Welcome to the first post-Summer 2011 edition of The Wednesday Debate. Every Wednesday we pose a question, inviting debate on a particular subject. This week, the big question is inspired by the very Summer of cinema that has just passed. Put simply, are remakes that bad?
In the past my “defence” for remakes has always rested on one, case-busting film; The Fly. In 1986 David Cronenberg took a fairly standard, would-have-been-forgotten B-movie type film in the shape of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original and crafted a masterpiece of the modern cinema. Loosely adapting the core idea in to something relevant to the 80’s cinema, layering on a social commentary that struck a chord with a generation continually exposed to the importance of success thanks to Reagan’s America. Alas, in the wake of a summer bookended by a pair of wonderful, original films drawn from the same sheets as pre-existing cinema, the tide (and the stigma) may finally be turning.
While not my preferred work of the Summer, its hard to ignore the dramatic effect that the latest iteration of Pierre Boulle’s Planet Of The Apes has had on audiences. The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes has become something of a surprise critical darling, with four star reviews gracing the pages of publications as diverse as The Guardian, Empire and The Daily Mirror. Had anyone predicted such a warm reaction just a few weeks ago they would have been deemed delusional; a remake of that Tim Burton “reimagination”, actually any good? Impossible! A similar response, although one not quite as passionate greeted Matthew Vaughn’s hastily prepared reboot-by-any-other-name of the X-Men franchise, with his First Class received in a manner befitting of its title.
The list of great remakes is much longer than the comments section on the average online news story announcing the production a reboot would have you believe. Miami Vice took a dated cop show and turned it into one of the most impressive films of the 21st century American crime cinema (as well as one of the most severely underrated), Steven Spielberg crafted one of the finest blockbusters of his career out of H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds in 2006, Paul Schrader’s Cat People arguably had more of an inspiration on its own horror landscape than the lauded Jacques Tourneur original and Werner Herzog reclaimed one of his countries greatest achievements as his own in the years of the New German Cinema with Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht. There’s also the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise, Scorsese’s The Departed and the Herzog Bad Lieutenant, and I could go on. I even think there’s a lot to be taken out of the Jim McBride remake of my beloved Breathless!
Remakes are nothing new. In fact, they’ve existed almost as long as the movies themselves, and have been produced by individuals far removed from the level of hackery that one would normally associate with the practice of remaking. Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday is the film often cited as a successful early adaptation of a source already made for the silver screen, yet one can look even further back and find Abel Gance reproducing one of his own earlier works with J’Accuse (1919 and 1938). Laurel and Hardy remade a bunch of their earlier films when sound was introduced, with Angora (1929), one of their most celebrated shorts remade to even greater success just 18 months after cameras stopped rolling on the first film. Gance is not alone when it comes to remaking his own films either. Hitchcock notably did the same with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Michael Mann reworked Heat from L.A Takedown and who can leave out Cecil B. DeMille, who adapted the Old Testament itself in the early 1920’s and 33 years later with The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956). Advancements in technology and a greater creative standing within the film industry would appear to be the two most plausible reasons for such decisions.
Of course, the key argument against reboots, remakes and “reimaginings” is one of a desire for more originality in the cinema. While I think that there is an argument in the mainstream cinema full stop for originality, with the blame not falling solely at the feet of redux’s (hello the board game inspired franchise and fourquels), this is an issue largely moot, simply on an economic scale. While it is desirable for every film to reach the dizzy heights of a Malick or an Aronofsky, this simply isn’t possible at the moment. Hollywood requires the franchise friendly, action-figure hawking mega-busters, the likes of which we see churned out week after week (and successive Wednesdays) in order to keep itself going. Of course there are exceptions to this loosely defined “rule”, but the mainstream film industry is at such a size and on such a scale right now that it couldn’t feasibly survive on a largely license-free “product” like Inception alone (as desirable as that would be, and ignoring the fact that that films very “inception” came courtesy of a director who has made his name, like it or not, on a rebooted series of films). Anyway, I digress, lets tackle the question at hand; are remakes really that bad?
So, are reboots the devils work? Do “reimaginings” belong in the annals of film history? Fire away in the comments below.