If you ask any film goer, whether casual or obsessive, what the biggest scourge of our cinematic time is and they will answer “Remakes!” Though they appear to be slowing down (there was a year or two where it seemed every pre-existing title, ever, was being remade), remakes remain a dreaded specter of cinema. Fans wait in fear for the corporate Hollywood boogeyman to strike next at their particular favorite, forcing them to watch in horror as a beloved movie is rewritten and recast into an empty shell of the original.
But deep down, we all have a love/hate relationship with the remake. If you approach them rationally (and it is a difficult thing to do), there’s no real reason against a remake. Pick any piece of performance art (plays, music, ballet), and it has been readapted, reworked, and restaged a hundred times. We balk at a remake of “Robocop,” but we welcome a new adaptation of “Hamlet,” and few of us can truly articulate why one is more sacrilegious than the other. (Yes, one could argue William Shakespeare designed his play to be performed endlessly, if only to watch the money roll in, but can we not imagine he staged the ultimate version in his time, and all hoped no one would ever tackle it again? Maybe he’s shaking his fist at Kenneth Branagh right now.) The debate becomes cartoonishly absurd when a remake involves original source material such as a book. Take “Macbeth,” please, but don’t touch “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or risk the wrath of a million fans who see it purely through the lens of Gene Wilder crooning “Pure Imagination.”
Yet, approached equally coolly, there’s no good reason for a remake to exist either. If a film succeeded the first time, why try to recapture it? And if a movie was a disaster, why not pretend it never existed, and create something new?
We know all this. To write it again feels almost like filling in a template. But because Hollywood keeps playing with remakes (see “Carrie,” coming out this very weekend), we keep chewing on the topic. We argue for and against, we point out the remakes that worked (Hey kids, without remakes, we wouldn’t have “The Magnificent Seven”!), we beg patience to evaluate the finished product, and we remind ourselves The Original Still Exists, diminished though it may feel. (And it does feel diminished, somehow, though it’s difficult to articulate why. It’s as though part of it’s soul was stolen when the other mimicked its frames.)
Stranger still, we quietly remake our favorites in our own mind, and whisper them to likeminded cinephiles. Wouldn’t it be neat to see “Darkman” remade with today’s effects? Wouldn’t Hugh Jackman be dashing and rugged in a remake of “Two Mules For Sister Sara”? If they ever remade “The Lady From Shanghai,” Michael Fassbender would be amazing as Michael O’Hara, wouldn’t he? Yet if they announced one or more of those tomorrow, our hearts would break, and we’d tearfully demand to know why anyone would tamper with a classic, even as we admit the Coen Bros’ “True Grit” was a wonderful remake that captured Charles Portis’ eccentric story far better than Henry Hathaway’s original did. Why do we wish for remakes (remakes of films we adore, no less) when their sheer existence raises our blood pressure to unhealthy heights?
John Waters has said, repeatedly and sensibly, “Why would you remake a great movie? You should only remake the bad ones.” It’s such a simple and succinct argument – because who wouldn’t love to see a “The Bonfire of the Vanities” or “The Golden Compass” that actually worked? – and yet it’s difficult to deny that a female director might bring fresh perspective to “Carrie,” or that a remake of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” could be even more beautiful and heartbreaking than the 1947. One can also argue that a remake can introduce a terrific story to today’s audiences who, disappointing though it may be, may never seek out older versions. Yet, that’s no reason to redo “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane,” and the fact that no one has tried suggests that there are sanctified AFI areas where even jaded executives fear to tread.
Remakes have always been part of moviemaking. They always will be, and their frequency will wax and wane based on economic and social factors we can’t possibly predict. Let’s just make our peace with them now, accept them on their own terms, and see them as a reason to do what we all love best: Argue about movies.
"Carrie" opens in theaters on Thursday night.