What was old is new again as the latest slew of remakes find their way to the big screen. At its most flattering, a remake retells an important story for a new audience and with a new, “modern” sensibility. Too often, though, remakes represent a lack of originality in the studio system.
Will this year’s crop serve a higher purpose, or is it just another year of cashing in from lazy studio execs?
Let’s get speculatin’!
What makes the original a classic? Orson Welles did it first on film in 1948 with a theatrical flair. Roman Polanski did it in 1971; his version is noted for the violence and never-changing pointlessness of the succession of kings. As recently as 2001, Scotland, PA made the art-house rounds featuring the family-run fast-food restaurant McBeth’s. “The original,” though, was first staged 400 years ago, before cameras were allowed in The Globe.
What could a remake possibly have to offer? Shakespeare is timeless. Whether you stage it in the period or modernize it, audiences will respect you, and you won’t have to write your own plot. Director Geoffrey Wright (who cast Russell Crowe as a skinhead in 1992’s Romper Stomper) sets the action in the underworld gangland of Melbourne, Australia. That’s good news for fans of action and gore, and for those who think Polanski’s version was too tame.
What will the remake probably get wrong? Preliminary reviews from Australia and Toronto praise the movie’s strong opening and well-made action scenes, but lose enthusiasm when discussing the drama and the characters. There’s more to Shakespeare than who kills whom.
What makes the original a classic? Three words: Pamela Sue Martin. Plus the original TV series was fun and, like the Harry Potter book/movie duet of today, it encouraged kids to read. Of course, before Pamela Sue Martin, there was cute little Bonita Granville who starred in four movie mysteries for Warner Bros. - Nancy Drew - Detective (1938), Nancy Drew - Reporter (1939), Nancy Drew - Troubleshooter (1939) & Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939); all of which were quite popular with teenage girls in their day.br> What could a remake possibly have to offer? Word has it they’re sticking to the “true” Nancy Drew. In this day and age when young girls look up to the likes of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, any movie that shows a young female character using her brains and packing a moral compass is something to look forward to.
What will the remake probably get wrong? Wholesomeness does not have to be nerdy or boring. Fingers are crossed that this Nancy Drew will make smart, hip.
What makes the original a classic? A classic horror film needs two things. First, it needs to be genuinely scary. Second, it needs a moral subtext that offers some sort of critique of the times. The original had both. Our protagonists had to stay awake and keep running lest they become infected and turn into pod people, exact replicas of themselves but without the soul. Made in 1956, the “conform or die” message resonated as an anti-McCarthy statement. On top of that, the movie was a surprisingly deep exploration of the very nature of identity.
What could a remake possibly have to offer? There have already been two successful remakes. The 1978 version (with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy) takes the question of changed identities and psychoanalyzes it, which resonates with the “Me Generation” aspect of the 1970s. The 1993 remake, directed by Abel Ferrara, focuses on a girl living with her new stepmother on a military base. Who better to face the pod people than someone whose mother has been replaced by another woman, and whose community is already populated with conformity-minded identically-dressed soldiers?
Judging by the success of past remakes, body snatchers are fertile ground for good horror movies. Oliver Hirschbiegel, as director of Downfall (about the last days inside Hitler’s bunker), showed that he could portray the evil that men do without dehumanizing the evildoers. He showed that the greatest monster of the twentieth century was just a man. Perhaps The Invasion will further blur the line between “monsters” and men.
What will the remake probably get wrong? Unfortunately, it appears that action directors James McTiegue (V for Vendetta) and The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix) were brought in to re-shoot parts of the film. The creep-out effect of body snatchers has everything to do with the subtle psychological drama (this time around, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig play psychiatrists), and zero to do with fantastic explosions or slow-mo martial arts moves. It sounds likely that clueless executives tried to turn a smart thriller into a dumb action movie. Unfortunately, the buzz from advance screenings has pronounced this one lifeless.
