What’s in a Remake?

Talented actors like Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, after retiring from big budget films like X-Men, return to the stage to perform the roles of Hamlet and Macbeth. Orson Wells, one of the most respected and revered filmmakers of the 20th century, began his career on the stage and not on the big screen. Directing and staging the works of Shakespeare without a doubt trained his skills as a film director, and no critic is worth his muster without observing the Shakespearean themes in his original works for the screen.
But what’s to say filmmakers shouldn’t be able to remake their favourite films?
There are many reasons for remaking a film, and not all of them are made with the sole intention of surpassing the original. Sure, there was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which he had remade in 1956 after his rise to fame in Hollywood. Hitchcock would later refer to the original as the work of a talented amateur while the remake with Jimmy Stewart was the work of a professional.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), about a scientist who accidentally combines his body with that of an insect, took the 1958 version’s basic framework but developed an entirely new narrative.
Developments in cosmetics added believability to the original’s rubber fly-suit, but Cronenberg’s source material based approach spends a greater amount of time developing the protagonist’s inner transformation.
Some might find it ironic that The Departed (2006), the film that finally won Martin Scorcese an Oscar for Best Picture, was actually a remake of a Hong Kong action movie entitled Infernal Affairs (2002).
American remakes of films from overseas are far more common than most people would think, because foreign productions have difficulty gaining the distribution necessary to ensure their visibility and popularity here.
John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) isn’t so much a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), but rather an adaptation, much like Shakespeare’s Othello was adapted to fit modern times in the movie O (2001).
Both are about a small village that hires seven mercenaries to defend their town from an enemy raid, but one takes place in the Wild West and the other takes place in 16th century Japan.
Given that Seven Samurai has led to countless imitations, a remake at least acknowledges that it is based on another author’s work, like most book-to-screen adaptations.
George Lucas’ Star Wars was originally intended to be a film adaptation of the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, but problems acquiring the rights to Flash Gordon forced Lucas to develop the original and iconic film series that we know today, which by the way, is largely based on another Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress (1958).
A remake can also be made to address changes in the world since a film’s release, adjusting the balance of good and evil that has since gone gray. Invasion (2007), starring Nicole Kidman, is actually the fourth incarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Each of its iterations evokes the fear of conspiracies and poses threats to human individuality. Aliens come to Earth, systematically replacing people with clone copies which retain the same memories and experiences but lack the human soul.
The 1993 version takes place on a military base and draws parallels between the aliens and the American military’s rigid rules of conformity, just as the original evokes the threat of communism and being reduced to mere cogs in the Soviet Empire.
The latest iteration, unfortunately, evokes the sad state of films today, where major studios disregard the visions of directors like Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose original cut of the film was suffused with pointless action scenes and a car chase.
Although it was largely criticized for its changes from original, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) received a completely new villain in its 2004 incarnation.
The original film featured a plot by the Chinese government to brainwash captured American soldiers, while the new movie features a major corporation which seeks to control Washington through a puppet presidency.
Rather than an opponent to capitalism and free-trade like the original, the new film instead reveals a giant shift in society’s fears, and depicts its bowing down to whoever seems to wield greater power in today’s world.
Remakes can be useful in creating a more modern context for a meaningful story line that might have lost its accessibility over the years. They can also refresh the look of a film with new effects, or can take a new direction on a past script.
It’s just too bad when they end up loosing the soul of the original.


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