Thursday, September 17, 2009

Have I seen you somewhere before?: Hollywood's love affair with remakes

For years now Hollywood has become synonymous with unoriginality and as a place bereft of new ideas. This is perhaps an unfair generalization, but with a glut of new remakes on the docket, Hollywood is certainly making it difficult to prove otherwise.

Actually to be fair they are no longer called remakes. Hollywood has put the re- prefix in front of other words to disguise the fact that they are merely exploiting a familiar title. Now they are reboots, reimaginings and reworkings. But in most cases it is simply recycling.

It isn’t all bad. This summer we saw a rebooted “Star Trek” that was exciting, funny and emotionally satisfying. Of course this summer also had the dire “Land of the Lost” and limp redo of the obscure 1970s thriller “The Taking of Pelham 123.”

Over the next year an impressively or depressingly (depending on your outlook) long list of remakes will be released or put into production. This list includes some promising projects like director Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchette as his Robin and Marion, writer/director Guy Ritchie’s revisionist take on “Sherlock Holmes” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and
Watson and director Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” with Benico Del Toro.

Other upcoming remakes are “Predator,” “The Blob,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Fame,” “Footloose,” "Dune," “The Clash of the Titans,” “Excalibur,” “Red Dawn,” a comedic take on “Gulliver’s Travels,” “A Christmas Carol” and Steven Spielberg’s “Harvey.” Even the 2007 British comedy “Death at a Funeral” is getting the remake treatment by Neil LaBute, a brilliant playwright whose remake of “The Wicker Man” was an unintentionally hilarious disaster.

Why so many remakes? Two words: name recognition. As Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times recently noted “when film audiences go to the multiplex, beset by economic woes and uncertainty about the future, they want fun, familiarity and frivolity.”

Familiar titles come with instant identification of the film’s themes, characters, genre, tone and general plot. It is easier for the people with the money in Hollywood to risk millions of dollars on a movie with a built-in audience.

While most recent remakes, particularly those of horror titles, have been nothing more than shameless money grabs, the idea of a remake in of itself is not a terrible one, after all even Shakespeare did his fair share of remakes. When done well a remake can be another important word with the re- prefix: a reinvention.

A good or even great remake justifies its existence by, if not bettering the original, at least finding something new in the material. That new could be the way an actor approaches a character, a significant updating of the subject matter, flair in the direction or writing or any number of other components.

Take a film like Jonathan Demme’s version of the 1962 Frank Sinatra vehicle “The Manchurian Candidate.” The 2004 update by no means bests the classic original, but the ways in which the Cold War era themes are reconfigured for our time are compelling and surprisingly relevant.

The 1990s saw a very different kind of reinvention in the form of an unexpectedly fruitful trend of reworking classic material into a teen film. Jane Austin’s “Emma” became “Clueless,” Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” became “10 Things I Hate About You,” Shakespeare’s “Othello” became “O” and “Les Liaisons dangereuses” became “Cruel Intentions.”

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert often said that if you’re going to remake a movie, why not take a bad movie and make it better? Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11” is a prime example of just that. While the rat pack original from 1960 wasn’t awful, Soberbergh and his cast took the basic parts of the original and improved upon it with seemingly effortless style.

Going back even further some film classics are actually remakes. John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart was actually the third version of the Dashiell Hammett story made within a decade. Huston’s went down as the classic.

The delightful 1940 screwball comedy “His Girl Friday” starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell was a remake of 1931’s “The Front Page” which wasn’t a romantic comedy at all - in fact the two leads were male.

The Westerns “The Magnificent Seven” and “A Fist Full of Dollars” took their inspiration from the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo the Bodyguard.”

The point is, as much as the cynic in me would like to dismiss this latest crop of remakes, the remake is a long standing and often worthy tradition. The only question that remains is in the coming months are we going to be stuck with lame carbon copies or inspired reinventions?

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