Who gets to decide that a certain classic film needs to be updated? It’s a cinematic masterpiece, not a damn Wikipedia page.
The act of remaking a film, whether it’s Bonnie and Clyde or Ghost Rider, implies that the original film can be improved upon in some way. While this may be true of a film like Ghost Rider (although actually, I doubt it, because you likely can’t make a silk purse out of a poorly executed Nicholas Cage vehicle), I can’t comprehend the mindset of any filmmaker or producer who watches Miracle on 34th Street and thinks, “Huh, I could do a better job.” What I can comprehend (and deplore) is the mindset of the producer who watches Miracle on 34th Street and thinks, “Do this in color, replace Natalie Wood with that kid from Mrs. Doubtfire and release it on Thanksgiving, and there’ll be a miracle in my bank account.” Thus it is not only the hubris of remaking a classic which bothers me, but also the inherent greed behind it.
I also don’t buy the excuse that many a lazy filmmaker has used to explain why they decided to remake a particular classic—that they’re making a modern, ‘updated’ version of the film, for the current generation. Who gets to decide that a certain classic film needs to be updated? It’s a cinematic masterpiece, not a damn Wikipedia page. And what exactly makes this generation different from any other generation that enjoyed the original animated version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? Was Dr. Seuss’s sweet, simple story made more enjoyable by the addition of Jim Carrey, mugging away in frightening greenface? I think not. Is there some reason that this generation won’t appreciate Gene Wilder’s creepy, eccentric Willy Wonka? Give this generation some credit. They may have been raised watching Lizzie McGuire, but that doesn’t mean they’ll mistake Hilary Duff for a real actress.
While I most vocally take issue with remakes of classic films, I also would never condone a film remake of a bad movie like Xanadu—the original was such an epic, transcendently bad film, that a remake would undoubtedly fall short. Still, I wished Xanadu well in its transformation from screen to stage, partly because I was curious to see whether a terrible movie might make a decent musical. In fact, I have nothing against turning a film into a musical, since it involves a conversion into a completely different artistic genre, which requires a lot of hard work and a meaningful vision. It also means that someone watched the movie and said, ‘This would work well as a musical,’ and not, ‘This would work well as another movie, made by me.’
The remake frenzy has hit an all-time low with the currently-in-production remake of the cult documentary film, Grey Gardens. We now have Drew Barrymore, of Charlie’s Angels fame, cast to play Little Edie Beale, the star of Grey Gardens, who was played in the original film by, well, Little Edie Beale. Ladies and gentlemen, what kind of a cosmic joke is it to remake a documentary, and cast actors to play actual people who originally played themselves? In any event, I’m not laughing.
Grey Gardens sacrilege aside, my main issue with film remakes is the idea that even a well-loved classic film, which has earned critical acclaim, gained devoted fans and shaped countless lives through viewings over the years, is still not safe from tampering. This does not appear to happen in the world of fiction. Any fool can read As I Lay Dying and think, ‘I bet a sassy talking pig would really liven this story up’, but their vision will never be realized. For whatever reason, unlike classic films, classic literature is inviolate. I guess I should be grateful for that small favor.
Everything is derivative.
No artist exists in a vacuum. As we go through life we are affected by our surroundings, which inevitably include works of art. This is not unique to any particular culture; every social group has some form of art that makes some kind of impression on everyone in the group. In the digital age, we get more art than our brains can handle. From what we choose to take in (music, TV, Netflix, On-Demand, video games, blogs, museums) to what we can’t help but be exposed to (billboards, magazine covers, music in a bar), there’s simply no avoiding it.
And therefore there is no true originality, not in the sense that some argue, not to the extreme some believe artists should be held. No one can create a piece of art unaffected by previous works. Instead we are all operating under the influence of the art to which we’ve already been exposed. Those that argue the opposite point also typically believe that originality is an important factor in what makes a particular work of art “good” or not, which I believe is a silly way to look at art.
An example: I love the White Stripes, but my music-snob friend Lenny (note: I am also a music snob) refuses to enjoy them, constantly complaining they’re “too derivative.” He thinks they sound like a mash of a hundred 70s rock bands all put together, and he’s heard every riff they’ve ever played in older songs because that’s all he used to listen to. And somehow that means he can’t enjoy the White Stripes, despite being a talented guitarist himself and a fan of specifically the kind of music he finds the White Stripes to be copying from. I don’t understand this point of view.
