Re-Telling the Tale

December 14, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Remakes are not an inherently bad thing, but they are often unnecessary. Complaining that remakes are indications of creative bankruptcy is not fair (although, at times, it may be accurate). They are many reasons why remakes exist - some good, some bad.

Judging a remake can be like judging a movie based on a book. Those familiar with the source material may have a different reaction to the new version. There are two things to consider when evaluating a remake. Is it a good movie when taken on its own? Is it good when viewed in light of its predecessor. There are, in fact, some decent remakes (such as Robert Redford's Havana, an "updating" of Casablanca) that are unfairly dismissed because they re-fashion classic films and don't hold up well under the spotlight of comparison.

There are two guidelines I apply when considering whether a remake has a legitimate purpose (beyond making money, of course). The first is that the remake has to "honor" the spirit of the original movie. Admittedly, this is rather vague, but it falls into the category of "you know it when you see it." Films that include homages to the originals, provide cameos for past featured actors, and/or acknowledge iconic moments often follow the rule. Peter Jackson's King Kong is a good example of a film that honored its inspiration. Yes, the film was too long, but all of the key elements are there, including - most importantly - the battle at the end atop the Empire State Building. (And, had Fay Wray still been alive at the time of filming, there were plans for her to make a cameo.) Sadly, some remakes are assembled by people with little understanding or respect for a film's predecessor. These soulless, mechanical remakes are easy to spot and rarely work on any level. Many of the TV-to-movie efforts fit under this umbrella.

The second rule is that the remake must express a new vision or direction. After all, what's the point of re-telling exactly the same story? One would hope that a remake offers something new and invigorating. It's not heresy to make fundamental changes as long as rule #1 is observed. When I see a remake, I want to be surprised. I want to feel like, on some level, I'm seeing something for the first time. Gus Van Sant's Psycho is a perfect example of violating this rule. Van Sant opted for a scene-for-scene remake. What was the point? To see if Van Sant could somehow recreate what Hitchcock accomplished? Is that of interest to anyone other than Van Sant? Talk about tedious.

Re-makes that satisfy rules #1 and #2 can at least be said to be "not unnecessary." That doesn't mean they're good movies. An interesting new twist on a familiar story and a reverential approach to the original doesn't guarantee success. The Day the Earth Stood Still is an example of this. One could argue that this new movie honors the 1951 original - it contains many of the best-loved scenes, features some of Bernard Herrmann's music, and (apparently) has "Klaatu barada nicto" in there somewhere. Both the star and director claim to love Robert Wise's movie. And the film uses the basic idea of an alien visitation to go in a different direction. Watching the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still is not the same as watching the 1951 movie. Yet, the recent version doesn't work. The problem isn't that it's a remake; it's something more basic - something that can infect any movie, regardless of its lineage. The script is riddled with holes, the acting is inconsistent, and the tone is uneven. These are the reasons why the film doesn't fare well on its own terms or when compared to the original.

One of the most common problems with remakes is that studios view them as cash cows - easy money gained through the exploitation of a recognizable name. The reality is, however, that shepherding a remake should be hard. It should be a time-consuming, painstaking process - perhaps more difficult than crafting a movie from scratch. Quick and dirty remakes are almost always insults to their "inspirations" and to those who love the earlier work. There are more of them than there are The Departeds and King Kongs. Why? Because that's how Hollywood works. The assembly line approach often adopted by the studios encourages a soulless and mechanical approach to all filmmaking, including remakes. But when you lose the quality of inspiration, what's left?