The Wednesday Debate – Are Remakes, Reboots and Reimaginations Really That Bad?

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.

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  1. Let Me In is a brilliant revamp / adaptation of the original novel and film Let The Right One In. I’m also excited at the prospect of Fincher’s take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Revamps AND adaps of foreign films!

  2. Many people throw instant derision on any attempts to remake or reboot of beloved films/franchises, yet always seem to forget that there are many which are actually as good as, deserving, or even better than the ‘original’. Then you have the irony in statements such as one heard recently, “What? A remake of The Thing? I’m not watching that…the original was a classic!” (For those who don’t get the irony, the ‘original’ in question was John Carpenter’s remake of the older film, The Thing From Another World)

    Scarface, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Donald Sutherland version), The Magnificent Seven, Fistful of Dollars, Casino Royale, The Birdcage, Cape Fear, True Grit, Ocean’s 11, Zatoichi (2003)…heck, even Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was a decent remake, offering enough nods to the original, whilst also carving it’s own mark on the zombie horror genre. There are tons of other worthy remakes, and there will no-doubt be many more to come (I’ve not even mentioned modern adaptations of foreign films, aside from The Bircage, of which films like Quarantine and let Me In manage to show a faithful remake can be made – nor have I mentioned films that were inspired by short films, or similar concepts such as 12 Monkeys). Many of the current wave of comic book films could also be called remakes to some degree, seeing as we have already seen adaptation of Hulk, Captain America, Batman, Superman, even Nick Fury Agent of Shield, amongst others through the years.

    It is easy to hate on the remake idea, claiming it will “ruin a great film” However, how will it ruin anything? If it is bad, then the original is still there. On the chance it is as good as or better, then it is a treat to look forward to. On that note, roll on Amazing Spider-Man, Evil Dead, more Apes films, Superman:Man of Steel, and the plethora of unoriginal concepts to come.

  3. My main issue with remakes is with the foreign language ones. For example the recent Let Me In as a remaking of Let The Right One In which was one of my favourite films last year! I flat out refused to see Let Me In due to the nature of its origin. Despite it getting very good reviews I still refused to see it. For me there’s an inkling of inherent laziness in there somewhere which the film industry is kowtowing to. They won’t see it with subtitles so we’ll remake it in the good old superior English language and laud it as our own! I don’t like that at all for a direct remake!

    Now a reimagining is a whole different kettle of fish and something that i fully support, mostly because of the prime examples you’ve already mentioned and also because i don’t understand the hostility against reimaginings anyway. I read a really great line from James Franco for an Apes interview where he said that film isn’t solid, it’s fluid blah blah blah but that for example every theatre company or theatre group do there like version of Macbeth or Lear and it all adds to the overall canon of theatre. And why can’t it be the same with film. The new Spider-Man will be another interpretation, a new studios or directors and actors take on a story that we know and love. I for one will be very happy to see Spider Man back on the screens. I feel the same with Prequels and Sequels. I’m in favour of anything that expands the mythology of a series that I love. Going back to an earlier Wednesday Debate on The Predator franchise. For me the only thing that saved AvP was that it at least invested a bit of its running time in the mythology behind the world and that was something i really appreciated!

    • I don’t mind English-language remakes *too* much. While it’s a little bit more than your average remake, The Magnificent Seven (a reinterpretation of The Seven Samurai) is a lot of fun, and A Fistful Of Dollars is an admirable spin on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which in turn took a lot from the American The Glass Key). I really can’t wait to see what Fincher brings to the table with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo too.

      I didn’t personally mind Let Me In. I struggled to get on with Let The Right One In, so didn’t particularly hold the original film in any high regard.

      • The real problem with foreign language remakes, for me, is that one of chief the arguments in favour of them – that they draw people to the original – is a complete fallacy. If a remake is good, it won’t drive people to seek out the original (unless they’re a serious-minded film type, which most people aren’t) because they’ve just seen a good film that they didn’t have to read. If the remake is bad, which a lot are, then they won’t want to seek out the original because they know how the story goes and won’t want to sit through it again on the off-chance that it might be better the second time around.

