Miss Mary asks:

I thought of you, Patrick, when I heard they were remaking Sound of Music. My first thought was, “really, is nothing sacred?” And then I thought, I wonder what Pat thinks of the festering subculture of remakes.

Well, now, first I’m of course flattered that anyone thinks of me specifically whenever some thought passes through their head, and second, remaking The Sound of Music is probably going to be terrible.

I’m not immune to flattery, so let’s talk us some remakes.

First things first: there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of taking something someone has done and doing it again. I’m not the sort of guy who says that if it’s done already, doing it again is a waste of time. In practice it very, very often turns out that the end product was a waste of time, but it’s my own opinion that this is merely an indicator that remaking something is difficult to pull off, not that it’s a bad artistic endeavor by nature.  The frequency of failure, though, makes it seem like Hollywood ought to pay more attention to the ones that failed vs. the ones that succeed, and learn some lessons.

Remakes, good and bad, aren’t that far off the tree from “sequels to movies that weren’t originally intended to be serial movies”.  Typically, I find that the likelihood that a remake is going to be bad is directly tied to the answer to the question: “what’s the purpose of remaking the thing?”  So Hollywood… ready for some wisdom?  Here it is!

Reasons to remake a thing, or make a sequel to a thing, that generally produce really bad results:

  1. Because the previous iteration was successful and you can trade off the name.
  2. Because the previous iteration would have made a metric ton of money if only the effects industry had the technology to do it “right”.
  3. Related to the last: because the previous iteration made a metric ton of money and now the effects industry has the technology to do something “new and cool”which will drive the audience crazy and make them spend more money. Double warning if the “new and cool” is neither new nor cool. Triple warning if it’s 3D.
  4. You’re trying to fix things you think you didn’t do quite right and your name is George Lucas and it’s one of your re-editions of the original trilogy. Thank goodness this is off the table. Warning to other filmmakers, though: you could be the next George Lucas.
  5. A star vehicle.
  6. You think you can make it better, when it was already awesome. Come to think of it, there’s probably a little bit of that in all the failures. Ah, ego.
  7. You want to make an exact copy of the previous thing. Seriously, this is the worst possible reason to remake anything. Just go watch the original. If you’re not going to put something of your own stamp on it, what’s the point?

Okay, that kills off probably about 80% of sequels and remakes, right there.  So what are some good reasons to remake a movie, or make a sequel? There are good reasons to make a sequel that don’t apply to remakes (the movie was always intended to be part of a serial, for example), so let’s talk here only about the reasons that apply to remakes.  Note: none of these is a guarantee of success!

  1. The original movie was highly flawed, or even better, it was terrible, but had a core kernel of awesomeness in it and remaking it is making something beautiful rise from the ashes. You know what? I don’t think anybody has ever remade a movie for this reason – Hollywood risk aversion and bad luck superstition probably kills it – but it’s the best reason to remake a movie and someday somebody is going to do it and do it right. Think Cleopatra.
  2. The previous thing was an awesome chemical success on top of the solid bones of a decent story, and you have a chemical composition that is different and you know it will work. A great example of this could be a remake of How To Steal A Million or maybe His Girl Friday, which is actually itself a winning remake that works for just this reason. All of the candidates I can think of for this are lighthearted romantic comedies that almost touch on slapstick. This is scary ambitious, I admit, but it would be incredibly brilliant if you could pull it off. You do this only if you find the onscreen couple that is meantto do it. Well, unless you’re Howard Hawks.  Oh!  I put Sherlock Holmes in this category.  I realize that a lot of Holmes purists probably want to burn me at the stake for saying that, but I thought the Downey/Law chemistry was worth the liberties taken with the Holmes canon.  At least it was fun, and that’s all I was shooting for when I went to go see it.
  3. The original movie had a core character or core story that is timeless, but the setting of the original movie (or thing the movie is based on) is dated and inaccessible to an audience that you’re trying to introduce to the story. For an example of this, see any modern adaption of Shakespeare or any story loosely based on Shakespeare. A good non-Shakespeare candidate for a remake, here? Ladyhawke. Timeless story, pretty campy flick and oh my, the worst soundtrack ever.
  4. The original movie was really bad, and it was based on something that deserves a worthy treatment that will possibly restore my faith in a purposeful Universe. Someone, please… remake Dune. For Frank Herbert, if nobody else. Note: if the original movie was very good, but substantially different from the thing upon which it was based… be careful, here, and if you’re Tim Burton, just don’t. Maybe you can produce, Tim. Don’t get involved past that point. Everything you touch now is a Tim Burton movie… which is fine, I like Tim Burton movies… but you’re not going to make Alice and Wonderland better by making it more like the book but making it all like a Tim Burton movie.
  5. The original movie was entertaining, but it could have been much, much better. Somebody could remake Three Days of the Condor. Any and all of the sword and sorcery flicks of the 80s. Remaking Conan wasn’t a bad idea. It didn’t work well, but it wasn’t a bad idea. There’s actually a lot of fertile ground, here. But, since the original movies aren’t usually big financial successes, hardly anybody ever remakes movies for this reason. Ah, well.
  6. You want to do suitable homage to something that deserves it. This one is really tough, because a lot of people that claim this as motivation… probably deep down it’s usually closer to “make it better”. I liked Peter Jackson’s King Kong because he really did nail putting Kong on film and making him into a real character. He also allowed himself to be a little bit too much Peter Jackson in some of the side scenes that didn’t involve Kong, but on the whole it was a remake I enjoyed. Skated very close to the border, though. (For the record, I also enjoyed the previous remake of Kong that I linked above, but it was not a good movie.)

