Saturday, August 14, 2010

Once More With Feeling: In Defence of Remakes

There's been a lot of eye-rolling in the entertainment press regarding the glut of remakes dominating Hollywood output these days and I have to admit that, until recently, I've been shaking my head and tutting a fair bit, too. When I heard they were remaking The Omen a couple years back I remember feeling a pang of despair. Richard Donner's Omen is a timeless classic, with still enough power to chill the blood even today. Why remake it? (As an aside, although I haven't seen the 2008 version, I believe it was received with relative apathy from both audiences and critics alike.) Then I heard they were remaking Piranha. Why? The first one was a pulpy riff on the Jaws phenomenon. Did we really need it remade? And then, even more recently, I heard there are plans to remake Total Recall. Again, my cynical movie alter ego (let's call him Norman Barry) piped up with a derogatory sigh and the classic cry, "can't they come up with any new ideas istead of rehashing old ones?"

And then, just for a moment, I stopped being a grumpy thirty-something and began to look at this latest remake/rehash/reboot-fad in the context of movie history and I began to understand. Well, a little anyway.

I'm going to play Devil's Advocate here (btw, a film that really should not be remade, imho).

First and foremost, Hollywood has always done this. Hollywood has been remaking its biggest successes since the earliest days and it's really never stopped. Ben Hur? Before Chuck Heston's 1957 epic Oscar-winning effort, there were two attempts at bringing Lew Wallace's epic tale to the screen (19o7 and 1925). For years I thought John Huston's The Maltese Falcon was the only version of Hammett's classic noir thriller until I discovered the 1931 version starring Ricardo Cortez. Arguably, the later version is far superior, and the same goes for the 1957 Ben Hur. And I think that's part of the answer to all this remake shenanigans.

For all its financial excesses and endless self-promotion, Hollywood movie-making is an imperfect and flawed artistic process. There are, perhaps, a handful of movies made under the Hollywood banner which could be regarded as 'near-perfect' or 'untouchable', where the filmmakers involved were fortuitous or talented enough to catch cinematic lightning in a bottle and end up with a movie that is truly timeless and crying to be left alone. Off the top of my head, I can think of a treasured few: Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, The Wizard of Oz. You could probably add some of your own personal choices in there, too. But for the vast majority of films produced each year the results are often imperfect and open to improvement. As Francis Ford Coppolla famously said, "A movie is never finished, it just gets released". This is part of the problem. Under the current movie-making model, the artistic side of movies is constantly compromised by the business side. Movies lose money if they go past production deadlines. These days movies are given a release date before they've even shot a single frame of film. That's the nature of Hollywood film-making. No wonder the results are consistently flawed.

So is it acceptable to keep remaking movies based on this illogical back-to-front process? Well, yes and no. Take the recent spate of horror remakes. These have been aimed largely at a teenage audience. Friday the 13th, Hallowe'en, My Bloody Valentine, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Most of these movies were only made as recently as the Eighties. Can't teenagers today just rent the old DVDs? What's wrong with that? Well, this is my theory. Movies, or at least the perception of movies, has changed in this generation. In a way, movies have become like pop music. In the same way that young people don't want to be listening to their parents' music, they don't want to be watching what they regard as their parents' movies. Young people want what is current, what is 'now'. Hence the proliferation of remakes.

But are they any good? Well, I would imagine that, to anyone who was a fan of the original versions, no. They probably seem completely pointless. But to the uninitiated, yeah, they probably "rock". I've spent a lot of time recently watching a lot of movies and a large proportion have been remakes. Some good, some mediocre, some naff. But that's down to taste I suppose.

I love movies, and in particular, I love GOOD movies. If it takes a couple of goes to get it right, then that's okay. I'm learning to live with the remake thing. How about you?

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