Everything we hear sounds like something we’ve heard. Think of how you describe a band to someone: “Justice? They’re like a grittier Daft Punk.” That’s how people communicate what a band sounds like without being able to play someone a clip: they compare it to music the other person already knows. And typically that gets the point across without difficulty.
In contrast, if something sounds too different from what you typically hear, you likely aren’t immediately comfortable with it. My grandparents felt that way about rock and roll. My parents felt that way about hip hop. I felt that way with Radiohead when I was exposed to Kid A, and again when I first started listening to African music. Odd time signatures, strange instrumentation, music that didn’t sound like what I normally listened to. It was off-putting. But my ignorance doesn’t mean Kid A or that African music isn’t derivative, it just means I am not familiar enough with the music that influenced these artists during their development to understand it right away.
How derivative a piece of art is might be the only measure of originality we have. Certainly Radiohead is more original than, say, Weezer, and Rusted Root’s unclassifiable sound is more original than Alice Russell’s brand of funk, but that doesn’t mean Weezer and Alice Russell are somehow bad or that Radiohead and Rusted Root are necessarily good. I happen to love all four of these artists, because I don’t find ‘originality’ to be a major factor in music’s value. I am amused by unfamiliar sounds, and I am comforted by familiar sounds, and so I’ll listen to the reminds-me-of-home sound of Fleet Foxes or Levon Helm as often as the disarming oddity of Of Montreal or Eagles of Death Metal.
An interesting anecdote: REM and their label, Warner Music, are suing a Danish band, Hej Matematik, for copyright infringement. They claim that Hej Matematik’s song “Walkmand” sounds so much like REM’s song “Supernatural Superserious” that it’s clearly copied from them.
Now, I’ve listened to both songs, and I don’t hear anything close to copyright infringement, but luckily that’s no longer an issue. As it turns out, the song in question by Hej Matematik is a cover, originally recorded by another Danish artist, seventeen years before REM’s release. And so now REM is placed in the absurd position of being potentially countersued by the original artist, who can now claim REM copied from him, despite REM’s public position that they created this melody.
Of course in reality, nobody in this situation copied from anybody else, and this is indicative of a problem with both our copyright system and our ideas of ownership. Just because your music sounds like other music doesn’t mean it was copied, it just means you share some of the same roots which led you and others to the same logical artistic ends. You can hear all three songs in question here at TechDirt.
This example shows the paradox in the burden of originality some would place on artists. To be truly original and non-derivative, an artist must be completely aware of all art in their field. This way they will know they are not accidentally copying another artist. But of course total awareness of all pieces of art is impossible, and even if it were possible, that enormous amount of intake would make it even harder to create something not influenced by a previous work.
I’ve been focusing on music here, but this applies to art in general as well. There is nothing wrong with improving on what’s already been done. Police dramas have been done again and again on TV. But they change this or tweak that, and somehow the show is more entertaining than its predecessors, despite deriving everything from previous incarnations of the genre, from the basic stable of characters to the way the camera shakes to make it seem like you’re in the room (started on NYPD Blue, moved into all three Law & Order shows, Boston Legal, The Shield, and a ton of other shows). How many movies have we seen about a struggling high school football team and a coach that comes in and helps turn around the team as well as its players? A thousand? But in the end I enjoy them all, despite their near-complete lack of originality.
REM once recorded a song called At Your Most Beautiful, which was produced in the style of Brian Wilson. This makes it, by definition, derivative. And the song is simply gorgeous. Should the fact that it’s based on someone else’s sound somehow devalue this wonderful song? Not in my opinion.
Let’s put behind us this idea that the only respectable art is what’s original, because true originality is impossible, and a lack thereof does not make an artist irrelevant. If I can take your song and make it more enjoyable for someone, then I’ve done what art is supposed to do: evolve, improve and entertain.
Musicians and novelists produce good remakes all the time. Why are the movies different?
The problem with remaking movies is that the originals usually come with protectiveness and a set of fixed, concrete images. Good movies are so rare that you want to preserve them. The Byrds, Hendrix or Sonic Youth can do a great cover of Bob Dylan and it doesn’t feel like a cop-out or an attack on the original. Remake one of the great movies, and everybody wants to pull out a prostitution metaphor. After-the-fact tinkering with good movies just feels different.
Books don’t come with the same risks. A lot of what’s good in literature is borrowed from somebody else, which is why so many novels receive inaccurate comparisons to Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby on their cover blurbs. When James Joyce used The Odyssey for Ulysses and Zadie Smith structured On Beauty around E.M. Forster’s Howards End, nobody complained about the writers’ lack of originality. Some people might not like seeing Hamlet or MacBeth staged in a modern setting, but the production isn’t usually viewed as an attack on Shakespeare. If anything, the gripe is that the reworking is original to the point of distraction.