Postscript: you can retcon something, provided you retcon it just enough but not too much. But audiences get retcon fatigue. We don’t need another Spiderman or Superman or Batman origin story movie, not for at least twenty years, okay?


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.


  1. Why is it that monster movies often seem to fare best in the remake department? The Kongs; The Thing (well, Carpenter’s anyway) and The Fly; the various Invasions of Body Snatchers.

    • Usually the monster is a gimmick. I mean, it’s the gimmick that makes us go see the movie, but it’s still a gimmick.

      The hero is what makes monster movies work. “Heroes under duress” is a timeless storyline. “Only one survives” probably predates the Odyssey.

      • Man, I dunno, I’d go the other way. The monster as metaphor/theme, rather than gimmick, is what saves these. The heroes are interchangeable – seriously, I probably can’t even name most of them.

        But Kong, primitive animal/soul, decimated by soulless modernity? The Thing (infection/corruption from without) and The Fly (infection/corruption from within)? Invasion (suburban conformity, political/religious indoctrination – this one is very flexible and adaptable, which is why it has been remade beaucoup times, officially and not)?

        Or take ‘Hubris in science and its unintended consequences’ – how many times will Frankenstein and Godzilla get remade, again officially and not, and a surprising number may be OK?

        • Without delving too much into religion, I always saw Frankenstein as criticism of theistic hubris rather than of scientific. The science was sleight of hand, man.

          • Hmm, not sure I follow. Can you elaborate without breaking your own rule? I mean, sure, in the sense that it’s about the Dr. “playing god” (and then, “god” abandons/turns against his creation, horrified at what he has created). Are you kind of referring to the parenthetical part?

          • Yeah, conceptually/mythologically it’s a neat piece of work. You are right it’s not quite as obvious as it seems on surface (or at least, that there are multiple readings/layers).

          • Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s take on her own troubled husband, Percy Shelley.

          • And Prometheus, and the Golem, and…

            A confession though. I have read the book a couple times (once as a kid and once maybe 5-10 yrs ago?) and I find I enjoy the concepts more than I enjoy reading the actual story. It’s got strange pacing or structure or something, I don’t know.

          • That’s the problem with people who create genres. They generally don’t know what they’re doing.

          • Frank, in the original, wasn’t a horrific creation. The Doc was more crazed, although naive and well meaning.

          • That’s the problem with people who create genres. They generally don’t know what they’re doing.

            Hence, the remake!

        • Man, I dunno, I’d go the other way. The monster as metaphor/theme, rather than gimmick, is what saves these. The heroes are interchangeable – seriously, I probably can’t even name most of them.

