The Remake Manifesto: Part 1
You know the drill, news comes in of a remake that is occurring in Hollywoodland and someone is talking about it and they start to get angry. They will undoubtedly say the something along the lines of the following…
‘Why are they doing another remake? What is the point? This will ruin the other one. Why can’t people just watch the original? Haven’t they got any original ideas?’
If it’s a foreign film you can usually tack on the classic ‘Why don’t people just learn to read subtitles? Why don’t people watch foreign films?’
What you’ll probably notice is that people get absolutely furious about remakes. I once witnessed a co-worker explode in fury when she learnt that The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three was being remade with John Travolta and Denzel Washington. It did her mood no good at all when I tried to calm her down by telling her it had already been remade before with Donnie Wahlberg. Never mind eh?
This is a cheeky little attempt to tell you not to get too uptight about it, don’t worry too much. Why not try to enjoy the remakes, see them for what they are rather than looking at each announcement as a fresh assault on your childhood memories. To do that let’s help you answer some of the questions you might find yourself asking, or indeed find others asking, every time a remake is announced.
We should start with the originality argument. Why isn’t Hollywood original anymore? Well the answer is twofold. Firstly, it never was. Sure there were original films , there still are believe it or not, but remakes have been happening since day one. The first mainstream fiction narrative feature is widely accepted to be the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, at 12 minutes it’s worth a watch as a slice of history so here’s a YouTube link, have a look see. It was directed and filmed by Edwin Porter for the proto-studio ‘Edison Manufacturing Company’. One year later the remake was out, near identical and apparently inferior, from a rival company. I don’t know if it still exists (so much is lost from that time) but here’s the IMDB link. Porter even remade it as a parody in 1905 with an all child cast and called it The Little Train Robbery.
‘Ha’, you might say, ‘that isn’t Hollywood!’ No it isn’t, these were early entrepreneurs out to make a quick bit of money experimenting in the new format. But if you want early Hollywood examples I’ve got them too. The biggest grossing film (as best we know) from 1920 is legendary director D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East. It was a smash hit, grossing millions from a, then enormous, budget of $700,000 and further cementing Griffith as the director and his silent leading lady Lillian Gish as the doyenne of the day. But it was also a remake. In fact Way Down East was originally a play that had been adapted for cinema twice already, in 1908 and 1914. Never one to let a good thing go, after the advent of sound, Hollywood had another bite at the cherry in 1935 with Henry Fonda in the lead. This is just the nature of the beast, Hollywood loves a remake. Back in days of yore, whilst studying Warner Bros. for a unit on ‘History of Hollywood’ at university, I looked at the release slate for the 1930s and I noticed Gold Diggers of 1933 was followed by Gold Diggers of 1935, Gold Diggers of 1937 and Gold Diggers of Paris (1938). All three were sort-of sequel remakes sometimes featuring similar cast members and they just reworked stories of dancing girls (the ‘gold diggers’ of the title) who fall in love with rich fellas. But it gets better, they were all sequel/remakes of Warner Bros. 1929 film Gold Diggers of Broadway most of which has been lost or destroyed. A shame because now we’ll never know exactly how similar it was to Warner Bros. 1923 film based on the same play and called, you may have guessed it (or fallen asleep), The Gold Diggers. Hopefully that sort of proves that Hollywood has always been at it in one form or another and dispels the argument that Tinseltown is suddenly bereft of creativity, those movie makers are smart and they will follow the money as far as it goes.
‘Woah,’ you say, ‘thanks for the history lesson Grandad. That doesn’t explain why there’s so many remakes now. Why are we swimming in regurgitated crap of old TV series and foreign thrillers now?’ Well I’m getting that you ingrate and to do that we’ll need to play a role playing game. You are Johnny Greenlight, big-shot movie executive with Shit-for-Brains Studios. You have a big responsibility sunshine, you are the guy that decides which films on your slate are going to get made. That means you are the guy who is deciding which creative property your massive billion dollar corporation is hoisting up the mast and unfailingly saluting to for the next year or two. If you’re lucky (like Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings lucky) for the next decade. Your career rests on the choices you make, so for the best career you need to pick hits, you need to minimise the chance that the film you pick is the next Cutthroat Island and hope instead that you’re giving the thumbs up to the next Bourne Identity (did you know The Bourne Identity is a remake?). How do you do that? You look at something that has already worked and one of your options is remaking a film that people already liked. You see, it isn’t just your career on the line here. You’ve seen the list of credits on a film right? Every one of those people will be associated with that film from that point onwards. It will represent up to 6 months of their working lives, it’s going to stick out on your CV. In other words, get it right. So when you stumble across the fact that your studio owns the option on a Scandinavian thriller book that has already been made into a film which was a success on the festival circuit with glowing reviews you have on your hands a minimised risk property. The likelihood that you can shunt out a successful movie has increased, however marginally. So when it doesn’t exactly pull in mega dollars you can explain to your boss, ‘Hey, this worked before so the reason it didn’t work again is nothing to do with me. I’ll bet it was the fucking writer’s fault!’ (If in doubt, pin it on the writer.) So there you go, there’s a bloke (invariably male) in a room somewhere frantically trying to second guess the population of America by guessing what it is that they want to watch on their Saturday afternoon. You can’t really blame him for saying ‘What we need is another version of The Thing, people love that shit! We can do a prequel!’ That noise in the distance is the internet exploding in indignation. But pedants beware, John Carpenter’s The Thing is amazing but it is itself is a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing from Another World. So why not give it another go, people loved both the previous versions? With the amount of money the average Hollywood films costs ballooning year on year the pressure to safeguard your profitability increases with it. I’m not saying it’s a great situation, I’m just explaining why it’s happening. So next time you are all upset, or someone asks why they opt for remakes just ask them to play the Johnny Greenlight game because that guy is under a lot of pressure.
And that concludes part one of ‘The Remake Manifesto’. An accidental diatribe on why you shouldn’t get too angry about remakes.