Following up our recent list of the best/worst remakes, here’s an in depth look into the art of the remake and the rules by which to make them. There is a tradition in Hollywood of remaking old films. They are done for many different reasons – the one common reason being money (of course). Sometimes remakes update the narrative of a previous film; sometimes they introduce a younger audience to an older film. Whatever the reason, there are rules that can help make a remake all it can be. When these rules are broken the result is an uninteresting and shameful film that does not do its predecessor justice.
Before we get into the rules of the remake I think there are three key terms that need to be defined so it is clear what we are covering: remake, reboot and re-imagining.
A remake is a film which uses a previous narrative with some changes made to it (Pick anyone you can think of, one of the more recent remakes being Race to Witch Mountain)
A reboot is a film meant to re-start a franchise (Batman Begins)
A re-imagining is a film inspired from the roots of an older film, but almost every part of the story is changed (Disturbia)
A misconception that needs to be corrected is the idea that the remake is a recent phenomenon. Remakes have existed for quite some time – consider the 1951 film “M” which is a remake of the 1931 film of the same name, or Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew to Much,” which he directed two versions of – both the original 1934 film and the 1956 remake. Or how about the 1941 film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which is a remake of the 1931 film of the same name and currently being adapted yet again. The remake has always existed, so don’t think that Hollywood just started being an unoriginal think tank.
Rule 1: NO SHOT-FOR-SHOT
Sometimes when the decision to do a remake is made, the director decides to literally REMAKE the film – shot for shot. Unless I’m mistaken that pretty much defeats the purpose of a remake. Why not just watch the original? You may ask yourself why this is rule number one? The answer is because even though it doesn’t happen often, when it does happen it is a true blight on all movies. What a shot-for-shot says is “we were too lazy to come up with something on our own so we just took the classic and made it look less grainy.”
The best example of this is the failed shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, a 1998 film by Gus Van Sant starring Vince Vaughn in the Norman Bates role and Anne Heche in the Marion Crane role. Only two things really change between the original and the remake. First is the scene where Norman is spying on Marion. In the original when Norman is peeping we are forced to conclude for ourselves the Norman is aroused by what he is seeing but in the remake Van Sant makes it very clear that Norman is masturbating and doesn’t give us the opportunity to figure it out for ourselves. The second big change is the addition of color instead of black and white. What Van Sant failed to realize was that Hitchcock purposely used black and white film stock because it helped mirror the relationship of good and evil in the film. The color completely ruins that aspect in the remake – the film’s scenes feel less dramatic without the black and white.
Rule 2: MODERNIZE
If you’re remaking a movie that’s dated in the 1970’s, then you need to do some upgrading, both technically and otherwise. A recent example that many should be able to relate too is The Taking of Pelham 123 remake. Director Tony Scott had to incorporate cell phones, laptops, internet, GPS (etc.) into the film. None of this is in the original and if the modernization had not been incorporated it would have sunk the film’s plot coherence for today’s audience.
Consider the scene in which Garber (Denzel Washington) tries to lie to Ryder (John Travolta) to get the ransom deadline extended. While in the original Ryder has no way of knowing if the money is there, taking Garber’s word for it, in the remake Ryder can see on a hacked security camera if the money has arrived so when Garber lies it leads to the death of a hostage. Modernization allows an audience to relate to the topic at hand if it is out dated.
Now while modernization is key to a successful remake that doesn’t mean it should be your focus, because sometimes emphasizing the fact that modernization exists can hurt you. Take for example the 2004 remake of the 1966 film Alfie. The original film is one of best example of a standard “60’s movie.” It is all about free sex, male chauvinism and social awareness. This new film looses that deep philosophical outlook because today most of those issues are mute. In 2004 New York City there isn’t a lot of male shovanism and social awareness has been over saturated by every media source.
Take for example the abortion scene. In the original film the couple is forced to do it in secret because aborting a fetus after the first 28 days is illegal in 1960’s Britain. But in 2004 United States, even though it is a political issue it isn’t illegal. So the whole scene just ruins it because of modernization.
Rule 3: BE PICKY
When making a remake it is a good idea to pick and choose certain elements from the original to carry over to the new version. This allows the remake to be original but at the same time be respectful to its predecessor (especially if the predecessor was a success). The best example I know of the “be picky” rule is F. Gary Gray’s 2003 remake of the 1969 classic The Italian Job. The original film was about getting the tools for and pulling of the ultimate heist. The new film however is a love/revenge story.
But Gray did use many elements from the original film, mainly in the actual heist. For example in the original the team breaks into traffic control and manually reprograms the computers causing a traffic jam. In the remake the team hacks (modernization) into traffic control and forces the target truck to take a pre-selected route and also use the hack to plan their escape out of the city. But in the original the enemy was the mob. That wouldn’t work for an audience of today, so the enemy instead becomes a traitor of the group who kills a member of the team after the film’s opening heist.
