aNothing seems to raise the hackles like the news that a film is being remade, with the idea more likely to be scorned if it is a remake of an old American classic or a rushed reboot of a modern gem of foreign cinema.
The Thing, the second remake, after John Carpenter's The Thing, of The Thing From Another World from 1951, has just been released and David Fincher's remake/adaptation of the Swedish film/book The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo followed a few weeks ago. There are plenty more in the pipeline too, such as South Korean Park Chan Wook's Oldboy in the hands of Spike Lee and Japanese manga/anime staple Akira given over to Jaume Collet-Serra. Soon we will discover who will walk in the footsteps of Paul Muni and Al Pacino to play Scarface.
Why might films be remade?
Perhaps the original has a formula proven to be successful. A good idea is a good idea. Take something strong and economically viable and repeat. Take something cult and roll it out. A name, a brand could represent the closest to a sure thing.
Films might be remade for love of the original - to be part, in retrospect, of the process of the object of one's affection, to be responsible for the extension and curation of its life. On the other hand it could be dissatisfaction with the original that drives the project - the ideas were sound but the execution could be improved upon.
Although we tend to poo-poo the idea, different countries do have different sensibilities. Remaking a film in your own language whilst paying attention to cultural nuances will engage more people. Either way, with a new director, actors, director of photography, landscape, language etc nothing could possibly remain the same.
Likewise, we adapt ourselves as receivers of signals depending on who we know is sending it. Would Exorcist II, feverish and outlandish as it is, be beloved if it were an Italian horror film? Would its oddness, borderline amateurishness, be more easily enjoyed and admired? I hazard to guess 'yes'.
Subtitles, which distract attention from the image and which turn the aural into visual, change the nature of the film more than we might acknowledge. What is written, even with an aural and acted accompaniment, is experienced quite apart to the same thing heard, responding uniquely to their unique forms and the conventional ways of interacting that appear to govern them.
Was Wong Kar Wai's first English language film, My Blueberry Nights, his least successful critically because his poeticism doesn't work in quite the same way coming out of people's mouths (frankly artificial) as opposed to written and underscoring the action with gobbets of charming romanticism? Does the brilliance in his chinese-language films become soppy and inauthentic in the simple step from those white letters (accompanied by a musical, purely emotion-infused vocal murmuring) to the aural plane? What is said tends to have more responsibility to realism and functionality.
Furthermore, and paying no heed to the snobs, there are those who find it hard to watch subtitled films and it is obvious why.
Remakes (or adaptations from one media to another for that matter) offer fascinating insights into story making and story telling. They make you think about how something is put together, about structure, about characterisation, about technique, cause and effect. These are vital educational tools for the young and old - how has Martin Scorsese transposed
The Invention of Hugo Cabret to the screen in Hugo? How has Middle Earth changed through Peter Jackson's lens? What is happening to the frameworks of Rio Bravo as it transmogrifies through Assault on Precinct 13 and the French film Nid de Guepes? How has Therese Raquin, in tone and pungent odour, been transformed into 21st Century South Korean vampire story Thirst?
Remakes, comparisons, allow us to think about the soul of the thing. To think about the craft of art. Riffs and versions on the same idea - Infernal Affairs and The Departed. [Rec] and Quarantine. Not dispiriting. An exciting opportunity.
[Rec] and Quarantine
Once a film has been remade and we have two passes over basically the same material, a HYPOTHETICAL ORIGINAL is born - a ghost but with a form. The hypothetical original exists in our mind even without a remake but a remake brings it into focus. What it is is not so much what the versions share but what they appear to be responding and commenting on. The two films are in fact both versions of this hypothetical original.
The original isn't the be all and end all, its own mausoleum. It is living. Why do Directors remake their own films? Hideo Nakata remade The Ring in America. Likewise Takashi Shimizu and The Grudge. Yasujiro Ozu remade the black and white A Story of Floating Weeds as the technicolour Floating Weeds, Michael Haneke, Funny Games. Leo McCarey's Love Affair was indeed An Affair to Remember. Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much knew it twice, and Cecil B DeMille adapted the play The Squaw Man on three occasions, in 1914, 1918 and 1931.
They want to get closer to the perfection in their heads. They want to take advantage of new technologies. The original is not the original. It is in the mind and out there like a mist. They want another opportunity to revisit the same people and places and make right. Art lets you come back and remould, albeit with new clay.
Even though Alfred Hitchcock himself remade his own films and adapted a vast amount of short stories and novels, Gus Van Sant's remake of Hitchcock's Psycho was greeted by outrage. Is Van Sant's film redundant because it is almost a carbon copy? Far from it. It is redundant because it is not a carbon copy (in terms of shots). If it were it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experiment in which variables could be studied and where the magic of film would be shown to reside between the shots and without their confines.
What is a sequel if not a species of remake?
Do remakes hold back American cinema? Are they made to bury the originality of non-hollywood cinema? Are they supermarkets stocking products you can purchase in delicatessens and selling them cheaper?
Is it vandalism?
Does it do the original works a disservice? Does it alter the brand even if the original remains untouched? Does it replace the original in the public's mind and if so, would people only be aware of the original because of the remake?
Why are commerce and money dirty words? Art has always revolved, and needed to revolve, around money as a facilitator and a spur. All artists should be penniless, destitute martyrs (warming their hands over their authentic inner voice) in their lifetimes and enjoy fame and fortune from the grave.
When we think 'remake' do we actually think that the films are re-made as if something that was sacred is now sinned against and reanimated as a zombie, abhorrent to behold? No two films could ever be the same. Swapping Peter Lorre for James Stewart, or Tony Leung for Leonardo Di Caprio, brings an entirely different colour to a character. A remake will always be worthwhile. The present doesn't change the past. A remake does no trampling and means no disrespect.
We accept countless incarnations of plays because there is no original performance, and endless repetitions of classical music written before the era of recorded sound.
Film is obviously a special case, but perhaps we could try to forget what remakes might mean and enjoy them for what they are - to use something of the approach we take when it comes to the fertile cross-germination of high art when we think of film, an art that, although it may give us pleasure, we are awfully quick to bring low.