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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Remakes (Sorry Duarte)

Rather surprisingly, I got into it a bit today via Twitter with my good friend and loyal reader Jose Duarte. My friend took exemption to my admittedly curmudgeonly disgust at the news of Steven Spielberg's planned Harvey remake. The discussion provoked a well-mannered argument over the Hollywood remake in general, its necessity, its value, its possible status as an eighth deadly sin. That discussion continued in a private chat, but I'd like to state my position clearly in an open forum, to let you all know that my displeasure at the news of this and nearly every remake is more than just some cantankerous manifestation of my latent elderly persona loosed upon anyone who cares to listen.

I believe that in a perfect world, which will never exist, there would be no need for movie remakes nor any desire to produce them. In a perfect world everyone would see them as a waste of time. This would be because in the perfect world of my envisioning people would have a greater respect for film older than they are, and would not need someone to come along and remake them in order for them to be palatable.

I believe that movies should tell stories, and tell it well. That's what I think books should do too, the only differences I see between the two are incidental to their mediums. Books have the advantages of length and depth, but movies are admittedly a more sensory experience. My preference for books to movies is an individual preference and not the result of any philosophy.

The point is that remakes are simply retelling old stories, and doing so in a generally poorer and less fulfilling manner. I don't care who Spielberg casts or who he hires to write his remake, it can't be better than the original Harvey. For one thing, the mere fact that it came first gives the Jimmy Stewart version a nearly insurmountable edge. The fact that it stars Jimmy Stewart makes it a sure thing.

Okay, so a decent to bad movie comes out and it's got the same name and general story line as a classic. Who cares, right? No one's forcing you to go see it, so why can't you just let it go?

The short answer is that I could, maybe. But there are things about this incessant need to remake things that worry me. For one thing, there is the fact that a new version of a movie means that many people are much less likely to ever see the original. (I understand that some people may reach out and see it, like I did with the original Taking of Pelham 1,2,3) The product of this is that over time the remake becomes the more well-known version, it gets shown on TV a year after its release, runs about 3000 times on the various HBO stations for a month and no one ever sees the old one again. This has happened to a lot of films, the foremost example in my head being The Bad News Bears. The awful and clearly unnecessary Billy Bob Thornton version is shown all the time while the '70s classic, which I remember watching on TBS multiple times as a kid, is never on.

The second thing is that while no one can make me go see a remake, the sad truth is that there is only so much money, talent, and time in the world, and every remake is taking the spot of what could be an original film getting made. As a society we need to tell stories, and the disturbing lack of care in ensuring that new stories get told is upsetting to me. When half the movies that get made these days are either sequels or prequels or reboots or remakes then we are really crowding out a lot of material. We are shutting off possibilities to the point that I truly believe that this generation will have less to pass on in terms of meaningful and celebrated achievement in film than our preceding generations.

You can argue that I'm taking this far too seriously, which I may be, and you can tell me that in the old days of Hollywood they remade movies all the time, which is true, with the mitigating factor that they didn't have TV or VHS or DVD to keep old movies alive in people's homes. What does it say about us that we have an unprecedented ability to preserve the best efforts of previous generations, and instead we relegate them to the dustbins, eschewing them just because they aren't in color, or seem "dated"? Of course they're dated! They were made at an earlier date! That doesn't mean that they don't have anything to tell us, in fact it might just mean the opposite.

Alright, I'm done old-man ranting. Just know this, whenever someone tells me that they can't watch a movie in black and white, I immediately move them down three circles on my nine circles of judgment.


  1. A well thought out argument, sir. I do, however, feel the need to comment a bit. I know my taste in movies is not exactly held in the highest regard, but here goes.

    I think you're 98% correct in your assessment of remakes. The vast majority of the time it's simply Hollywood attempting to capitalize on something that was once good, thinking it'll at least be intriguing enough for people who remember to original to come see it, or for new audience members to experience it for the first time. A lack of creativity for coming up with original stories is typically an essential ingredient. So yes, for the most part you make an excellent point.

    However, I think it's unwise to simply assume that the new one will be poorer, and to simply disregard it. While it may not be as good as the original, there's a chance it might be dissimilar enough, trying to tell a slightly different message, and in that way succeed.

    You do mention that some of the movie-going public might reach out to the original, but I don't think you give it enough credit. I suppose I can't speak for many others, but I myself have frequently reached out to older movies when sequels or remakes were made. The original Terminator comes to mind. I had never seen it until early this summer, when the release of the newest one prompted me to reach out to it.