          Ah, to clarify, I explained myself poorly:

          Monster stories are typically stories involving Man Vs. Something. You list a bunch of them here:

          But Kong, primitive animal/soul, decimated by soulless modernity? The Thing (infection/corruption from without) and The Fly (infection/corruption from within)? Invasion (suburban conformity, political/religious indoctrination – this one is very flexible and adaptable, which is why it has been remade beaucoup times, officially and not)?

          Those are all Man Vs. Something.

          You’re right, the character of the hero is often interchangeable, although the Heroic Trope that that particular hero character embodies is itself not interchangeable. There’s a dozen or so archetypes here and the Hero in any given Man Vs. Something story is usually one of them. Also, there’s a dozen or so archetypes on the Something side.

          The Monster Movie is about Archetype Man vs. Archetype Something. The story is in the battle, not the particular incarnation of the Hero or the Monster.

          Does that makes sense?

          This could probably be a whole ‘nuther post.

          • Assume gender-neutralized use of the word “Man” in that last comment.

          • You know what else is interesting? “Kong” is one of the earliest stories I can think of where the “Man” in “Man vs.”, is not a man, but an animal standing for a man. The monster, is the tragic protagonist.

            Now in the intervening time, we have had all sorts of stories where we identify with an animal protagonist (esp. in children’s stories – actually, Mickey Mouse started up around the same time as Kong, a few years before maybe).

            But before Kong, not a lot, unless we count folk tales like Brer Rabbit and Coyote and that sort of thing. And I guess there are stories of humans being transformed into animals, as a dramatic obstacle to be overcome (Shakespeare, Greek & Roman mythology). But the protagonist in a “Vs.” story was rarely an animal originally (though an animal could be an antagonist, like the snake or the whale).

            Does this say anything about our evolving ability to identify with non-human protagonists? Some sort of cultural shift?

            Or is it just that the advent of movie technology/animation/special effects, even in their infancy, allowed us to convincingly/semi-realistically use non-human dramatis personae for the first time?

          • Oh, no, see, I think King Kong is still clearly “Man Vs. Something”… Well, if you’re going to put King Kong in the Monster Movie category, and I don’t believe it really fits there. It’s a Cliffhanger, that happens to have a particularly big ape in it. Mighty Joe Young on Steroids. The character tropes map to the Cliffhanger/Pulp genre a lot better than Monster Movies.

            Probably because it came toward the end of Cliffhangers’ popularity and before Monster Movies really got their own gig.

            That is arguable. King Kong is complicated.

  2. I haven’t made it to the remake of Red Dawn yet, but I eagerly anticipate seeing it because I expect it to be as stupidly campy as the original. That’s all it needs to do, because the original was only a classic in its campiness.

    But The Sound of Music? Oh, my, that’s a classic. That’s as close to a perfect movie as anything ever put on film. Where are they going to find someone who can sing like Julie Andrews? Where are they going to find someone who can manage to balance just the right amount of authoritarian sternness* and loving tenderness as Christopher Plummer?

    The only proper way to remake this movie is to blow it up and start from scratch; tell the story as it really happened, while making the Nazis more frightening. But better not to attempt it at all.

    *Even though the real Georg Von Trapp was reportedly not nearly as austere.


      Man, I loved that movie when I was a kid. I haven’t seen it in a long while but I recall it having more brains than its reputation suggests (the students/guerillas don’t fare all that well IIRC, attrition getting most of them by the end; the bumper sticker with the ‘cold dead hands’ followed by a pan down to a soldier, removing the gun from the cold dead hand; the sympathetic Cuban general who has his doubts about what they are doing there).

      I guess it has a reputation for being sort of mindless jingoistic triumphalism, but I recall it being a bit more bleak and thoughtful than a teen fantasy action movie about Soviet invasion probably needed to be.

      Whoops, no politics.

      • The original Red Dawn was dumb fun until people started to take it seriously.

      • the bumper sticker with the ‘cold dead hands’ followed by a pan down to a soldier, removing the gun from the cold dead hand;

        A friend and I had a discussion about whether that was intended to be an ironic poke at certain g*n enthusiasts or praise of their stance. I’ll say no more, for fear of crossing the no politics line.

    • These were my thoughts. I heard that they are citing Pat’s good reason #3 for the remake, the movie is dated. I disagree!

      What’s next? The Wizard of Oz?!

