Let us remake them in their own images

Stories have been retold for ages.  The Romans stole the Greek pantheon, changing the names, tweaking the stories, and reselling Greek mythology as Roman mythology.  Thomas Malory assembled known tales about Arthur and his knights into his grand compendium, Le Morte d’Arthur, which serves as one of the ur-texts of Arthurian legend, even though it was more a personalized feat of scholarship rather than an origination.  And how about the Bible?  Hundreds — thousands — of stories have re-interpreted the tropes of the Christ story in various ways to different purposes.  One of the most venerated retellings of Biblical mythology, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, is my favorite work of literature to date.  And what of that most famous of English wordsmiths, William “the Bard” Shakespeare?  Besides his historical dramas (which are unsourced reinterpretations of well-known events), many of his other plays are also based on pre-existing stories and legends, some of which had already been dramatized by other playwrights.  James Joyce’s Ulysses, considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century, is an imaginative reworking of Homer’s Odyssey.

Nobody complains about the fact that a great deal of classical literature can be classified as “remakes” or “reimaginings” or “reboots.”  That’s largely because the retelling (and gradual evolution as a byproduct of individuals leaving personal stamps on well-worn stories) of stories is itself a hallowed tradition.  Between oral posterity and the emergence of postmodern recycling of tropes and ideas — some of them incredibly specific — humanity has a legacy of remaking stories that goes back for millennia.  Each time a new medium has emerged to preeminence as the most popular way of transmitting new versions of old stories to different audiences, there has always been a backlash.  Shakespearean theater, in Shakespeare’s day, was not exactly considered to be high art.  Similarly, the modern novel, which is so venerated by us, was scoffed at and regarded as sensational rubbish.  Forget about new forms of music.  Anything new is always regarded as scandalous; later to be regarded as a precious part of our heritage only in the twilight of its popularity.

Epic poems are adapted from vernacular myths; great operas are adapted from epic poems and prose; literature is adapted from stage plays and vice versa.  There is an ongoing, contiguous process by which stories are shaped and reshaped for each moment in human cultural history.  Stories cross media, and it is often the case that a story that originates in one medium may be more celebrated in its form in another medium.  This is the way of things.

So it was that when cinema first embarked upon entertaining audiences with narratives, classic works of literature were adapted to the new medium.  The practice continues, of course, and it is readily embraced by the mainstream public, the press, and the filmmaking industry.  Half the best picture winners in this last decade were adaptations of previous published material, and they all enjoyed critical and commercial success.

Yet when it comes to films that are adaptations of other films, there is often a resistance to the prospect among audiences and critics.  A sense that the film industry is getting lazy.  Unoriginal.  Clearly, this is an absurd conclusion to draw, since a great deal of the great narrative art in human history is a direct adaptation — or remake — of something else.  Nostalgia, an irrational, emotional loyalty to something experienced in one’s past, may be a factor.  Films that are newer versions of films enjoyed in one’s youth may pale in comparison to the remembrance of something enjoyed in the rose-tinted fog of the past.  It’s an understandable reaction.  But there’s more to it than that.

It begins with the fundamental reasons people give for hating a remake.  Almost all of these reasons are invalid or just plain stupid.  Here are six of the most common.

« “It ruins the original!” – Somehow, people think that the original film will be diminished by the remake, when the opposite is in fact true.  The original film is not literally being damaged.  Nobody physically tampers with the master print.  Chances are, the original film will be more readily available for consumption as part of a promotional campaign for the new film.  The implication is that the original version was flawless that it cannot be improved upon, and that any attempt to retell the story or recast it in different aesthetic terms represents an act of violence upon the integrity of the original film.  This is a false premise, and it is therefore stupid.

« “It can’t possibly be as good as the original!” – This may be true.  It may not be true. You won’t know until you see it.  And once you see it, is it a bad thing if it isn’t as good as the original film?  A step down from “masterpiece” is still “good.”  Nobody wants to see a mediocre or bad film, but keep in mind a few things when making this kind of evaluative judgment.  One: what are the aesthetic ambitions of each film?  Perhaps each film aims to do something different.  Two: are the technical merits of each film even comparable? Any aesthetic comparison must be based on an understanding of craft.  And even then, not being “as good as” the original does not equate to being “bad.”