        And that’s without even considering the really malicious and vile practice, that a lot of Hollywood studios take part in, by which they buy the distribution rights to a foreign language film, then refuse to let it see the light of day whilst they release their English-language version. (This is best exemplified by the saga of the South Korean film, My Sassy Girl.)

        (P.S. Yojimbo drew its inspiration from Red Harvest, not The Glass Key.)

  4. Whilst the list of good-to-great remakes may be longer than most people are willing to give them credit for – and even then, it’s all subjective; I hate the remake of Miami Vice and thought that X-Men: First Class was largely terrible – I still think that the bad far outweighs the good. The reason for this, though, is not to do with the concept of remakes, though, but is the same reason why there are a lot of really terrible films out there in general; there are a lot of terrible film-makers making terrible films.

    If you look at the countless horror remakes/reboots that are released every year, it’s clear that there is little artistry or care going in them. They are just hatchetmen hired to do a job quickly and with little fuss. Compare them to Cronenberg’s The Fly or Carpenter’s The Thing and you can see the clear difference that having real artists who care about their craft and the material means to the overall quality of the film. It’s the people involved that matter more than the fact that they are working from a pre-existing story.

    There also needs to be a clear delineation between remakes and reboots, which are completely different things. For example, Nolan’s Batman films aren’t remakes, since he takes a completely different tack to the one that Burton did, in terms of style, tone and narrative. He may be working with the same character, but that doesn’t mean that he is “remaking” Burton’s Batman.

    • For the point of this article I don’t think there does need to be too much of a difference between remakes and reboots drawn up; both are frowned upon with equal derision on a blanket level (which is what this piece is aiming to address). Besides, surely the reboot/remake tag only stands as a way of clarifying the relationship between a film and the original source material anyway?

      On a related note, is RISE the first non-comic book adaptation reboot?

      • Not really. You could say every King Arthur film is a reboot. Or Troy. Casino Royale is a reboot. The Musketeers have been rebooted multiple times.

        Edwin, the reason they deserved to be linked, though, yes, with the understanding that they’re sublistings of the same aspect, is because they’re still telling a story that’s been told before.

      • I think it’s more to do with the nature of the film than the source material. Something like Miami Vice is a remake, because it is new version of a single work and it doesn’t do a great deal, if anything, to change the continuity of the original series. In the case of Batman Begins, it throws out the continuity of the original films completely and goes in a different direction, even if it uses the same characters.

        I’d say that the Bond series got there first, several times in fact. Casino Royale is the obvious example, but every new Bond could be considered a reboot of the series since the infusion of a new actor changed the tone of the series.

        • Yep, surprisingly I never thought of the Bond series once while doing this.

        • Miami Vice isn’t really a remake because it’s based on a television series, not a prior film. There’s the shift from one medium to another there, meaning it’s basically just a plain ol’ adaptation.

          That said, one thing I’ve hated from the remakes podcast experience is getting into the nitpicky minutia of what terminology fits what example. 🙂

  5. I think the biggest issue people have with remakes is the sense of it treading on their nostalgia, the notion that it’s either “ruining” something they have a deep love for, or it’s deeming their classic to be outdated and irrelevant. A remake can’t ruin a great film. Even if the remake is the most awful, off-the-rails piece of dog meat to ever burn the eyes of a cinephile, it doesn’t make the old film go away. The original is still there, exactly as it was, for you to rediscover and appreciate over the years. As for it deeming the other’s outdated, that gets complicated.

    With a revolution in digital f/x technology, yeah, it has sent people looking into the vaults and wondering what they can update with a modern look and feel. Who honestly isn’t curious to see how Fantastic Voyage would play out on screen with the new ways we can portray being pulled through the heart or having to fight off antibodies. On the flip side, you get Godzilla. As Adam mentioned, this isn’t a new thing. When sound was introduced, many films were remade to take advantage of the new technology. When technicolor came into being, the same was true. Any fans out there of An Affair to Remember? It’s a remake of a b&w film from the 30s.

