This weekend, the 2012 remake of the 1990 film Total Recall was released to theatres… and so far, it doesn’t seem to be doing well. The box office isn’t in yet, but it’s getting thrashed critically. As of this writing, the critical rating at RottenTomatoes is sitting at a low 31%, and the audience reception isn’t much better at 56%. If only half the people watching it are liking it, it’s not being well received. And this doesn’t seem to be unusual for remakes, no matter how much Hollywood throws them out there. Psycho, Planet of the Apes, Arthur and many other films have had high-profile remakes that failed to live up to the original.
And yet, it’s not always guaranteed to be a bad thing. The Coen Brothers remake of True Grit received ten Oscar nominations. The Clooney version of Ocean’s Eleven is far superior to the Sinatra version, in my estimation and in apparent audience reception. The Departed is considered a remake of the Japanese film Internal Affairs and won Best Picture and Best Director. Even The Maltese Falcon, one of the most highly regarded films of all time, is a remake of a film made ten years earlier.
So if remakes can be good or bad, what is there to say about the process of making a remake? Since I’ve already given my thoughts on adaptations and sequels, here is more of my completely unsolicited advice to Hollywood.
Before I get into it, I want to make a quick delineation between remakes and reboots. A reboot is taking a franchise and starting over. A remake is taking a specific film and creating a new version of that film, with the same basic concept. While every remake is essentially a reboot, not all reboots are remakes. Batman Begins rebooted the Batman film franchise, but it was not a remake; it doesn’t tell the same story as any previous Batman film. The Italian Job changes some significant details of the storyline, but it’s still a remake of the 1960s Michael Caine classic, as it is still, at its core, about a group of thieves banding together for one big heist. It’s a fine distinction, especially when some remakes are closer to the original film than others, but for the purposes of this essay, I’m talking about remaking individual films, and not rebooting entire franchises (though I may revisit that notion at a later date.)
In many ways making a remake is as close to making an original movie as it can be without actually being the same. Where adaptations and sequels have guidelines that I can write up that influence whether or not they are good, what makes a good remake is essentially the same as what makes a good movie. So the question really becomes, not what makes a remake good, but what makes a remake acceptable? After all, the biggest obstacle a remake typically faces is the audience comparing it to the original film and finding it lacking — and it often faces this reaction before it’s even been seen by the audience. So here, then, are my thoughts on what makes a remake more palatable to the audience.
Meet or exceed the quality of the original film. The first rule isn’t just “make a good movie”; it’s “make a better movie” — or at least be close enough that people can argue the issue. If people remember the original film, then comparisons to it are unavoidable — so if you don’t want your film to come out poorly in that comparison, it has to be at least as good, and usually it’ll have to be better to overcome the nostalgia factor. Obviously, the worse the original movie is, the easier this will be; often, if the basic concept of a film is good, but the execution was poor, people will happily look to a remake. On the other hand, if the original movie is critically acclaimed and beloved by the public, the odds of equaling it approach zero, and the remake will likely be rejected. And then, of course, there are any number of films that are decent, but have some noticeable weaknesses that could be shored up in a remake — but the remake must shore up those weaknesses without introducing new ones of its own. If you’re remaking a science fiction film that had weak special effects, it’s necessary to both improve on those effects while at the same time not sacrificing the intelligence of the story or the quality of the acting. The differences between a remake and an original should always be a net positive for the remake, or it will almost certainly be rejected by the audience.
Changes in cultural context get a pass. Or, to put it another way, foreign films are fair game. A foreign film may well be a very good movie, and many are. But there is always a small degree of inaccessibility even in the greatest foreign film, even to the most knowledgeable and open-minded film-goer. There are different cultural idioms at play. Changing the cultural idioms to one that matches the audience can make the basic story more accessible and enjoyable for the viewers. Few westerners watching Seven Samurai will understand the cultural significance of the samurai cutting his hair as part of a ploy to rescue a child; because they lack the knowledge that the hair is symbolic of his honor, they miss the important establishing character trait that the character values the life of an innocent above his own personal honor. In The Magnificent Seven, two of the protagonists meet when they are the only ones willing to act as pall-bearers for an Indian who has died in a predominantly white town. The idea that they are willing to stand up and do what’s right, even when it’s unpopular, in the face of prejudice is readily apparent to most Americans — but may not be quite so apparent to a viewer from Japan, where the specific prejudices of whites regarding Indians are not as prominent a factor. Each film puts things in terms of its own culture, and the differences lead to them being very different films in the end result; thus, it’s arguably more accurate to say that The Magnificent Seven is inspired by Seven Samurai more than being a remake of it. The same often holds true for other cross-cultural remakes, even ones that are more directly inspired, such as The Departed; a Boston cop infiltrating the Irish mob may have the same basic gist as a Hong Kong officer infiltrating the Triads, but there is going to be a different feel to things from the cultural differences.
A forgotten original may be ripe for a remake. Show of hands: How many of you even knew that Chicago was a remake of a 1927 film? Sure, it’s based on a musical, and everyone knows that, but the story had been depicted on film 75 years prior. But there weren’t any outcries about protecting the sanctity of the original film… part of that was because it was a musical, and thus somewhat different, but most of it was because nobody remembered that there was an original to “protect”. If people don’t remember that there’s an original film, they won’t compare the remake to it; it can stand on its own (or fall on its own) according to its merits just as an original film would. The further back in history a film is, the more likely it is that people won’t object to seeing a remake — assuming, of course, that it hasn’t become a cherished classic. (Which makes it all the more baffling that Hollywood seems bent on plundering the relatively recent 1980s so heavily.)
Changing the format changes the film. Every so often a studio makes a live-action adaptation of an animated film, and there are seldom strong objections; the reverse often holds true as well. Even if they cover the same basic ground, there is perceived to be a difference between an animated film and a live-action film that makes the audience willing to gloss over the nature of a remake. This applies to other format changes as well. The two versions of The Little Shop of Horrors are both fairly well-received, and at least part of it is that the second one is a musical while the original is not. Advancements in the film medium also seem to grant forgiveness for remakes; there are more than a few silent films which have been successfully remade as talkies, and no small number of black and white films remade in color as well — though as Psycho demonstrated, this isn’t always a guaranteed success (in particular, it pays to be aware of when the director went with black and white film on purpose.) I will also say that 3D doesn’t qualify as a reason to remake a film; it doesn’t add enough to the film in the long run (with most home viewing not being in 3D) to constitute a real change in medium.
The more something is remade, the more it can be remade. While there are limits — it can’t come too often and there’s the risk that the audience may get sick of it — if something has already been remade a few times, people tend to object less strongly to another remake. This is particularly true when the films in question are adapting a work that predates film. There have been dozens of adaptations of the legend of Robin Hood, and several have been well-received; and those that are poorly-received are rejected due to their own failures rather than for being a remake. Personally, I don’t think any of them have topped the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, but I encourage Hollywood to keep trying. Similarly, King Arthur, and any other old legends continue to be fair game precisely because they have been adapted so often that there isn’t just one definitive approach to the stories.
And finally, bring something new to the table. Just being better isn’t quite enough; there has to be some reason for an audience member who has already seen the original to want to see your version of the story. Maybe it’s truer to the book. Maybe it has different plot elements, or a deeper emotional impact. Maybe the characters are played differently somehow. Something, anything, to differentiate the remake from the original film. Because no matter how good your remake is, if people feel like they might as well be watching the original, that’s what they’re probably going to do.