« “We’ve seen it all before!” – In other words, “it’s boring.”  I can’t argue with that.  After all, if you’re bored, you’re bored.  Nothing to be done about that.  But by the same token, if a remake is truly that similar, it stands to reason that the original film doesn’t hold up on repeat viewings, either, which would seem to me to diminish the merit of the source material, rather than the remake.  If a comparison is being made purely on the execution of the material in cinematic format, then it’s possible that the flaw is not in the remake, but in the ability of the individual to appreciate the craft for what it is.  In other words, maybe the problem isn’t with the film; maybe you just have a miniscule attention span or an irrationally fervid devotion to the source material.

« “It’s unfaithful to the original!” – Adaptations the world over suffer from this objection; not just remakes of films.  The hue and cry over Sam Raimi giving Peter Parker organic web shooters was extraordinary.  Similarly, Harry Potter fans have dragged the filmmakers of that franchise over the coals for not including every single line of dialogue and every description from the books, as if “accuracy” to the original was more important than making good movies.  To some people, it is more important to have a slavishly faithful film that fails as cinema than to have a well-crafted film that may take liberties with the material.  If this prescriptive attitude were applied universally, then the characteristics that define an individual’s pet preferences would define all art across the board, and that would result in a hideous homogeneity.  Changes are a part of the adaptation process, and fans need to accept the fact that they are not the ones that own a property.  Whether the changes are a narrative necessity or just a whim of the filmmaker, if the end result is a decent film, kvetching about “inaccuracy” is churlish.

« “It panders to stupid people!” – I’d be the first to agree that people who refuse to watch a movie simply because it’s subtitled (or black and white, or a low-budget indie production) have a lazy and ignorant attitude.  It’s not fair that the commercial prospects of a film should be limited simply because fools are foolishly myopic in their tastes.  But that’s not the fault of the producers who are remaking a film.  (Ironically, you hardly ever hear English-speaking people whine about Bollywood or Hong Kong remaking American films.)  Whether the more unpleasant aspects of a film are buffed out for the sake of not upsetting people, or the lower production values are spruced up with CGI, good films may still result.  If they are not up to the level of the original films, it may be a result of pandering, but it may just be the creative decisions that go into the making of any film.  Beyond that, there is still the question of aesthetic merit to consider.  I don’t think anyone would argue that 10 Things I Hate About You is an uglier, more witless version of The Taming of the Shrew, but then, it’s hard to measure up to Shakespeare.  In the case of a film like Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia or the Dowdles’ Quarantine, there are differences between the original films and the newer films, but I think it’s highly debatable whether or not the differences are specific, intrinsic weaknesses.  If the mainstream audience is so lazy that it has never even heard of the original films — whether because it’s foreign or because it’s simply very old — it would seem to me to be a good thing that the film’s legacy is resurrected and reflected in contemporary culture in the form of a remake.  It proves that a film is not forgotten, and that it still has something to recommend it to a vastly different kind of audience.

« “We don’t need it!” – Technically speaking, no film is needed in a practical sense.  Billions of people in history have gone their entire lives without a film, and did not physically suffer as a result.  (Well, they died, but I don’t think it was because they never saw The Hangover.)  In the more pertinent sense, it is true that, if an adequate version of a film already exists, another is not strictly necessary.  Again, though, nobody complains when a good adaptation is made.  And there are plenty of people who, through ignorance, may not even be aware of the other, earlier film.  Not to mention the fact that there may be legitimate artistic reasons for remaking a film  Disregarding a remake on this particular principle is to disregard the possibility that the remake may simply address different concerns, or may have its own path to take that does make it necessary and relevant in a cultural sense.

What all these objections have in common is one simple thing: none of them make any logical sense, and they can only be applied with inconsistency.  They are all lazy, shorthand sentiments that are used as a substitute for legitimate, critical thinking.  They are often used in tandem, as mutual support.  They are the ingredients of the proverbial house of cards, except that when you blow on it with the common sense, it refuses to tumble — the cards are stuck together with the superglue of sheer, stubborn tenacity.  All of these idiotic reasons will probably continue to persist for a long time.  Not because they’re valid, but because human beings love clinging to bad ideas.

The fact of a film being a remake does not, in itself, preclude it from being genuine art.  Many of the great filmmakers have helmed remakes, sometimes of their own films.  John Huston adapted Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon not more than a decade after it had already been adapted by another filmmaker… yet his version remains for most viewers the gold standard of all the adaptations.  William Wyler remade Ben-Hur , which had been adapted in 1925; both were incredibly popular, but Wyler’s version clearly more so.  Ozu Yasujiro remade his 1934 classic, The Story of Floating Weeds, as Floating Weeds more than twenty years later.  Cecil B. DeMille remade one of his signature films, The Ten Commandments, and the latter version is not only the better-remembered of the two, it serves as an exemplary form from the golden age of the Biblical epic.  Alfred Hitchcock remade his The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Again, the latter film is more widely remembered, though the earlier film has its fans.  In each of these cases (and many more like them), it is beyond dispute that the latter adaptation is the more popular, and generally more critically revered version.