        • See, there’s an interesting wrinkle with The Wizard of Oz because the Oz books are… well, they’re a lot more weird than most people would expect if they just saw The Wizard of Oz. This is #4.

          I don’t think this is going to work, but it’s possible. They’d have to do it right.

          • Bleg, Disney. They are not going to be anything like the books, and that is a shame.

          • I suspect you’re correct, in which case this basically boils down to a case of #1 under the reasons not to do a remake/sequel.

      • In fact, if you could set one of those sometime between Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon every week, I could get out a Thursday post regularly and Jaybird would get more time off and Mindless Diversions would be a better place.

        I dunno what my problem is recently but I need a cattle prod to get me going.

  3. Here’s the problem with the Sound of Music. Everyone remembers the opening shot, everyone remembers the songs. When you go back to watch it again, you are shocked into remembering “oh yeah… this movie had Nazis in it.”

    And then you have no choice but to remember that it had a *LOT* of Nazis in it.

    If they’re going to remake it, they’re going to have to try to remake the version that people remember on their own rather than the version that people actually saw.

    • The original movie is really long, but it’s really long in a way that works.

      I can’t help but think that they’re going to try to speed it up in pacing, though. I don’t think that will work out.

      • Take out the Nazis and turn the story into “Heidi with Siblings and Domestic Help”. Wham, you’ve shaved off the second half of the movie.

        • I guess I’m not made for Hollywood, because I’d do the opposite. I’d make the Nazi threat a whole lot more explicit, play up Captain Von Trapp’s anguish at his beloved country being taken over by such evil people, show how he plotted his escape (which was actually much more clever–he asked for time to take a vacation with his family first, which was granted, then slipped across the border), and emphasize how much they left behind, as they lost most of their considerable fortune by leaving. Show it as a man who, though part of the wealthy gentry, put principle above material possessions.

          Not because that’s necessarily a better movie than the original, but because it could be just as good a movie in a very different way, whereas re-doing the movie in the same way can only end up being imitative, rather than original.

          Or better yet, let Tarantino remake it. Nuns with machine gun legs fighting Jew hunting vampire Nazis driving deathproof cars to drug deals would be just awesome.

          • The only way I see that working is if they get rid of the musical numbers.

            (Which I can see someone arguing as necessary for the remake.)

          • Nuns with machine gun legs fighting Jew hunting vampire Nazis driving deathproof cars to drug deals would be just awesome.

            Love it, baby. Have your people call my people. We’ll do lunch.

          • Nay, Jay, the nuns with machine gun legs must be singing nuns with machine gun legs.

          • The only way I see that working is if they get rid of the musical numbers.

            Maybe if we got A Perfect Cirle to do the soundtrack. I can see Maynard Keenan covering Edelweiss. Oh yeah.

          • Perfect, Jaybird. You’re now “my people.” Call Coke-Encrusted Hollywood Exec and set up a meeting.

            No sniffing!

          • I have now in my head Anne Hathaway dressed in a 1936-era habit with the skirts tied up, fighting Steven Dorff as the Jew-hunting vampire-Nazi, hopped up on opium he just bought from Cheech Marin, inexplicably cast as a Hungarian, while singing “I shot sixteen, going on seventeen!”

            It’s the greatest thing I have ever seen.

          • There’s got to be a scene in there where Adam Sandler is dressed in lederhosen and then tied to a Salzburg street sign and whipped for a while by the JHVNs. That’ll put asses in chairs, believe me.

          • The source material for The Sound of Music was the musical, not the Von Trapp biography. So would you prefer a movie that was truer to the musical, or the biography?

            Personally I would love a movie version that put back the Countess’ songs. I would also like an Oklahoma that has Judd’s songs.

  4. I’m trying to remember the last remake that I liked. I guess Spider Man this summer. It was pretty good. The first Christian Bale Batman movie.

    The latest Bond movie really made me appreciate the way that series has gone. Not reboots, just a continuation.

    • Bond represents a unique genre in the movie universe. It’s not like anything else. It doesn’t need to be.

      • The best part of the whole movie of course was the *spoiler alert* introduction of Moneypenny at the end. Brilliant.