There are good reasons to hold movies to a different standard. Movies are more like commercial products than works of art. They’re produced to make as much money as possible, not because they’re labors of love. Studios want to maximize ticket sales from a broad demographic; musicians and writers have lower overhead and can turn a profit on a narrower audience. When a studio talks about remaking Bonnie and Clyde or The Birds, it’s more a matter of marketing than inspiration. I go into movies with the impulse to be a harsh critic and don’t give the benefit of the doubt. With a musician or a novelist, usually we’re not worried about getting played for a sucker
There are movie remakes that I cherish and love more than the originals — Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the 1991 version of Cape Fear. They used the originals as a jumping-off point and borrowed the predecessor’s story structure, then offered something better and fresher. When Amy Heckerling made Clueless, and mixed Jane Austen’s plotline with the production values and tone of L.A. high school comedies, she was doing the same thing that good novelists do — gathering up the familiar ingredients to make something new. In the movies, great remakes don’t come often, but when they do, they’re worth it.
The purpose of a movie, or at least the purpose of a publicly shown and distributed movie, is to convey a message or story or image to an audience. And when that movie involves the spoken word, the language affects that audience’s reactions and interpretations. Equally impacting an audience’s comprehension of a movie’s “point” are cultural norms that are clear and unremarkable to a hometown audience, but not to an audience half-way around the world. If we live in a world of global distribution of stories, then we will live in a world of global remakes.
Before proceeding any further, an issue of semantics needs to be addressed. What is a remake? Alternatively, what is an adaptation? Where does a translation fit in? For the purpose of this essay, here are my easily disputable definitions: a remake is consistent in basic content (story/plot, characters, language) and medium/form; an adaptation is consistent in basic content, but changes form; a translation is consistent in medium/form, but changes content, ala language. There is clearly room in this range of categories for the fuzzier boundaries of “inspired by,” “based on,” or “reimagining.” For now, some recent examples; Watchmen (2009) is an adaptation of Watchmen (1986-1987); the medium has changed from comic book to movie. The movie Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is a remake of the movie Ocean’s Eleven (1960). And the rumored Keanu Reeves vehicle, Cowboy Bebop movie? This would be an American made, live action movie adaptation (change of form, consistency of story) of a Japanese, animated movie, itself based on a 26 episode Japanese, animated series.
The question to ask is why make an adaptation when a translation is available? Why make The Magnificent Seven (1960) when there is Shichinin No Samurai (1954) to watch? Why make Vanilla Sky (2001) when there is Abre Los Ojos (1997) with Penelope Cruz playing the same role in each version? Or Insomnia (2002) when Insomnia (1997) is equally oppressive and creepy, despite being in Norwegian? Or any number of J-horror movies from the last ten years? Or for the TV watchers, why make an American version of The Office (2005-Present) when BBC America, P2P file sharing, and DVDs make the British version of The Office (2001-2003) available?
This ‘why’ is not a normative judgment; it is not a question of good or bad or worthwhile. Hopefully, all movies, whether they are original ideas, remakes, or adaptations, are created with the goal of success on their own terms. Some fail. This ‘why’ returns to the question of the relationship between the audience and the movie. Seven Samurai may have (and did) received two Oscar nominations, but in 1950s America, an epic about 16th century Japan did not receive a wide distribution, nor did a production staring all Asians attract the same audience as a Western starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. Even in 1997, a Spanish love-mystery does not receive the same funding as an American love-mystery starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. So one answer to this ‘why’ is money. The disparities between the monies earned by a foreign movie in limited release and a Hollywood adaptation in wide release are enormous.
An additional ‘why’ is accessibility. Although the cultural tastes of Americans have expanded exponentially since the 1950s, there is still no guarantee that an audience will go to see a translation. Take a moment to see how many 2009 Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees you can name. The awards were less than a month ago. Now how many Best Pictures can you name? I would wager a guess that, even if you haven’t seen them, you could name more of the latter than the former. The structure of our motion picture industry, production and distribution, does not give equal weight to movies from other countries.
A final why—love. Some movie adaptations are made out of love of the original. As Steve proposes, artists do not exist in a vacuum. If a director or screenwriter is so inspired by a work from another country, that s/he wants to adapt it so as to expose a wider audience to the inspiration, then so be it. I will judge the final product on its own merits, not on its status as an adaptation.