    Additionally, I don't think you give people in general the credit they deserve. If you read 99% of movie reviews, blogs, message boards, etc., you'd be hard-pressed to find a majority that likes the newer version more so than the older one. Sure, they may enjoy the reboot, remake, reimagining, or whatever you might call it, but more often than not the original still holds a special place in their hearts. This is even true of those who watched the original only after seeing the remake and attempting to try it out. I myself have never heard of Harvey, but after reading about Spielberg's remake the premise sounds intriguing, and I may head out to the video store soon. So while I believe you are correct in your conclusion that remakes are generally of inferior quality to their original counterparts, I do believe that they serve a purpose, even if they are running a bit rampant in Hollywood right now.

  2. I think you make some good points, Joe, and I admit that I am being a little extreme. If more people were like you and were inspired to see the original I could probably be persuaded to drop my objection, or at least the fervor. I don't think that reviewers, or even commenters on RottenTomatoes, etc. are representative of the general population. Still, you're right that there are people out there still interested in old movies, but I honestly feel like that number is declining.

    You talk about new versions being dissimilar enough to be interesting, but I believe that if they are going to change the story to such a significant degree, why not simply create a similar movie under a different name? I don't mind that nearly as much, as there are really only 7 or so storylines out there anyway.

    Take "Pelham 123" as an example. The two movies are very different outside the basic similarity of a subway train being taken hostage. They couldn't have just made their own subway-hostage movie? Everyone would assume they were influenced by the original, but there would be less wailing and gnashing of teeth because they wouldn't be corrupting the name.

    I tried to look for lists of "Best Hollywood Remakes" to see if I could find any that were really better or close to the original. There were some but they were mostly older movies (when they remade things because people literally couldn't see old movies) or they were foreign movies adapted for U.S. audiences (almost all the classic westerns of the '50s and '60s fit this bill.)

    Give Harvey a shot, I think it's one of those movies just about anyone would like if they would take the time to watch it.

  3. I don't see a problem if the story is different enough, while still having the same name... it's not a remake per se then.

    Also, I think that the remake hit / miss ratio is probably better than the regular movie hit miss (just because the source material is probably better) look at Ocean's 11, Casino Royale, Dawn of the Dead, and even remakes of international films like Vanilla Sky or The Ring. They're all pretty good. Oh, and even though I hate it, The Departed was one of your dreaded remakes. Would you have rather Scorcese not touched that story?

  4. I guess I just don't see the point of releasing a very different movie under the same name as an original. Unless of course they're cynically abusing the old story while trying to cash in on whatever appeal it might have. This might be a stupid idea, but what about just making new movies and calling them "Influenced by..." I think that might be enough of a compromise to dial down the anger that many people feel at their favorite films being watered down in the public imagination. It's a pain in the ass to explain that no, the Denzel version of The Manchurian Candidate isn't one of your favorite movies, but the Frank Sinatra one is.

    I don't think the idea that they're more successful than original stories is a strong enough argument. There's very little risk in a remake as opposed to an original screenplay, that's why they're so popular, Hollywood is a business without testicular fortitude. But is it really a noteworthy accomplishment to turn a great movie into a decent movie? At least the people with original screenplays tried, you know?

    Lastly, I think there is and should be a distinction between remakes of earlier Hollywood films and American versions of foreign films. I'm not enough of a snob to insist that people go see subtitled foreign films. As I mentioned earlier, many of my favorite Westerns are adapted from Japanese movies, e.g. The Magnificent Seven from The Seven Samurai. But this goes back to the influence idea from above. All these films were openly and widely different from their inspirations, while still acknowledging them. I think that's generally just a more honest method than the Hollywood remake system.

    Finally, a minor point. I don't think it's right or fair to call Casino Royale a remake. The original Casino Royale was a spoof of spy novels, and not a serious film at all, the Daniel Craig movie couldn't be more different, and bears no relationship whatsoever to the '60s version.

  5. Though I don't know much about it, the idea of a remake of Harvey sounds a bit obnoxious to me. This is similar to trying to remake Psycho (which has also been done...) When the original was good, the automatic reaction to the announcement that there's a remake is "Wtf?" Of course, there's no big mystery. It's a business, and people are trying to make money. If people think they can profit significantly from a Harvey remake, they'll probably do it. As Rutgers points out, I kinda wish they'd spend these resources on something more original.