Not every remake is as popular as its predecessors.  Many are decidedly inferior.  This shouldn’t be surprising, given that most films made each year are not in any way superior, and most are forgotten in time (as noted in an earlier post).  Raw statistics show that most films are forgotten, mediocre, or memorable for being bad.  Therefore, it is inevitable, based on the law of averages, that most remakes will be inferior.  It would seem that being a remake isn’t a condition for inferiority; being made at all is.

Many of the same things that are used in any other critical approach to a film can be used on a remake without specific reference to its status as a remake.  Comparing/contrasting old vs. new can be fruitful, but not as a validation for nostalgia.  The fact is, the interpretation of older material on the part of a filmmaker means that the critical interpretation can in some cases be even richer because there’s so much more explicitly interrelated material to grapple with.

I’ve used a couple different terms thus far that are interchangeable up to a certain point, but after that, not so much.  The words remake, reboot, and re-imagination are often used in marketing materials to describe new, contemporary films that are based on older material.

“Remake” is the catch-all term, covering pretty much every film based on an earlier motion picture.   “Reboot” is more commonly used in reference to a film that is part of a longer-running franchise that has already spawned sequels.  Instead of keeping continuity or owing allegiance to any particular aspects of one or all of the previous films, a reboot retains the premise and probably the central characters (perhaps even some key aesthetic aspects) while reworking the story into something different.  Examples include Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek.  “Re-imagination” seems, at glance, to emphasize a “visionary” approach to familiar material, but in practice, it is not vastly different from “remake.”

I’m not as interested in parsing out the minute differences between those three terms as I am in illustrating the degree to which the word “remake” has been retrofitted and branched out into nearly-synonymous terms.  I suspect the reason for this is that the motion picture industry knows that audiences are leery of anything dubbed a “remake,” especially if it’s of a property that has been released within the lifetime of the lucrative 15-to-35-year-old target demographic.  Even if the real reason is more organic and less cynical than that (maybe they really are just trying to be more linguistically accurate!), a remake is a remake is a remake.

This is why the introduction emphasized another term that I think can and should be synonymous with remake: adaptation.

The World English Dictionary defines “adapt” as a verb in the following way: “to fit, change, or modify to suit a new or different purpose.”  Accordingly, an “adaptation” (noun) is “something that is produced by adapting something else,” as well as “something that is changed or modified to suit new conditions or needs.”  Both definitions apply equally well to films that are commonly designated “remakes” of earlier movies as films that are commonly designated “adaptations” from literature or plays.

Nearly every film that is a remake must literally be made again from scratch.  But then, so must every adaptation.  One does not simply modify the text of a novel into something resembling a film.  The word “remake” may have been intended to engender the sense of something so visionary and fresh that it would re-orient a viewer’s way of seeing things, even if the viewer thought he knew what it would be like.  Then, over time, the word came to carry a more negative connotation, something that, instead of inspiring the anticipation of a completely revelatory experience, came to inspire the dread of a rehashed, recycled, subpar, monotony: the same ol’ same old.  Hence the need for new terms that mean basically the same thing.

While not necessarily more accurate than “remake,” I think “adaptation” is a more useful word for talking about films that are modified or new versions of older films.  It emphasizes the continuity of artistic inspiration, as well as the continuity of craft.  It does not have the negative connotation of “remake” (or a positive one, if there are any people left who still think of remakes in exclusively positive terms).  Neutrality of denotation is its chief virtue.

The craft involved in adaptation necessarily involves interpretation.  This is as true for every level of the filmmaking process on any given day as it is in the larger sense.  An actor interprets the actions and psychology of a character.  A cinematographer interprets the appropriate lighting and camera setups to convey the right effect for a scene.  In general, a director interprets a screenplay from words on a page to images and sound in a film.  Every level of the filmmaking process is a slave to the science of interpretation.  Fortunately, the science of interpretation has a very specific term that is also germane to this terminological quandary: hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics carries with it a strongly spiritual connotation.  It is associated most closely with theology and philosophy, but more especially with Biblical exegesis.  The process of adaptation is intrinsically interpretive, therefore the process involves hermeneutics.  Exegetical writings are generally incredibly in-depth, exhaustive studies of passages, chapters, or books of the Bible, or of a particular topic.  The entire process is fraught with the difficulty of trying to ascertain the “real” meaning from an often confounding source, not to mention the difficulty of contending with alternate translations, readings, understandings, and methods that frequently lead to diametrically opposed interpretations of the same patch of text.

