What’s Wrong with Remakes?

Fans of Turner Classic Movies have good cause to engage in protectionism, given that some of Hollywood’s recent — and upcoming — remakes threaten closely held memories of their original favorites.

It is perturbing, for example, that Steven Spielberg has remade the 1961 film adaptation of Broadway’s West Side Story (opening December 2021), although composer Leonard Bernstein’s collaborator, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, sees value:

But The Wizard of Oz?  Why remake Judy Garland’s 1939 classic, as is now being planned?! 

The upset is palpable, but let’s be real: movie buffs and casual viewers alike know that remakes are a time-worn part of the Hollywood formula. To paraphrase Captain Louis Renault in the only movie version of Casablanca [there was a 1983 TV series], ‘I’m shocked — shocked — that remakes are going on in Hollywood!’

Remakes vs. sequels and franchises

Although not considered remakes, subsequent iterations of Jaws, Caddyshack and Superman, are evidence of ‘the sequel-never-equals.’ And who can forget (well, most people have) Jackie Chan’s flight in Around the World in 80 Days (2004), which easily nabbed that year’s Razzie Award for “Worst Remake.”

But there are well-made sequels or remakes that complement – indeed, surpass – the originals (Godfather II; Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in the 1941 The Maltese Falcon vs. Ricardo Cortez’s portrayal in an earlier1931 film ).   

Other franchises, including Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lethal Weapon, and Planet of the Apes, are nearly ‘remake-proof.’  

Why Not Remakes?

Tell Mike it was only business.” Tessio in The Godfather (1972).

Remakes come with pre-marketability. Nothing attracts the less imaginative investor like a proven commercial track record.

Indeed, it probably wasn’t very difficult to finance Chan’s Around the World in 80 Days. Michael Todd’s 1956 original sold 84 million tickets.

Big receipts also seemed guaranteed by casting Chan, whose box-office mojo at the time, according to Forbes, rivaled that of Tom Cruise.

“The elite. The best of the best. We’ll make you better.” Viper in Top Gun (1986).

The extraordinary evolution of cinema technology has transformed the art of movie storytelling, providing a compelling reason to revisit much older, and technically less sophisticated, productions. Genres with epics ripe for remakes include fantasy, science fiction and biblical.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), yet another take on Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, far outdistances DeMille’s special effects, digitally generating Moses’ Egyptian plagues, an unsurpassed parting of the Red Sea, and thousands of extras.     

There are exceptions, of course. The 1933 King Kong holds its own with director Peter Jackson’s 2005 CGI reimagining of the famous denouement atop New York’s Empire State Building:

“Don’t tell me I can’t do it; don’t tell me it can’t be done!”  Howard Hughes, The Aviator (2004)

Remakes are often an opportunity to take a film’s creative impulses to the next level.

Eddie Murphy’s 1996 redux of Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor (1963) was recast with mostly Black actors, including Murphy playing every member of Professor Klump’s family. And when it comes to flatulence, Jerry couldn’t hold a candle.

Conversely, 2010’s Coen Brothers reboot of True Grit with Jeff Bridges took a more conservative approach to the Rooster Cogburn character, played originally by John Wayne. The Coens said that rather remaking the 1969 film, they reengaged with Charles Portis’ 1968 novel.

Favorite Remake?

For a spectacularly conceived franchise reboot, check out Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). You can stream it with a Fubo TV subscription; or rent it for $3.99 from Google, Vudu and other providers.

(Top image source: YouTube video)

About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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