  5. Movies ripe for remaking:
    Great Train Robbery
    Breaker Morant
    Slap Shot
    The Conversation
    Boys From Brazil

    Movies that must never never be remade despite the temptation:
    Blade Runner
    Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
    Elephant Man
    Taxi Driver
    The Hitcher

    • I’d remove Slap Shot from that list, if only because you’d have to spend the first half of the movie explaining to the audience what “hockey” was.

    • Slap shot?

      No, because minor league hockey isn’t what it was in the ’70s/80s. The level of goonery is way way down, so the movie wouldn’t really make sense today. It’s a piece that’s totally of its era, and should be left alone as a monument of that time.

    • Movies that must never never be remade despite the temptation:
      Sleuth (dammit, too late).

    • Ugh, to Burt. When a comment is at bottom I always screw up the reply function.

    • No point in that. Disney would never let Han Solo shoot first.

      • IIRC, Han Solo didn’t shoot first. To shoot “first,” Greedo would have had to have shot back. Han shot.

        But the point is, after he killed Greedo, Han got up and cooly walked away, seemingly without remorse for what he had just done.

        That told us something about him — when we first meet him, Han is a sociopath, a creature of pure self-interest. Through sharing Luke’s struggles escaping from the Death Star, he forms a friendship and begins to grow a conscience. We see this in his awkward attempts to console Luke after Obi-Wan’s death. He fully matures as a moral being when he willingly returns himself to risk in the Battle of Yavin because of his friendship for Luke. This moral growth makes him heroic.

        Then, Lucas edited the movie so as to have Greedo shoot at Han and miss, and Han then shooting back in self-defense. In that version, Han’s encounter with Greedo is completely morally justifiable. It makes Han a Good Guy all along, but it sours the story because Han being morally good from the get-go means that by the end of the story, he has made no moral journey.

        • You are mostly correct, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call Han a “sociopath” at the beginning. Mos Eisley was a wild-west-style hive of scum and villainy, and there was no way he was getting out alive once taken to Jabba . I’d say you could still call it self-defense under that scenario (what do you think the courts/cops are like there; plus, he knew Greedo and Jabba intimately?), but it definitely shows him to be aggressive/cynical/hardened.

        • Does Greedo’s status as an alien race complicate moral status? I mean, should a humanoid feel more/less/equal remorse for shooting someone from an alien planet than one of their own kind? I think Lucas tried to remove moral complications from killing stormtroopers by the truckload by making them clones.

          Of course, when we were kids that was unclear. Many of us thought they were robots.

  6. Also I think Aubrey-Maturin series could use a reboot, either as a mini-series from the BBC, or as something more coherent than Peter Weir’s piece.

    • I read that as the Aubrey/Maturin series needing a robot, and I wondered for a second just when you’d been drop-kicked in the head.

      I thought the film was very good as a stand-alone film. Intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence. (I so appreciated that at the end they didn’t have either Jack or Steven explain, just let Jack give the order and go back to his fiddle, assuming the audience was smart enough to figure it out. Few Hollywood filmmakers would do that.)

      The problem was just that it pulled pieces from different books, and jumped into the middle of the whole story. So it was a very good seagoing/Napoleonic wars film, but not designed as something that could become a meaningful series.

      • Yes.

        But it would make a perfect mini-series, Game of Thrones style. Especially Maturin’s spying.

        • Could they really do it as a “mini” series? I think most books would nearly make a mini series of their own. If some org like the BBC could commit to several years worth of episodes, oh, that would be awesome. And then they could be chasing Americans in the Far Side of the World, instead of the French (an understandable change for the movie, but one I regret they felt was necessary).

          Agreed on Maturin’s spying. Building that part of his character would be so great.

          And their fighting over Diana’s affections and nearly coming to a duel. That could be developed so powerfully after having previously watched their friendship grow and deepen.

          • I was thinking mostly on making the mini series a book per season. (Or in some cases a couple of books per season.)

    • I think its time the Matrix series was rebooted. That thing is so old now.

  7. Finally…

    The most egregious remake of modern times may in fact be the 47 Ronin with Keanu fucking Reeves.


    Another samurai movie with a westerner, but this one can’t even act.

    • wow if Keanu was fucking Reeves i would have thought that would be XXX.