What makes the original a classic? This is the one that started it all. In this case, “it all” is the mad slasher genre. Plus it launched the career of Jamie Lee Curtis and added the term “scream queen” to the American lexicon.
What could a remake possibly have to offer? In retrospect, John Carpenter’s movie had more in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s macabre work than the numerous sequels and knockoffs it spawned that increasingly took a more and more gruesome route. If Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects) can show restraint, he could make getting scared fun again.
What will the remake probably get wrong? Given that it’s directed by Zombie, this movie could easily be a trainwreck. And if Zombie has the nerve to not use the original creepy theme music, fahgedaboudit.
SHORTCUT TO HAPPINESS
What makes the original a classic? The Devil and Daniel Webster is a charming and sprightly retelling of Faust. The movie packs a lot of talent (although it might take a dedicated TCM fan to appreciate). A young Robert Wise edited the film (he would later direct the masterpieces The Sound of Music and West Side Story). It was photographed by Colorado-born Joseph H. August, twice nominated for Best Cinematography (although not for this film). Actor Walter Huston was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of The Devil. And Bernard Herrmann actually won the Oscar for his musical score.
What could a remake possibly have to offer? The great Sir Anthony Hopkins as Daniel Webster. And stories of men selling their soul for fortune and glory are timeless.
What will the remake probably get wrong? Alec Baldwin directing Jennifer Love Hewitt as The Devil. Besides, this movie has had a devil of a time making it to the theater. Filmed in 2001, it’s been kicked around for the past six years while looking for a distributor to save its soul.
What makes the original a classic? John Waters had made a name for himself as a director of admittedly bad taste. But in the 1980s he made a play for respectability with movies that were not rated X or R. The best of them was Hairspray, starring a chubby Ricki Lake as an ebullient girl who wants to dance on a 1950s teen TV show in Baltimore. Longtime Waters collaborator Divine hammed it up in two roles while Deborah Harry played the cold, calculating villain. Jerry Stiller, Sonny Bono, and Ruth Brown round out the inspired cast. The bulletproof theme of racial harmony polished the squeaky-clean sheen of the bubble-gum movie; only those who know Waters’ earlier work would see the irony and the grit in this preternaturally peppy film.
What could a remake possibly have to offer? For one thing, this “remake” is actually the movie version of the Broadway play, which in turn was based on Waters’ movie. What this offers is the possibility of giving Waters’ work a much bigger audience. After all, this version comes packaged with John Travolta (in the role originated by Divine) and Queen Latifah.
What will the remake probably get wrong? It’s a fine line moving between screen and stage and back again. What works in one medium doesn’t necessarily translate to the other, but it’s a gamble that’s becoming more and more common. See Legally Blonde and Spamalot on Broadway right now; Xanadu, The Addams Family, and Spider-Man (with music by U2’s Bono and The Edge) are on the horizon. If Adam Shankman, who’s to blame for Vin Diesel’s singing career rise and fall in The Pacifier, by the way, doesn’t capture the quirkiness of the source material while bringing something new to the table, then no amount of Alberto VO5 will entice people into the cinema.
What makes the original a classic? We started with Orson Welles, so it’s fitting that we end with him, too. If The Transformers: The Movie is remembered for anything, it’s that it was Orson Welles’ final role (poor guy). So maybe “minor classic” is a better term to describe the this one (and its animated TV series progenitor).
What could a remake possibly have to offer? Beyond resuscitating a toy line? Hopefully this live-action rendition will be a wonder of the imagination that brings a new-millennium savviness to an old ‘80s concept.
What will the remake probably get wrong? Even though it’s a Steven Spielberg production, it’s directed by Michael Bay. That undoubtedly means lots of big-money special effects, huge explosions, logic-defying action sequences, and not a heckuva lot in the way of fun.
Those are the big ones for 2007; next year’s docket is even more intriguing with Fahrenheit 451, Sleuth, When Worlds Collide, The Lodger, and the return of Maxwell Smart all in the pipeline.
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies