Sort of An A-List: Remake Variations
By Sean Collier
December 9, 2008

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What with the unnecessary, Keanu-saddled remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still out later this week, I thought it'd be as good an idea as any to do a Best Remakes A-List. For the most part, these films are maligned, and rightfully so; there's an inescapable pretension involved with taking a classic, seminal work, and thinking you can somehow improve it. But still, there had to be enough decent efforts to fill a column, right? Seriously – I only list six movies here.

The remake explosion of the past decade has commonly been attributed to "Hollywood running out of ideas." There is certainly ample evidence to back up this statement - one need only take a look at the yearly box office champs over the past two decades. Eight of the ten '90s champs were original concepts – movies that were not part of a franchise, sequels, or remakes. (No, The Lion King does not count as a Hamlet remake.) Since 1999, however, every box office winner has been part of a franchise (either Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, or Mission: Impossible.)

To make the no-new-ideas claim is something of an oversimplification, though - there are plenty of new ideas, some good, some bad. There's a nation full of aspiring screenwriters all too happy to show you their fresh, edgy script. It's not that Hollywood got less creative – it's that the studios started taking fewer and fewer risks. A remake has a huge built in audience – devotees of the original or the franchise, and the million comic book guys who will buy a ticket just to more eloquently decry the film.

However, while remakes have become the biggest tickets around over the past ten years, they are nothing new by any stretch. As soon as there were films, people made them again, predating the studio system itself. Filmmakers love films, and have never been able to resist putting their stamp on a beloved story. Furthermore, the variety of remakes is much greater than many people realize, and the motivation behind calling a mulligan on a film or series varies widely.

Accordingly, it occurred to me that "remakes" as a category for an A-List was actually far too broad. So this week, I thought I'd break down the many faces of the remake, while providing an A-List example of each. Each one of these categories could probably have its own best-of, so when I mine this column for ideas down the road, pretend like I'm not just stealing an old idea. (A little remake humor, there.)

With yet another humble appeal to always Netflix the original first, The-A List presents Remake Variations.

The Early Hollywood Remake – The Maltese Falcon

Through the silent era and into the 1930s and 40s, remakes were common. Contrary to the current habit of remaking hits from the past, however, many remakes during this period were instead attempts to improve on a good concept that fell a bit flat. There are few better examples than The Maltese Falcon, as the iconic 1941 version of the film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, holds a rightful place on many greatest-of-all-time lists. Far from a brand new concept, John Huston's take on the Dashiell Hammett story was actually the third variation on the tale within a ten-year period. The two earlier films – a 1931 effort of the same name and 1936's Satan Met a Lady – didn't come close to capturing the intrigue of the story. Huston got it right. If you're curious, though, most DVD releases of the 1941 film contain all three offerings.

Same Director, Second Try – The Man Who Knew Too Much

While it's not as common now (outside of the horror genre,) there is a history of directors making the same movie twice. An Affair to Remember, for example, was not only a direct remake of Leo McCarey's earlier Love Affair – in fact, the two films actually used the same screenplay. A less repetitive – and in my mind, better – example is Hitchcock's second try at The Man Who Knew Too Much. While both films are excellent (I recommended the first version in an earlier A-List,) Hitch blended old and new excellently with the 1956 version of the film, keeping the set pieces that worked well, ditching those that didn't, and staying true to the spirit of the first film while deepening the intrigue.

Better Climate - Scarface

While the 1932 version of Scarface enraged pre-code censors and was plenty violent in its own right, there was a lot more you could do on a movie screen in 1983. Brian de Palma's campy Floridian gangster epic is an orgy of violence, soaked in machismo and hard to watch to this day. This is another popular reason to make a movie again – the feeling that it'd just be better the way we're doing things now. The argument for which version of Scarface is superior is an often bitter fight, and the new version has plenty of detractors, but Pacino's over-the-top performance is undeniable. The two versions of Cape Fear are another example of this train of thought – events and sensibilities change, and the same story can look much different with a few decades in between.

Americanization – The Ring

The Japanese version of The Ring was a smash hit with a great concept. The highest-grossing horror movie in the history of the nation, Ringu threw something new at audiences – the concept of being sucked innocently into a fatal curse for nothing more than watching a video. The story was a can't-miss prospect, but Japanese horror just doesn't play quite right in America – the cultural differences are too great. Hence, Americanization. I stand by the opinion that Gore Verbinski's 2002 version of the film is one of the best horror movies of the decade, even if it did start about ten dreadful trends in 2000s horror (if I see one more creepy blue child, I'm going to stab somebody.)

Homage – Far From Heaven

Many would argue that Far From Heaven is in no way a remake of 1955's All that Heaven Allows, and to be fair, the films are much different projects. While the 1955 Douglas Sirk film was a syrupy, heart-wrenching romance about class and love, Todd Haynes' 2002 film pitted Americana against interracial romance and closeted homosexuality. However, Haynes' film is admittedly an homage to the style and tone of Sirk's films, and both plots revolve around an unacceptable romance between a housewife and a gardener. Far From Heaven is an excellent example of how old ideas can be used well – taking a film from the past and creating a variation on a theme, rather than simply doing the same thing again for no clear reason (Gus Van Sant, I'm looking at you.)

Series Relaunch – Casino Royale

When sequels start pushing double digits and the concepts of a franchise have been played out for more than one generation, it's time to start over. This applies to a wide variety of series, though they're mostly genre films. Batman movies needed to get serious again. Star Trek desperately needed fresh blood. Audiences finally figured out that nothing has changed in the past seven Friday the 13th films. The best example of this philosophy, however, is Casino Royale. Bond was a relic, lampooned thoroughly and no longer of interest to anyone but franchise devotees. By turning the superspy into a human and dispatching with a good portion of the swagger, Casino Royale revitalized the franchise, even if Quantum of Solace was a letdown. The series couldn't have survived without remaking a mostly forgotten entrant, one of the least Bond-like stories in the arsenal.