OK, now it’s out there and we’ve said it. No more hinting, no more dancing around the issue, no more ‘taking each case on its own merits’. This is a blanket, one-size-fits-all all announcement of outlook – the ongoing trend of pop culture cannibalising itself and raiding its own history for material is not destroying anybody’s childhood. In actual fact, it’s a pretty good thing.
The common conception is that a remake is a cynical money-spinner; trading off an established brand at best, and the embodiment of a lack of originality from disinterested ‘Hollywood Suits’ at worst. “What happened to the innovation of cinema’s past?” is a familiar refrain, a plea for a return to the trailblazing ideas that helped us fall in love with filmmaking in the first place. However, is it not a more pertinent question to ask if movies were every truly original in the first place?
Christopher Booker’s 2004 publication, The Seven Basic Plots: Why we Tell Stories draws a mixed response from those who read it. Congratulations to you if you’ve managed to make it through the text in its entirety; personally, we feel that life is too short (unlike this door-stopping monster of a manuscript). The core concept, however, is as old as the hills and compellingly argued; there are only seven stories in the world, and it’s the telling of them which differentiates good story-spinning from bad.
Plenty has been written about these popular plots (as always, TV Tropes sums them up neatly), and it doesn’t take much digging to identify which outline our genre favourites belong to. What is The Lord of the Rings, if not the embodiment of The Quest? Back to the Future is vintage Voyage and Return. The original Star Wars trilogy comprises of both Rags to Riches and Rebirth plot arcs; the prequel comprise an archetypical Tragedy. Planet of the Apes saw Chuck Heston valiantly attempt to Overthrow the Monster.
We’re not quite sure where Battlefield Earth fits into all this, sorry.
The point is, originality is overrated. We’d love it if every new film we saw was an Inception, but we’re more often treated to an Oblivion; an original feature, but one that lifts elements from a number of other movies, many of which are superior. Is recycling under a different name really more noble than paying direct tribute? We’re pretty damned excited about Elysium later this year too, but take a look at the trailer below – can you honestly say the first thought that enters your head isn’t “but I thought Neil Blomkamp wasn’t making a Halo movie now”?
It’s also difficult to pinpoint exactly where the issue with originality begins and ends. If a novel makes its way to the screen more than once, is the latter outing a remake of the first film or a second adaptation?
Naturally that depends firmly on the material. Len Wiseman’s Total Recall redux is a frame of reference we’ll use an awful lot in the coming paragraphs (our review of which also provided the first opportunity to raise our head over the parapet on this subject; it feels somehow fitting that this article is also a remake of sorts). Despite claims to the contrary during the pre-production phase, Wiseman did not return to the source material for a more faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, but rather provided a deeply inferior xerox of the superior original movie’s script; a screenplay that bore very little resemblance to Dick’s prose. Total Recall was, undoubtedly, a remake. And a shoddy piece of film-making at that, lest any reader find themselves fearing a backtracking of opinion to suit the argument we’re putting forward.
How about Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, though? The internet was ablaze with moans and groans in 2005 when this was announced, with fatigue already setting in regarding this particular form of filmmaking, but it was an infinitely more faithful adaptation of Wells’ words than George Pal’s 1953 classic. Surely there is room for both movies in the science fiction cinematic landscape? Is one filmmaker’s interpretation really all we’re entitled to as viewers?
Foreign language remakes are also an eternal hot potato, and frequently with good reason. You won’t find us arguing against Let the Right One In being indescribably superior to Let Me In (we’re using this as an example as, much like Wiseman did with Total Recall, Matt Reeves seemingly based his Americanised screenplay on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s screen adaptation of his own novel as opposed to the source material). However, a surprisingly number of people who lost their lunch over the supposed sacrilege of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring had no idea that Ringu was adapated from a novel – and was technically a remake itself, having started life as a Korean TV movie. Where do we draw the line and say “no more remakes”? And where will that leave the equally popular practice of remaking Western blockbusters for an Eastern audience?
We’re not looking to blindly argue in favour of cinematic recycling though – we’re fully aware of just how many stinking remakes there are out there, and that a great many of them are made purely to turn a buck on opening weekend. Some remakes are also made for noble but equally misguided purposes. Excuse the temporary deviation from genre fare, but take Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho as an example.
Widely condemned as a navel-gazing exercise in futility, van Sant explained his reasoning for undertaking the project as introducing a classic to a new audience who would otherwise ignore it, refusing to watch black-and-white films. It was a gallant idea from a director who clearly loves cinema as an art form, but at the risk of sounding pompous, do these viewers that reject monochrome movies as a matter of course deserve to be pandered to? There may well be a generation out there that, for reasons best known to themselves, refuse to listen to The Ramones; does this mean they should be treated to some kind of Blitzbieb Bop? It’s enough to make you shudder.
We’ll cheerfully confess to hypocrisy on that score however, as our firmest belief in favour of remakes is that they actually enhance the originals, not ‘ruin’ them as so many seem to claim. It’s a suggestion we first raised in that infernal Total Recall piece that we keep mentioning, but it bears repeating; the best thing to come of a cinematic re-imagining is the now-standard clean-up and re-issue for home video of the original. While Wiseman got just about every artistic element of his picture wrong, last I checked he hadn’t snuck into my house at the dead of night and replaced all my DVDs and Blu-Ray copies of the Verhoeven classic with his second-rate version.
There is always the argument that a remake will also drive new audiences to an original, which is great. The real winners are the long-term fans though. This article is being written while a shiny new Blu-Ray copy of Evil Dead II eagerly awaits its author on his doormat, a classic that is finally getting the transfer and treatment it deserves thanks to the impending remake of The Ultimate Experience in Gruelling Terror. Sure, it’s a cynical cash-in, and it’s terrible for those who have already parted with money for a first release (words spoken with genuine sympathy, as DragonDark could probably buy an island in the sun if refunded all the funds wasted on double-, triple- and quadruple-dipping across the VHS, DVD and Blu-ray eras).
This doesn’t change the fact that the video quality and substantial number of new extra features will make our evening a whole lot better though – and without the release of that aforementioned remake, we’d all still be watching the sub-standard first transfer, akin to spending a night at the movies with sand rubbed in your eyes. Sure, such a shoddy release shouldn’t have reached shelves in the first place, but that’s another argument for another time – we’re too busy salivating at the prospect of the RoboCop disc that will inevitably drop early next year.
So yes, originality may be a little low in the industry right now, and there are more remakes being made than ever before. But surely that’s also because there’s more movies being made now than ever before? The cinema industry has changed, being now dominated by multiplexes running up to and over a dozen films at once, the digital home viewing market is booming, and direct-to-disc flicks are no longer the sole preserve of rain mac-wearing oddballs you wouldn’t leave your children alone with.
While we consume motion picture media at this rate of knots, countless gems are destined to be lost and forgotten before they have time to shine and find an audience. This leaves such flicks primed for a cult following, which in turn opens to the door for a remake in later years – generating a new audience for an original, and delighting those who got on-board on the ground level.
And that, surely, can only be considered a good thing.