  8. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but there was a remake of Dune back in 2000. It was on SciFi and it was a miniseries, but it was decent enough. Available via Netflix on DVD only. (Probably could still use a better remake, though.)

    • The SciFi version was a much, much better version of Dune, I have the DVD somewhere around the house. It’s still not great, and it’s not as fishing crazy as the David Lynch version, that’s for sure.

      • A friend was an extra in the David Lynch version; it’s been many years and I don’t remember the terms/names, one of the wise woman amongst the desert people, because of her blue eyes. (must re-read Dune; it’s lost in the fog of disappointment induced by the follow-on books.)

        She says it was the strangest acting experience she’s ever had, in a long and strange acting career. But it also paid for several months of living in Mexico, where her parts were shot; and that means it did not pay well, and she did not get to meet Sting.

        • I WILL KILL HIM.

          (sorry, but any mention of that movie makes me say that out loud in the same awkward cadence Sting used)

          • That line loses something when not said by a stringy guy in leather battle panties.

      • Lord and Lady I loved the SciFi version of dune. For some reason I was in love with their Benejesserit’s various hats. Actually most of the costuming in general now that I think about it.

  9. There was a time when I thought that in 20 years, someone should take the Buffy the Vampire scripts from seasons 1-5 (which is where the series *should* have ended), and simply re-shoot them with better budgets and effects, as the monster effects are generally just pretty bad due to the state of the art, and the low-budgets of an off-brand network. I figured the stories were brilliant enough (well, some doctoring would need to be done in S4) that a new generation needed to discover it.

    After seeing what Lucas did to the original trilogy while cleaning up/improving the effects, even while keeping the same actors, I don’t think this anymore. The actors, and the scripts, were probably lightning in a bottle. Unless there is some way to clean up the effects, and the effects only, unobtrusively, it’s just not worth the risk of ruining it.

    I haven’t read it but Sepinwall just came out with a book (The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever) about the new golden age of TV dramas – I can’t tell you how pleased I am that even though his main thesis is that HBO shows like Oz and Sopranos are ground zero for the kind of quantum leap in serialized storytelling that has produced so much great work in recent years, he contorted his thesis enough to get BtVS in there too – because to me, THAT show was where I started to remember, for the first time since maybe Twin Peaks (and some X-Files, and St. Elsewhere/Hill St./Homicide) that TV can and should be art as well as entertainment.

    • I think TV is a whole different animal. Producers are realizing that is an incredible way to tell a long story that would never translate well to movies. Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, etc. I expect to see more fiction series and comic books brought to television in the coming years. You are also going to see more and more producers who recognize they can tell orignial stories and gamble from the start on a 5-7 year arc. Entire series runs can be planned out from day one and if done well, it’s a license to print money.

      This also makes me wonder if the reboot mania that is going on simply proves that the most creative minds in Hollywood are all in television these days.

      • I’ve been saying for years now that I much prefer to find a TV show I can really sink my teeth into than a movie, even a movie I love. Even the best film is only 1.5 – 3 hrs – there is only so much you can do to illuminate a character, or a explore theme in that running time. TV is where it’s at.

        A movie is a short story, and great one is definitely to be prized as a sort of perfect jewel-like thing; but TV can be a novel. We can appreciate a short story or movie, but we leave its world and its spell usually wears off quickly. Spending time in a novel or a TV show can change us by the time we leave it.

        • I can honestly say that with the exception of a few movies here and there (The Hobbit will be like this for me) I never get quite as excited as I do when one of my favorite shows is on the air. It’s that longterm investment that trumps any movie experience.

          • Not me. I find that long-term investment troublesome because I have too much other stuff going on. Besides, they always let you down in the end. For example, BSG started off awesomely, and progressively got worse, until at the end it was…well, for once I’ll follow my mom’s advice, since I can’t say anything nice.

            Seeing snippets here of people complaining about The Walking Dead reinforces that view. And that was a show I really was tempted to invest in.

          • BSG did what it could in its last season to pick up the pieces. The producers became aware that they’d painted themselves into a corner at some point and shaped the writing up again. But there was only so much they could do.

            Makes me appreciate the narrative architecture of Babylon 5 all the more.

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