Hollywood has always loved remakes, no matter how much it may seem like they’re inundating our multiplexes these days. For almost as long as movie studios have been pumping out hits for the masses, they’ve been remaking so-called classics. Sometimes it’s a matter of retelling an old story, adapting a particular book again, or even translating a foreign film into an English-language version so people don’t have to bother with the pesky subtitles. Regardless, remakes are nothing new. From adapting TV series for the big screen, to rebooting older franchises with new blood (all while tipping the hat to what came before, like J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek”), there are plenty of remakes always being developed, and there always will be.
With the new “Ghostbusters” arriving in theaters on July 15th, it’s uncertain how that film will perform. Will it be a good update to the now-classic comedy with its own take on the material, or will it simply be a cash grab with swapped gender roles and updated F/X but nothing else of interest? It’s too soon to say, but it got me thinking of the remakes that got it right. What made those films work when so many others have failed? Why are they successful, sometimes even eclipsing the original, when the majority of remakes just feel tired and uninspired?
Here’s a handy list of probably the best remakes produced by studios in the past 35 years or so (in no particular order): John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In,” Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s “True Grit,” Michael Mann’s “Heat,” Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” James Cameron “True Lies” and Mike Nichols’ “The Birdcage.”
Some people may have other films to add (what about Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” or Brian DePalma’s “Scarface,” you say? It’s my list and I have my reasons), or they may find some of the inclusions receiving greater praise than they deserve. But if you were to poll audiences on the above listed films, you would find that most of them rate pretty fresh (in the parlance of our times), and many people don’t even know that they are actually remakes of earlier films. So is there a connective tissue? What is the common denominator between all of these films that cross genres, decades and tone?
The simplest answer is this: to deliver a good remake, you have to be a good filmmaker. That may seem obvious and like a copout, but it’s actually a pretty deep cut into what makes those films tick. Each of the directors listed above has turned out some classic original movies (that may soon be remade if the cycle continues) and has a string of films that continue to impress and influence filmmaking to this day. But they made those acclaimed films not just with their talent for delivering shots well but by figuring out the essence of the stories they wanted to tell. Above all else, a great filmmaker is a powerful storyteller who is able to evoke emotions from audiences, find nuance in characters and deliver provocative emotion that stirs the heart and the mind. These auteurs know what resonates with audiences because they know what resonates with them; they each have a very specific perspective and idiosyncratic laundry list of things that fascinate them. So when they adapt a film, they aren’t just choosing the obvious shot-for-shot remake approach or simply updating the film for a modern audience.
A successful remake is filtered through the biases and fetishes of the filmmaker. The body horror that always fascinated David Cronenberg is transplanted into the silly B-movie “The Fly” and becomes a referendum on decay, bodies turning on themselves, and an eerily prescient view of the AIDS epidemic. The farcical nature of “La Totale” finds an eager interpreter in James Cameron, with “True Lies” delivering some of his biggest and most bombastic action alongside some of his silliest moments. The subdued “Infernal Affairs” becomes an oversized feast of senses in the hands of Martin Scorsese, whose “The Departed” finds him not only musing on corruption and crime again but also the unhinged properties of those who commit such acts of betrayal against social mores. Each of these directors retains something from the original film they are remaking, but what really interests them is an aspect of the movie that wasn’t fully explored the first time around.
John Carpenter’s “The Thing” took Howard Hawks’ creature feature with its free-floating, Cold War paranoiac call to “watch the skies” and preserved the monster film aspect but with the paranoia embedded inside each of the residents. Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” kept most of the plot and characterization but made the sexual subtext more apparent (and off-putting) while also upping the ante on the brutal violence and the madness of the antagonist, fitting his operatic style. The filmmakers aren’t cannibalizing the original but instead have a fine eye about what worked beforehand, what drew them to that film in the first place, and what they want to explore even further. What they retain from the original isn’t a wink to the audience but rather what they themselves enjoyed as audience members, only now it’s been filtered through their own sensibilities.
It may seem like an easy brush-off to suggest that only good filmmakers can make good remakes, but in essence, that is the truth. A remake, while leaning on what came before, must ultimately be able to stand alone as a film in its own right. It must illuminate the hidden and unexplored corners of the original but not be such a beat-for-beat repeat that it misses the point of revisiting something in the first place. Each of these successful remakes found an auteur with a specific style and voice that wanted to say something about a film that affected them in some way; they made the public film into something personal for them, adding their own issues and interests that made them unique artists to begin with. Remakes can’t just be works for hire, or cash grabs based on IP, in order for them to stand the test of time; they have to be based on the shoulders of someone that wants to tell the story, in his or her own way, and wants to go further with it than the previous filmmaker did. Otherwise, what’s the point in simply echoing the past if you’re not going to strive for the future?