie, of course. The fanboys never complain about those… But there are valid reasons to remake a movie.

Better technology

Quick: What do The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959) have in common? Aside from their being blockbuster spectacular classics, of course. Give up? They were all remakes of versions from the silent era. No one has ever complained about how “the silent version was so much better!” If moviemaking technology advances to the point where an original movie can be significantly improved, then why not remake it? The Thing from Another World (1951), a movie adaptation of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, is a fine enough movie on its own. But the FX capabilities of the time simply weren’t up to the task of making the monster that the story required. So when special effects advanced to the point where you could do the creature properly, why not have John Carpenter make The Thing (1982)? Please note that doing a movie in 3D – just because you can – is NOT a valid reason for a remake.

Add something to story

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a story that Hollywood has done a number of times. The original (1956) is widely viewed as a commentary on Communist paranoia, but can also be seen as a fear of suburban conformity. The 1978 version moved it from a small town to the big city of San Francisco, thereby changing the theme to one of urban alienation – how much do you really know about all those other people you pass by every day? Here, the change of setting completely changed the feel of the movie. The idea still worked, in part because it’s a very good idea that can be interpreted in more than one way. A remake of a movie is valid if the producer or director can bring something new and different to the story. A simple shot-for-shot remake is a waste of everyone’s time.

The original is obscure or overlooked

There are a lot of good and old movies out there that a lot of modern moviegoers have yet to see. But many of them won’t, simply because they refuse to consider movies from more than ten years ago. So a remake of one of those older movies could be worthwhile. For example, Howard Hawkes’ Scarface (1932) was critically acclaimed on its release – but also criticized for glorifying the gangster lifestyle. So it was soon pulled from the theaters, and forgotten. Until Francis Ford Coppola rediscovered it in the late 1970s, and then Brian De Palma remade it in 1983, and, well…. “Say ‘Hello’ to my little friend!”

Foreign films

For reasons similar to those where people don’t want to see “old” movies, a lot of people don’t care to see foreign movies. So if you can properly change the foreign setting and cultural references to American ones, a remake would be appropriate. Thus Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai becomes John Sturges The Magnificent Seven, Sweden’s Let the Right One In becomes Let Me In, and La Totale! (French, 1991) becomes True Lies….

The story is timeless

George Lucas said he was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress when he made Star Wars. Kurosawa’s movie was itself based on stories from the Tokugawa Shogunate, which in turn were based on even older tales. West Side Story, as everyone should know, is based on “Romeo and Juliet”, which was an old and oft-told tale when Shakespeare remade it. Peek in the corners and look behind the curtains of Iron Man 2 and you’ll find Parsifal

If a story is truly great, and truly worth telling, there should be no limit to how many times it can be told. As long as the storyteller knows how to tell a story.

Oh, as far as Ghostbusters is concerned? I’d have loved to have seen this version:

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