There is a strong parallel to the controversies over differing interpretations of sacred texts to the differing opinions on film adaptations.  Not only is each adaptation scrutinized for fidelity (or, failing that, for the relevance of changes or updates to contemporary concerns), but the quality of each interpretation depends upon the acumen of each interpreter, and each interpreter (and his interpretation) is subject to the vagaries of public evaluation.  The people conducting public evaluations each have their own agendas, prejudices, values, virtues, viewpoints, and concerns.  The pitched battles over theological disagreements are often rooted directly in more fundamental disagreements (or inept misunderstandings) over hermeneutics.  The ways audiences and artists interpret material that is already established in pop culture replicate the kind of problems that are found in the labyrinthine schisms and fractures of religious denominations.  No wonder people were willing to take up claw hammers to put a stop to Will Smith’s Oldboy.

I’ve spent a great deal of time making the case that adaptations — or “remakes” — have a right to exist, and they may even be a positive part of humanity’s storytelling tradition.  But you may recall that, in a previous post, I said that I am not looking forward to the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even though it is being directed by a very talented director with a consistent track record of excellence.  I’ll admit that there is an element of hypocrisy there.  But I would like to make a key distinction between my own objection and that of the six outlined above.  My problem with it is not that David Fincher is remaking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; my problem is that the source material is awful.  I simply don’t see how a film that retains any large degree of fidelity to the original story can be anything but preposterous, misogynist trash.  That said, I’m not dead set against the remake in principle, and I’ve tried to allow for the fact that my negative reaction may have further implications than any of the six typical objections I listed earlier.  If anything, most people might object to this particular remake because the first film was so popular and acclaimed — a case of “We don’t need it; we’ve already got a good one, and besides Hollywood will ruin it.  They’re just pandering to the stupid people who don’t read subtitles, and they probably won’t be true to the original story anyway.”

See how that works?

I do understand “remake fatigue.”  At some point, you’ve lived long enough and seen enough films that when Hollywood starts recycling the same things you grew up on, it just seems like too much old hat.  I get it.  And there’s nothing wrong with an emotional, irrational response, provided we recognize it for what it is: irrational.  It doesn’t add up under the scrutiny of reason.  Emotional: coming from a place of highly individualized preferences and prejudices that should be scrutinized in their own right.  Most people who watch movies aren’t thoughtful about their own feelings, and they certainly haven’t learned how to articulate them.  More to the point, critical thinking is a lost art when it comes to pop culture.  That was one of the big points of my first cineliteracy piece.  Instead of adopting a broader, informed perspective, situating the remake tradition in light of the history of storytelling — in which case remakes seem more of an honored, cherished art form rather than cash cows — people adopt their own anti-intellectual stance of contempt.

Judging people as anti-intellectual philistines simply because they’re sick and tired of remakes may sound a bit elitist, but let’s turn that around.  Isn’t it equally elitist to pretend that whatever came first is necessarily better?  Or worse, whatever a person was familiar with first (whether or not it was actually The First To Exist) is necessarily better?  What it comes down to is privileging one’s own subjective experience at the expense of an informed opinion.  It is its own kind of postmodern elitism, in which subjective relativity is king, and facts are discarded in favor of whatever makes one feel superior.  The craftsmanship of a film is ignored in favor of bromides about Hollywood’s alleged laziness.  Nostalgia takes precedence over education.

The film industry does share some blame in generating this tension.  After all, there are plenty of remakes out there that are made for little reason apart from cashing in on brand recognition.  A person’s nostalgia, or perhaps the legacy of a great film, is exploited for marketing purposes, and people are right to react against that.  But the marketing machine is not the same thing as the filmmaking team.  Marketing and filmmaking go hand in hand in terms of the viewer’s experience, but the details and practices of each arm of the industry must be evaluated on their own merits.  Is the remake bad because some studio exec decided to make some dough remaking a film, or is it bad based purely on the technical merits of the film?  Contextualize, don’t demonize.  A whole lot of great films have been made because they looked like profitable projects.

Remakes are nothing more than adaptations.  And the same level of thoughtfulness and intellectual rigor that is applied to “original” work can be applied to adapted films.  The contexts may be different; the background of the project may have its own set of issues.  But it doesn’t do you any good to fault the film for existing in the first place, which is precisely what you do when you condemn it, on principle, for being a remake.


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

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