In a year when we saw a movie trailer become one of the most hated videos on YouTube for Sony Picture’s ill-advised Ghostbusters reboot and the only thing epic about Paramount’s re-telling of Ben-Hur was its insurmountable financial failure, there have been many decrying the concept of remakes in comment sections across the web. Remakes are seen by many as Hollywood trying, at best, to get money for old rope, or at worst, desecrating a beloved classic. With another remake of a bonafide classic The Magnificient Seven (a remake of a remake, no less) waiting nervously in the wings, do remakes deserve such a terrible reputation and are audiences truly turning against them?
Is Nothing Sacred?
As far as the history of film is concerned, no, and nor does it show remakes always produce the tawdry results people often associate with them.
Studios have been remaking films for nearly a hundred years now. The first known film that would classify as a “remake” in modern terms was 1918’s The Squaw Man, a do-over of a 1914 film of the same name which was then remade again in 1931 and all three versions were made by the legendary director, Cecille B. DeMille. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon from 1941 was actually the third movie based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel to appear in just 10 years but it is considered the definitive version now. And the list of prestigious rehashes doesn’t stop there either…
1959’s Ben-Hur, the first film to receive 11 Oscars, was a remake of 1925’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. One of the last hurrahs of the traditional western, The Magnificient Seven, was a remake of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and likewise the rebirth of the genre, A Fistful of Dollars, was a remake of another Kurosawa film, Yojimbo. Moving forward into the 21st century: what was the film that finally won Martin Scorsese his long-overdue Academy Award? His remake of the Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs.
One could argue that remakes based on lesser known films -as most of the previously mentioned were- are more acceptable and audiences only turn on those based on established classics. Well, bursting the bubble of that theory is the huge success of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book earlier this year which has not only taken nearly $1 billion worldwide but was also adored by critics and audiences alike; yet the 1964 iteration of the story is one of the most beloved animated films ever and subreddits dedicated to giving the 2016 version’s trailer a record number of downvotes were conspicuous by their absence if this was year when audiences decided enough was enough when it came to cinematic recycling.
Basically, to say that “We’ve had enough of remakes” or “They’re never as good as the original” is simply inaccurate but that isn’t to claim that studios couldn’t be choosing or handling them more carefully.
What’s in a Name?
There perhaps has never been a more vivid example of a studio mishandling a remake than Sony Pictures’ decision to try to reboot the Ghostbusters franchise this year and the overwhelming backlash the film faced was one of the most ferocious in cinema history.
Without getting bogged down in the “debate” surrounding the movie’s run up to release (the all-female ghostbusters; the joke-free first trailer; Sony’s PR machine seeming to actively bait the trolls more; etc, etc), there can be little doubt that demand or approval for a remake of a revered 80’s classic was low. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of fans who wanted to see the franchise revived and would have most likely warmed to almost the exact same film had it been branded as a sequel or spin-off but instead fans saw it as an attempt to expunge the original by directly marketing it as a reboot.
It’s a decision that has cost Sony dearly as the project was estimated to need to generate at least $300 million to be considered a success and its current worldwide gross is only about 75% of that. The franchise kickstart the studio had hoped for from it looks to have misfired as rumors abound of Sony having no plans for a sequel currently. Of course, it is entirely speculative to state that simply branding it “Ghostbusters 3” or “Ghostbusters: The Next Generation” would have given the film an easier ride and greater box office clout but there is recent evidence to suggest that a studio can get away with a reboot so long as they sugar coat it with some continuity.
You didn’t need to be a film-studies graduate to notice it wasn’t just a few familiar faces and nostalgic iconography that gave last year’s Star Wars rejuvenation The Force Awakens a feeling of uncanny similarity with a previous entry in the series. Indeed, the narrative of Episode VII followed 1977’s A New Hope‘s plot beats with a near religious fervor and yet audiences adored and flocked to it in droves. Obviously, furthering the stories of Han and Leia gave the latest entry in the saga a sense of forward momentum but in all other respects it felt unerringly like a direct reboot of the franchise’s opening gambit nearly 40 years ago.
The glowing reception given to The Force Awakens certainly creates a case for saying that audiences are more than happy to double dip on a story if it’s not seen as an attempt to rework or replace a cherished original; however, has a lesser direct remake ever really done that much damage?
So far a rosy picture has been painted of the legitimacy and appeal of remakes but it would be remiss to say the same history isn’t riddled with many that have ranged from perfunctory to downright disgraceful in reverence for their predecessors. The two recent remakes of Paul Verhoeven’s celebrated sci-fi films, Robocop and Total Recall, were rightly panned but they came and went without much fuss and left the originals entirely intact and untainted. This year’s Ben-Hur is by all accounts utterly inept and yet the Academy isn’t rushing to retroactively strip the 1959 version of any of its prizes as a result. The point being that a poor remake is generally just quarantined and flushed out the airlock in the minds of most cinema goers; seriously, who even remembers the abortive remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing (itself a remake, lest we forget) from a few years ago?
Now, could we say the same about certain prequels or sequels? Prometheus, The Phantom Menace, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Godfather: Part III have all either tainted or outright subverted the previous superlative entries in their respective series. Has a remake ever presented audiences with something as legacy spoiling as the revelation that the Force was just friendly bacteria, or that the xenomorph was conceived by incompetent scientists messing around in a biological weapons plant previously manned by flute-playing aliens?
Yes, prequels/sequels aren’t always welcomed with open arms either but they also don’t seem to generate the same level of hostility as remakes currently do, at least pre-release anyway. Fans feeling ownership of a movie and wanting to protect it is a wonderful thing that Hollywood should definitely have more respect for, but maybe remakes aren’t worth all the pitchforks and torches compared to other cash-ins that subtract rather than add.
A poor remake is merely innate compared to the original: if it can’t better its predecessor then it won’t change it. It becomes something soon forgotten and is hardly the ruin of childhoods some would have us believe. After all, a pedigree remake maybe the rarer of the species but when the unwanted runts of the litter don’t have the bite to harm their forefathers, should we really be hunting them down with such extreme prejudice?