I haven’t been particularly shy or retiring in my frustration at the film industry’s dearth of originality, manifesting more and more in reruns of old stories and properties rather than the investment in new ideas. But since the money this brings in means that it is unlikely we’ll see a sea-change any time soon.
It’s also worth admitting that there are some remakes which are good, and which are worthwhile in and of themselves. Some have even become classics. I’ll elaborate on a few below, but David Cronenberg’s The Fly was a remake of a 1958 film of the same name. So it’s the individual films that are being remade, and the reasons for that remaking, which is the problem. And that always comes down to cash.
So in time-honoured tradition, if we can’t stop it, let’s regulate it. Below I will lay out a few rules, as to when a remake of something is appropriate to be made and stands a reasonable chance, any chance of being a worthwhile venture by film-makers. It goes without saying, this is all my own opinion (but feel free to borrow it, with attribution, if you fancy)
1. The source material must be suitably distant in time.
This one, actually, is rarely infringed, but I think that it’s worth laying down anway. If the root of the problem with remakes is that originality and artistry are sacrificed at the altar of capitalism, then this has to be the exemplar of it. Distance is required in order to separate the remake from the original, and allow it to stand out of its predecessor’s shadow.
When The Amazing Spider-Man was released, a lot of people — including myself — were incredulous. The corpse of Sam Raimi’s web-slinging franchise was barely cold. And yet here we rolled out a whole new version, which was near-enough the same, only that we got to see Martin Sheen labouring to say “with great power comes great responsibility” without actually saying it.
Brian de Palma’s Scarface (yeah, the Al Pacino one; bet you didn’t know that was a remake, did you?) had 51 years on its original. I’m not saying that there has to be a half-century of delay, but The Amazing Spider-Man‘s 5 years is too soon. I think somewhere between 10 and 20 years is probably an appropriate length of time, barring any exceptional circumstances.
2. The remake must add something new to the original.
This is a big one. What is the point of remaking word-for-word an old film? Because films have a sell-by date? Because people don’t like old films? Well that’s self-evidently not true.
There is a lot of this in horror. From the remake of The Ring (which also falls foul of Rule 5, below) to the remakes of ’80s horror fare like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Evil Dead, and so on. Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s film history is a mess, with nothing really adding or building on the original or bring anything new to the game. They just fill out cinemas, at the same time as diluting what a horror film is and should be.
Contrast with one of my favourite films, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. A remake of French film La Jetée. Gilliam and co took the central idea of the source material, and wrapped it around fascinating ideas incorporating predetermination into the end of the world itself. And, as with Scarface, you probably didn’t know it was a remake. This can, actually, also extend to tone: John Carpenter’s excellent The Thing brought his particular style to the 1951 original, and it was glorious.
3. The remake must have something (new) to say.
Films don’t exist in a vacuum, and the aren’t shouldn’t be mindless entertainment. So that being said, what was your original trying to say? Is that still as relevant as it was? Can you make it so?
The original RoboCop was about corporate greed, takeovers and privatisation. To a degree, that’s what the 2014 remake is about — and yes, those things are still relevant, even if they weren’t as relevant as in the ’80s — but it also goes into themes of the extent of technology, touching on unmanned drones and the role of AI and humanity in warfare. I don’t need to tell you how that applies to the present day, do I?
4. The remake must have something for both people who have and haven’t seen the original.
This one is somewhat abstract, but is one of the biggest points of contention over remakes. The line which has to be trod is between its similarity to the original (otherwise why not make it a wholly new film) and being new and exciting enough to draw in those who aren’t, for whatever reason, fans of the original (otherwise why not simply reissue the original). I don’t have specific examples here, as it is largely in the eye of the beholder, but as with any film, if a remake preaches wholly to the gallery, it won’t make for a success. But if it alienates those already devotees, then it will acquire the sort of stigma which the Star Wars prequels still (deservedly) bear.
5. The remake must not simply be to translate the original into English.
There is nothing per se wrong with remaking foreign language films in English. Ideas transcend borders, cultural and geographic, and flow naturally. But this rule links to the second; if the only change you’re making is to change the language, then you’re not actually changing anything important.
US remakes of Scandanavian properties The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Let the Right One In (changed, for some inexplicable reason, to Let Me In) are my case here, and actually I thought that Let Me In wasn’t that bad. But the pertinent question is this: is there any reason I should watch yours rather than the original? If your answer to that is “subtitles“, or “actors you recognise“, then I’m sorry, you’ve failed the test.
So there we have it. My five rules for remaking a film. That isn’t to say that following these rules will guarantee success, the usual requirements of it actually being a good, entertaining film still do apply — more so, even. But in terms of whether or not a remake can actually be a good idea, I think these rules are a good pilot. I will be road-testing them with upcoming remakes, and we’ll see how they measure up in the field. In the meantime, feel free to suggest your own additions and amendments below.