    The originality argument doesn’t work for me. Hollywood continues to put out a good many original films every single year. As with remakes, a few are great, a few are abysmal, and the majority fall somewhere in between. Adaptations, though, bring name recognition and built in audiences, and do have the benefit of exposing the original source material to a wider audience. Notice how I’m saying adaptation there instead of remake. That’s all a remake is, an adaptation. If you dismiss remakes simply for being unoriginal, then the same should apply to every film based on a novel or a play, especially ones like the works of Shakespeare or Austen that have received multiple film adaptations each.

    I argue that there is originality there. Yes, the story has been told before, but the originality comes in the adaptation itself. Bringing a work of literature to the screen requires just as much creativity and skill as filming an original screenplay. The same holds true for remakes and reboots. Look at Hitchcock’s own The Man Who Knew Too Much. They have the same basic story, but the elements are different, the locations are different, the look and feel are different. Is the second version no less inventive and skillfully made as the first simply because the plot already existed in an earlier form? No, I say. In fact, my complaint isn’t with remakes that change things or go off in new directions, it’s with remakes that stay exactly the same, the most obvious example of which is Psycho.

    Reinventing stories is nothing new. Look back to the tales of Robin Hood or King Arthur, where, for hundreds of years, every generation has been putting their stamps on it. Each revisioning says just as much about the people involved as the original did with its creators. Sometimes they’re stale recitations, but sometimes they’re inventive, creative, “original” in how they find new ways to look at something new, in how they give new life to something by attaching it to a whole new generation of fans. Remakes are the same. They only hurt cinema when they’re bad, which is true of every movie, but their existence itself is a mirror on cinema and the ideas that latch on to people and linger for subsequent creators to re-evaluate and re-explore.

    It’s the reason I started up I Hate/Love Remakes. Every time a bit of remake news would come out, my friends would roll their eyes and talk about how it’s “raping their childhood” or “lack of originality”. Many times, yes, the films turn out bad, but I always defend them up until the very end. Not on the promise that they’ll be good, but on their right to have a fair chance to make their mark on cinema. When they fail, they fail, when they hit, they hit, but by disparaging or overlooking them simply because they’re remakes or reboots, you close yourself off to what could be the next great thing. Look at Rise of the Planet of the Apes. People were ready to write this one off as silly and cheesy and “Do we really need another one?” or “Oh, look, they added CGI.”, but then it came out, captured an audience, and genuinely moved people in ways that even its admirable summer competition couldn’t muster.

    That’s said, it’s still too early to reboot Spider-Man. 😉

  6. In general I don’t mind remakes or reboots. There have been many fine examples suggested her in the replies. They don’t deny the existence of the original. What I do object to is remakes that appear on the coat tails of the original. The remake of Let the Right One in was so close to the original to detract from it. It seems very insulting to the the orhinal films makers. We deem your film not right for an American audience so we’re going to remake it straight away in the English language. Why couldn’t the original have been dubbed if audiences couldn’t cope with subtitles? I believe to remake a mobie so soon is not giving the original a fair crack at the market. Thr same can be said for Fincher’s remake of the Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. I must admit I like his work and the trailer looks amazing but does this make it ok to do it so soon after the originals release. I tink not. A decent grace period is what’s required.

  7. Crikey lots of typimg mistakes in there, apols. I think I don’t tink!

  8. No, remakes, reboots or re-imaginings are just different versions of the same story. People have been doing this ever since stories existed. Just as there are many versions of Grimm Brothers Fairy tales, there are various versions of Greek Myths. In addition to this comic books have been rebooting stories and characters for awhile now. So why not movies?
    If a movie is remade, the remake does not negate the existence of the original, so I do not see the problem.

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