This is where the remake and original part ways. However, the audience doesn’t mind because the main elements are used to the fullest in both portrayals. The remake, in order to separate itself from its predecessor, also changes the love element. In the original, Charlie Croker (played by a young Michael Caine) is a ladies’ man who, after realizing the danger of his job, sends his girlfriend away to protect her and the job.
In the remake, Croker (played by Mark Wahlberg) doesn’t have an initial love interest. Only when the team member is killed he is forced to go to turn to his eventual love interest for help with the new job.
But for every great example there is a poor one. Again the film Alfie comes to mind. The original film is about a ladies’ man with commitment issues who can never seem to get his own life in order and guess what; the remake is the exact same thing. The later film feels like a typical romantic comedy. The 2004 film does pull specific things from the original but ruins them unlike what The Italian Job does with its predecessor.
Take for example the abortion scene from the original. This seen it perhaps the most powerful moment in the film because we see Alfie break down and show true emotion for the life he just took. But in the new film this scene happens in the first act and then in the third act we learn that is never happened and the child is alive and well. So now Alfie has a break down because he lost a good friend that he lied to and for not taking responsibility for the child. The viewer doesn’t get the same sense of truth in the break down that they get in the original.
Then there are times when the remake just takes complete scenes from the first film and puts them in New York City I.E. the final sequence. In the final moments of the film Alfie comes to a realization that he is completely selfish and unforgiving and then runs into the women he had a one night stand with the in the begging of the film. We see this exact scene in the original film minus a dog that provides a sense that there is still a chance for Alfie.
Another big problem in the remake is the 4th wall break. In the original it works beautifully because it allows the audience to really get to know the character of Alfie and see what kind of a man he truly is. But in the remake it feels like it was just thrown in. In all honesty, if it wasn’t there is wouldn’t have made much difference because you would have gotten the same exact result because everything you need to know about Alfie is seen mostly in what he does when he is not breaking the 4th wall.
Rule 4: BE ORIGINAL – GIVE US SOMETHING WE DON’T ALREADY HAVE
Too often a remake will just give us the same story in a new time period or setting. Nothing changes except the actors. Which is why it is refreshing when at least an attempt is made to give us something we don’t already have. A perfect example is Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of the 1979 horror classic Halloween. In the original film, one of cinema’s greatest psycho-killers, Michael Myers, is born. The film immediately starts out with Michael killing his older sister. We never even here so much as a “hello” from him – just a calm heavy breathing.
Zombie came up with the genius idea to humanize the killer. In the new version we start out with Michael’s extremely dysfunctional family: an alcoholic step father, a stripper mom, sex crazed older sister and a infant sister.
Michael in the beginning kills his pet rat. Zombie allows us to see a clue to Michael’s psyche through this scene. After all, now-a-days it is common knowledge that the killing of small animals by a child is an early warning sign of severe psychosis.
We then see how Michael is abused at home and at school, establishing his reasons for making the school bully, his step father and his older sister his first kills. Since Michael has a voice as a child we learn that Michael is fully aware of what he does when he tries to lie to Dr. Loomis about not remembering what he did to his family. None of this is provided in the original.
In the original Myers feels like nothing more than a conduit for pure evil. Now, that was director John Carpenter’s intention but for a remake that just does not cut it. If that was all we got in the new film then everyone would say that it was made to compete with the Saw films for best gross-out moments. Zombie did make an honest attempt to give a history to one of cinema’s most sadistic psychos. That is why originality is so important in remakes.
Rule 5: BE CAREFUL WHEN PULLING A REMAKE FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY
Hollywood is notorious for not trying anything new (hence all the remakes). Whether it is the use of video, specific shooting styles, types of narratives, they are always the last to adopt them. So usually other countries (with the support of government funding usually) will try new things and if it sells well abroad and makes a profitable transfer to the States, Hollywood will then jump on board and remake it or “Americanize” it. But it is important to understand why certain films work in other countries and others flop in the Unites States. Perhaps one of the best examples of a recent adaptation in Hollywood is the 2008 film Quarantine.
Quarantine is a 2008 remake of the 2007 Spanish film [●REC]. Both films are shot from the perspective of a camera (think Cloverfield). Both films work because they make the audience really believe that what is happening on screen is really happening. [●REC] does do a better job at it but because of Quarantine’s budget we get a bit of a deeper story. For example, in [●REC] we don’t see much of what the government is doing or what is happening outside. However, in Quarantine we see that the government is trying to cover up the event and lies to the media about the evacuation of the residents. Also, when the residents are in the bathroom and one tries to escape through a window he is shot in the head by a sniper. This is something we don’t get in [●REC]. However these elements also hurt Quarantine because it takes away from the realism (there is no way that a sniper could take out someone in a window and not be seen by an witness.
