Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 4/31: "Everything is a remake of something before" vs. "Everybody's rebooting existing characters/universes with new stories" (suggested by @oneswellfoop on Twitter)

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Film The use of the word “remake” can be puzzling and inconsistent so I'd like firstly to define what I mean when I say remake. What I think of a remake is when a story, which originated as a film is remade as a film. The Steven Soderbergh's Solaris is generally spoken of a remake even though the director went back to the original source book and went from there. New film adaptations of Shakespeare plays are increasingly referred to as “remakes” even though that’s silly. Comics adaptations are also pegged as such even though again they’re just another look at the material. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a remake. So’s Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not and neither is the American adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

With that out of the way, from flicking through the December issue of Empire magazine, the one with the motion captured Tin Tin on the cover, you could assume that the only product in production at major studios are adaptations, reimaginings, sequels and remakes. Nearly every page includes news, views and interviews in relation to some adaptation of a comic or book or television series or in some cases a sequel to what was an original idea. In a review section that includes the likes of Machette, Paranormal Activity 2 and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, the Mike Leigh film, Another Year with its publicity still of a couple of retirees tucked up in bed looks like an oasis of integrity in a desert of opportunism.

The implication of the original statement that adaptations and sequels and remakes are a recent phenomena, this is some new opportunism. They are not. It is not. In the silent era, films were sometimes remade (and this is the purest form of remake) out of necessity because the original copy had worn out, or were pirated by another company by filming them again (which eventually led to the likes of Edison placing their logo within the set to demonstrate it was an original). It wasn’t too long after sound became flexible enough that whole film series sprang from comics, the likes of Batman poorly recreated in black and white serial shorts.

Much of the product in the original old Hollywood studio system was based on something, a stage play, a book and very often newspaper or magazine articles. The recently reissued It Happened One Night, the ancestor for decades of screwball romantic comedies was based on a short fiction, Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams, admittedly extensively reworked by Capra and his collaborator Robert Riskin. It was rare for Hitchcock to produce something original from his early silents through the close of his career. Truly original ideas are rare. Even the so-called original screenplays nominated at the Oscars are most often inspired by real life events or are biographies.

Because you can’t argue with the metrics. Inception is an anomaly. All of the highest grossing films of the past twenty years and even before, both by year and together in a chart are based on existing properties or franchises; even Pirates of the Caribbean began as a theme park ride. Adapt something already in existence, especially if it's a best selling book or well visited theatre production and you have a built in market and if you’re able to grow what you’re selling beyond its core audience you’re onto a winner. Hollywood and beyond makes these things, and has always made these thing because we want to see them, or at least some of us do. Even if the result is rubbish.

Finally watching Transformers 2 recently, I think I’ve witness the nadir of the type (though I’m willing to accept that as we’ll see which ever film raped your childhood you’ll no doubt consider your nadir). Not able to really afford the toys, I was still an avid reader of the British comic from the first issue onwards until it finally went out of print years later. What Simon Furman and his fellow writers accomplished there was astonishing; they took a toy line, developed a mythology and managed to give all of the robots specific personalities, a code of honour and importantly make us care.

The first film, despite importing some of the human characters, trashed that mythology, mostly ignored the personalities and generally had little regard for what had gone before, resulting in a work that was everything Furman et al had been fighting against. In the second, the original machines are barely on-screen and entirely interchangeable, the new, messy character designs no help in trying to identify them. The central story, a fairly derivative quest narrative is driven by the human characters, the accompanying Transformers, all new creations simple (and on two counts racist) comic relief.

In other words a film demonstrating everything that is wrong with this kind of film. Its box office was still huge, but even now analysts are wondering how many of those people actually enjoyed watching the film; the criticism of both its star and director are telling. No wonder there’s a collective groan whenever some new piece of cultural heritage is being ploughed over. My previous nadir, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy failed because it took everything that was right and funny and quotable about Douglas Adams’s original scripts, words worked over tortuously and slowly until they passed his stringent standard and paraphrased them.

Yet somehow I still have a high sense of anticipation for the new version of Judge Dredd, the aforementioned Tin Tin, Tron Legacy and even have a vague hope that the next Transformers will be the best of the series. Because years ago, even before the first Transformers, I came to the conclusion that Hollywood could adapt or remake whatever it likes. It could even take a crack at Doctor Who if it wanted to or offer up a remake of When Harry Met Sally. Cultural sacred cows, I have a few, but everything is up for grabs, and they can do what they want with the mythology, change everything.

Because actually, in the end, the extent to which the property matches its source is less important than if the resulting film is good. The Lord of the Rings films took many liberties with the original text but I haven't met many fans of the books who hate the films. Same with Harry Potter. Robert Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark is barely recognisable from the figure in the comics yet readers of the Iron Man comic have embraced him. Offering another adaptation of Solaris would seem like sacrilege beyond Tarkovsky’s definitive presentation, yet Soderbergh created something that respected both properties and produced something new and very special. Indeed.

About the only real argument one could logically against the concept of adaptation per-se is in relation to books. A book is a one-to-one communication between the author and reader; the former controlling and crafting the experience and imagination of the latter. After a film adaptation, that experience is irrevocably interfered with; it’s impossible to read Pride and Prejudice without your favourite actress inhabiting the character of Elizabeth Bennett and I’ve recently heard adults chatting nostalgically about the time when they had their own version of Harry, Hermione and Ron in their heads instead of the actors who’ve made the characters their own.

So you never know, the rem- ... sorry ... reimaging of Buffy might be quite good. It's possible.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Stuart - a very interesting post that has made me realise my own hypocrisy!

    I was quite annoyed by Mark Kermode the other week for harping on about how "Let me in" should never have been made and wasn't needed, just because "Let the right one in" was so good. "Let me in" isn't a remake, it is, as you point out, an adaptation. No less valid than a new version of Gatsby or Hamlet. Criticise it for the acting, script, cinematography, if you must, but don't criticise it for simply existing. Live and let live, I thought.

    Then, you mentioned "Buffy", and all of that went out the window!