Sunday, March 6, 2011

In Defence of Remakes

One of the biggest complaints about Hollywood the past many years is the number of sequels and remakes that the studios release each year. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the film industry has completely run out of original ideas. What is worse is that many of the remakes released by Hollywood are not only inferior to the originals upon which they are based, but they are often downright bad. In fact, the list of bad remakes released in the past twenty years is a long one: Miracle on 34th Street (1994),  Psycho (1998), Godzilla (1998),  Bedazzled (2000), Planet of the Apes (2001), Rollerball (2002),  Alfie (2004), Halloween  (2007), The Heartbreak Kid (2007), The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008), The Women (2008), and many, many more. To make matters worse, it would  seem none of these disastrous remakes has taught Hollywood to stop remaking classics. Recently there was new s that A Star is Born is set to be remade yet again. Given that Clint Eastwood is set to direct this might not seems so bad, until one learns Beyonce is set to star. One thing I think all of us can agree upon, Beyonce is no Judy Garland.

Given the number of horrible remakes with which film lovers have been plagued the past twenty years, it is easy to forget that here have been remakes of films that have been good. Indeed, some have even been great. A case in point is the 1954 version of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland and James Mason, itself a remake of the 1937 movie staring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. The 1937 version is a classic. There is no doubt about that. But the 1954 version is one of the greatest movies of all time. Judy Garland and James Mason were just too perfect in their roles, and the movie surpassed the original in every way. Unfortunately, it would be remade again, in 1976, this time with Barbara Striesand, of all people, in the lead role. It seems they made bad remakes in the  Seventies too....

Of course, it is well known that A Star is Born  (1954) was a remake. What is not so well known is that what made be the greatest hard boiled private eye movie of all time was also a remake. Dashiell Hammett's classic novel The Maltese Falcon was first adapted to film in 1931. Another version was made in 1936 under the title Satan Met A Lady. It was a very loose adaptation of the novel. The novel would be adapted a third time in 1941 with John Huston directing and Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Not only would this version actually be good. Not only would it be a classic. It would be one of the greatest films ever made. In fact, The Maltese Falcon surpassed the first versions by so much that most people do not realise it is a remake. Indeed, it is hard to believe anyone played Sam Spade before Humphrey Bogart. That having been said, I do have to wonder if The Maltese Falcon (1941) can be considered a remake. I do not believe the script was necessarily based on the 1931 version and it certainly wasn't based on Satan Met a Lady. It would appear to be simply another adaptation of the novel, much like True Grit (2010--which is excellent by the way) or The Thin Red Line (1998). To me for a film to be  a remake, it must be directly based on a previous film.

While it is debatable whether or not The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a remake, I can think of a more recent film that most certainly is:. King Kong (2005). Not only will I say the newest version of the King Kong is a great film, I will utter what any might consider blasphemy--it is actually better than the original (and keep in mind I love the original). To me Peter Jackson took one of the truly great adventure and horror yarns of the 20th Century and actually improved upon. it. No longer is Kong a sympathetic, yet still beastly monster, he is a tragic anti-hero. And this time around Anne is not terrified by him, but like the audience falls in love with him. King Kong (2005) is not simply a great adventure film and horror movie, it is also a great romance and tragedy.

Here I must point out that King Kong (2005) was not the only good remake to come out in the past twenty years, although it must sometimes seem that way. I must also defend Ocean's Eleven (2001), itself a remake of the Rat Pack film Ocean's 11 (1960). On the surface it would seem foolhardy to remake any movie starring the Rat Pack. After all, how is one going to top that cast? I cannot say director Stephen Soderbergh succeeded in that respect (after all, it is hard to find anyone cooler than Dean Martin...), he did assemble a great cast and create a very good film that at the same time has the spirit of the original while remaining very much its own film.

From these few films (and I could name many more), I do not think it would be wise to declare a moratorium on movie remakes any time soon, no matter how much we might wish it. Of course, this brings us to an important question. Why are some remakes not only good, but sometimes better than the original while others are often wretched? It would be easy enough to say that it is because often times remakes are simply a studio's means of making money from an established name while other remakes are made by film makers with good intentions, but that is not necessarily true. As hard as it is to believe, Gus Van Sant appears to have had good intentions in remaking Psycho--it was not simply a money making project, but he still failed miserably. I believe there is much more to making a good remake of a film than good intentions.

First, one must have a good cast. Much of the reason the 1976 remake of A Star is Born failed it that not only is Barbara Striesand not Judy Garland, she is not even Janet Gaynor. Even if the film had not had a poor script, it would have failed because of Miss Striesand. By the same token, The Maltese Falcon (1941), if it can be counted as a remake), succeeds largely because of its cast. There has never has been anyone so perfect for Sam Sapde as Humphrey Bogart, nor anyone better than Mary Astor to play Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Second, one must have a good script. Aside from a horrible cast (Dylan McDemortt and Elizabeth Perkins, now really...), Miracle on 34 Street (1994) had a wretched script. The movie is even longer than the original, and yet the characters are much, much less developed than those in the original film and less seems to actually happen in the movie. Worse yet, the movie's climax is much less convincing and realistic than the 1947 version. Miracle on 34th Street (1994) could serve as a blueprint for a bad remake. Third, although good directors have made bad remakes before, I do think that a skilled director is more likely to make a good remake than a mere studio hack. The Maltese Falcon (1941) was directed by John Huston (who admittedly had little experience at the time). King Kong (2005) was directed by Peter Jackson. A Star is Born (1954) was directed by George Cukor.  I do not think most people would consider these directors mere studio hacks. The same cannot be said of the directors of other remakes (I'll be nice and not mention them here...).

Regardless, I fear that movie remakes are not something we would want to do away with entirely. It is true that the number of bad remakes outnumber the good ones, let alone the truly great ones. It is even true that some of the worst movies of all time have been remakes. But if Hollywood had never considered remakes, then we would not have The Maltese Falcon (1941) or A Star is Born (1941), let alone The Fly (1986) or  King Kong (2005). Sad as it may be to say, but if we want to see good remakes, we have to put up with the bad ones. Of course, that could be said about movies in general.


QUB English Society said...

I'm really glad you defend Ocean's Eleven here-I adore that film, I really do!

simoncolumb said...

I alwasy think of Scorsese -

Can he do sequels? Yes. THE COLOR OF MONEY

Can he do remakes? Yes. CAPE FEAR

Can he remake a foreign film with a unique vision? Hell yes. THE DEPARTED