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:
- Because the previous iteration was successful and you can trade off the name.
- Because the previous iteration would have made a metric ton of money if only the effects industry had the technology to do it “right”.
- 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.
- 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.
- A star vehicle.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?