But of course there are good foreign adaptations and then there are bad ones, and then there is… Godzilla. This 1998 remake of the classic Japanese film is a failure in just about every way possible. The original film was all about the cold war, nuclear weapon, etc… It worked with Japanese audiences so well because they were the only country that truly knew the horror that came with nuclear weapons and what better way to immortalize that evil then by turning it into a giant green lizard that shoots flames.
But the 1998 remake just ruins everything. The director of the 2004 film Godzilla: Final Wars, Ryûhei Kitamura, said of Roland Emmerich’s film: “the 1998 film has taken the ‘God’ out of Godzilla.” That statement couldn’t be more true. The remake offers nothing godly, or interesting, about the new Godzilla at all. Hollywood americanized Godzilla, and by doing so just ruined the mystery and appeal that the character had. It completely disrespected the culture that it came out of and instead just turned it into a typical monster movie with one of the dumbest climaxes in cinema history.
Rule 6: MAKING A GOOD REBOOT
Though the remake isn’t anything new the idea of a “reboot” is. A reboot is a film that is meant to restart a franchise with a clean slate and completely do away with what has already been established. There are good and bad reboots. Some good examples of reboots are Batman Begins and Casino Royale.
Batman Begins is a good reboot because it completely does away with the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher formula. Burton’s idea of having a dark comedic version of batman that does away with the source material by having The Joker be the one who kills Bruce Wayne’s parents thus turning the whole thing into a revenge story that feels to convenient and the Schumacher formula of the campy, one-lining Batman. It is all thrown away and replaced with a gritty, bare-bones character that is spawned out of vengeance and is true to origins and then decides to abandon the early comics and use a more realistic story from the graphic novels. We also get a Batman that is believable; the audience could honestly believe that a masked vigilante with some realistically-sized tools and weapons could have the need to make a stand against corruption. Not a cool looking superhero that has every tool and gadget he uses in micro form and on a skin tight belt.
Also, like Rob Zombie did, we get a back story. Something we didn’t already have. Yes we knew that Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed but we never knew where he learned to fight, how he got all his cool toys, essentially why Batman is Batman. Another great example of a reboot (and my favorite reboot) is Casino Royale.
The James Bond Franchise evolved (or devolved?) into a string of campy films about a slick secret agent who can get any woman he wants all while taking down a terrorists plan for global domination. Casino Royale really took bond back to the original Ian Fleming novels. In the book, Bond is a cold-blooded assassin of a secret agent, and a misogynist to boot. And assassin is exactly what you get in Casino Royale – we also see a side of bond that has never been seen before a vulnerable Bond. It also goes along the vein of the fourth rule: Be Original. Bond’s need for different women all the time is never explained until Casino Royale. But with every good reboot there is a bad one to accompany it. Take for example the 2008 film Get Smart.
Get Smart was a reboot of the classic 60’s television series of the same name. The problem is that the film didn’t change anything that was featured in the television series. The television show’s humor worked for it because that kind of humor worked for the 60’s. The film however used that exact same humor for an audience of today. That is why the film fails. Sure it provides some laughs but that was only because of the eccentric nature of Steve Carell, not because the film was well made.
Rule 7: UNDERSTAND WHAT A RE-IMAGINING IS
Another thing that needs to be understood is the idea of the re-imagining. A re-imagining is essentially an overused version of the “be picky” rule. A reimaging will strip down a previous film to its key elements and plot points and then create a completely new story around it. Perhaps one of best, recent examples is the 2007 hit Disturbia which is a reimaging of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window. In Rear Window we see the story of an injured photographer who broke his leg and is confined to a wheel chair. To kill the time he begins peeping at his neighbors out his window. Eventually he realizes that one of his neighbors may have killed his wife and tries to investigate from his apartment with the help of his girl friend and nurse. Except for the peeping and the actual event of a murder every element is changed in Disturbia.
In Disturbia a high school student who lost his father a year prior is sentenced to three months house arrest after striking his teacher. He is forced to wear an ankle transmitter which monitors him and makes sure he doesn’t leave his house. His mother decides to take away every privilege he has so he is forced like the character in Rear Window to begin peeping to kill the time. Through his peeping he meets his new neighbor and together they discover that their neighbor might be a serial killer. So now we aren’t dealing with crime of passion committed by an enraged husband but instead we end up seeing a cold blooded killer who is not amateur at what he does.
Director D.J. Caruso makes sure to pay tribute to his predecessor, mostly in his shots. Certain visuals mirror the visuals Hitchcock employed in Rear Window. Perhaps the best example of this is when Shia LaBeouf’s character is sitting inside his window with the light off looking out with big thick binoculars, the same way James Stewart’s character uses his iconic binoculars to spy on his own suspicious neighbor.
It’s safe to say that remakes are and will always be a part of movies. Studios will always be updating and redoing old narratives. And it’s painfully obvious when a remake is poor and obscenely refreshing when a remake is new and exciting. The latter is much harder to come by than the former. Hopefully, by following these rules studios and filmmakers will be able to change this all-to-common trend of mediocrity.