Why remakes don’t have to suck
By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor
In criticism, it is important to understand the difference between whining and complaining. The complainer wishes to point out the faults in something, but with the intention of improving that thing beyond its current state. The whiner merely wishes to express displeasure over a perceived slight. With that in mind, I’ve noticed a lot of whining in regards to film remakes.
Where many are content to dismiss remakes out of hand, I am ambivalent towards the concept. While action favourites like RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990) have been treated badly in redux, many remakes have actually outshone their source material in posterity. So, in the interest of improving the quality of today’s fare, we must mine the past for the ingredients to a good remake.
Few know that The Maltese Falcon (1941) is actually a remake of a remake of an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel of the same name. The story was the same in each case, but it wasn’t until the advent of Film Noir’s distinctive shadowy visual mise-en-scène that it became truly iconic. The 1941 Humphrey Bogart vehicle hit where the others missed because it was visually unique from anything that came before.
In the Cohen Brothers’ treatment of True Grit (2010), the 1969 John Wayne actioner saw a complete shift in tone, embodying the understated, casual brutality of the American West. It was a critical success, as was the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, for much the same reason. A change of setting can also make or break a film retread; Oceans’ Eleven (2001) offered a modern-day update of the original heist comedy, and was met with critical acclaim—though it would be hard to do worse than the first.
Even John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was a remake of Howard Hawks’ campy sci-fi horror flick The Thing from Another World (1951). With 30 years of special effects innovation on his side, Carpenter gave the film a gory makeover, transforming it into an apocalyptic-arctic-tundra-slasher film. Although it was out-earned at the box office by Steven Spielberg’s E.T., it survives today as a cult classic, widely regarded as one of the most horrifying experiences ever pressed to a film reel.
While there may be some truth in the assumption that remakes are nothing more than disposable Hollywood cash grabs, it is possible for them to equal—and even surpass—their source material. All it takes is a director with a strong artistic vision, a willingness to depart from the themes and plot of the original, and the advantage of new technologies.
In truth, film is a business like any other. Hollywood moguls will do whatever they think will make the most money, which is fair enough. But you, the consumer, have the ultimate voting power in your wallet. If you wish to avoid all remakes on principle, then by all means do so. Just remember that not every film can be conveniently filed away according to category for ease of dismissal. Remake or otherwise, it is better to judge films on their own merits, rather than their legacy.
Except for the new RoboCop. Nobody asked for that bullshit.