Sunday, June 5, 2011

What is the Point of a Remake?

A few weeks back it was announced that long-stalled plans for a Seven Samurai remake were finally being put into motion, and that the classic Kurosawa tale - heralded as one of the pinnacles of the action-adventure (not just by me) - would receive its 're-imagining.' Naturally, many of my fellow bloggers turned to me, the unabashed Kurosawa fan, seeking some sort of reaction. I had little to give.

A long while back I wrote a post on the history of remakes, and why I don't let that phase me, nor define my opinion of a film. There's just no value in it. The existence of a remake is entirely superfluous when weighed against my affection toward the original. Besides, a remake for Seven Samurai already exists - the Americanized Magnificent Seven, as perfectly enjoyable and quality a remake as I've ever seen. I'll save you my ramblings on the Samurai 7 anime adaptation for the time being.

This is where I find myself torn. The thin line between remake and re-envisioning. Take the Mona Lisa for example. If I was to show up tomorrow at an art gallery with a spot on replica of the Mona Lisa and claim it as my own version, I would be run out on the heels of pitchforks and cries of anarchist. However, there's little denying that any portrait I do try and do, no matter how vague, will have derived some influence from such a well renowned work. But even still, you paint a funny mustache on Mona Lisa, and the world gives an eager grin and an accepting nod.

So I find myself asking a single question, what is the point of any remake? Is it to pay homage to the original? Bring their tale into light in modern times in the hope of exposing us to a style of storytelling we would only imagine in our sleep? Is it because the team of filmmakers scoffs at the original, and thinks they can do better? Or is it purely economical? A classic proven formula from which countless blockbusters have been derived surely must be a guaranteed large payday. However, any quick walk around Box Office Mojo will inform you that, historically speaking, remakes bomb as much as they succeed.

Even The Departed, an American Remake of an Asian thriller, which garnered a Best Picture Oscar failed to crack the top 15 of its year - though few would argue its $200m+ worldwide take is frail. Still, the fact remains that the most successful remake genres tend to be romance and comedies, not action-adventure. Not to mention I can't imagine something as internationally renowned, cherished, and with as strong a built in fanbase as Seven Samurai, not generating a strong sentiment of backlash and boycott.

So if you're going to do an homage, taking the original and giving it a new-age spin - which is what I hear this upcoming adaptation is trying to do - what is the benefit of announcing it as a remake? You're only going to fuel the anti fire, before you even try and make the film you want. Though of course I'm not condoning pulling a Fistful of Dollars where you disregard any mention at all, but it's not a bad thing to formulate your story before you sell its relationship. Especially if you can guarantee that relationship will generate a buzz of distaste. Knowing what you hope to accomplish is far more crucial to the film coming into its own, that harping on its association.

Of course, with the Weinstein's involvement rather clear, we can all imagine that the goal is to win an Oscar. Granted, if that was the case you'd think they'd aim a bit higher than the writer of Forbidden Kingdom and Hidalgo... just sayin'.

11 better thoughts:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The remakes I dislike are when a very recent (and good) foreign film is 'Americanized.' I feel it's an insult to us (we're too stupid to read subtitles or understand a culture outside of our own) and an insult to the original creators of the film. Especially when the remake is almost identical to the original, like Let the Right One In/Let Me In. I saw a preview for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo this weekend, and it's frame-for-frame identical to the original foreign film. Why remake it?

Rachel said...

I agree with Alex, those remakes feel like a direct slap to the audience, not much different from colorizing a black-and-white classic.

I'm not opposed to remakes along the grounds of, "Let's take this brilliant idea and see what we can make of it," but the filmmakers need to have some new notion they can bring to it. Not just opting for shot-by-shot remakes.

But remakes have been the life's blood of Hollywood for pretty near all its history. For example, which version of A Star is Born is the classic one, '37, '54, '76, or is it the original What Price Hollywood in '32?

cinemasights said...

Being the cynical person I am, I always imagine these remakes are simply attempts to cash in on a well-known name.

While I've certainly liked certain remake, some even more than the original, most of the time it just seems to be motivated by money.

It also seems a lot easier to just take an already well thought out story and simply rework it.

Then again, in some artistic circles, this isn't frowned upon at all. No one complains that a good chunk of theatrical productions are based upon old plays, just brought to life with a new cast and crew, and how many TV series return to stock formulas that people still endure watching in show after show?

Univarn said...

@AlexJ I agree 100% - Perhaps the greatest criminal of this act was Quarantine - remake of the Spanish horror film Rec - besides American accents and about 2 minutes of exposition in the middle and end, they didn't change a single shot. And their changes took all the mystery out of it.

@Rachel Exactly my point. I've never held grudges for remakes, but so many seem misguided, and unaware of the audience they are playing towards. Remakes have been around since the dawn of cinema, dating back to silent film era.

@Cinemasights It does seem strange that plays, TV, and movies seem to have the market cornered on remakes. Sure, I don't deny books have lots of similarities and heavy allegories to past work, but you don't see people at Barnes and Noble trying to market their 'new' book called The Iliad where they've changed all the names to more American sounding ones like Steve and Joe. Perhaps that's because books are more sneaky about it?

Mike Lippert said...

I think the thing about the "Americanizations" is that the mentality is to strike when the iron is hot. It makes sense from a financial standpoint. Everyone and their best friend has read, is reading or will read Girl with the Dragon Tatoo and the simple reality is that not everyone likes subtitles so, common sense says remake it.

I know all the argument for and against and both sides are fair I think although I don't take Americanizations personal because just because I've gone out and seen Let the Right One In doesn't mean just everyone will have because it appeals to a niche market, although it's not a good example seeing as the remake bombed.

What's interesting is this 7S remake begs a couple of questions such as: 1)who will this appeal to? Calling it a remake will mean nothing to those who have never heard of Kurosawa, have never read subtitles and don't know black and white is how movies should be, so where does someone see the money? 2) If it's not to put the name on it, why bother at all?

The interesting things about remakes though is that sometimes they do bring something magical to live. Kurosawa's movies defined 2 genres: from Hidden Fortress comes Star Wars and from Yojimbo comes the Spagetti Western. All of a sudden remakes aren't so bad.

I'm kind of rambling now and don't know if I had an overall point other than I don't love and I don't hate remakes. The only insight I have is when they work they work and when they don't they don't.

On that note, I once thought about making a list of classic movies (or even just Kurosawa) and picking a director who I'd want to see remake it. I call Scorsese for High and Low and Tarsem for Ran.

Rich said...

If I were to remake a movie, I'd take a movie with a good premise, but for whatever reason, had a flawed execution. Maybe there were budget problems, maybe the director or actors just weren't very good, whatever. That way you can only improve on the original.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

The term "remake" immediately sets you up for defeat because it sounds like if the intent is to redo the original. For me, if you're doing a movie that's already been adapted from another source material (like a new version of The Godfather, originally based on a novel) or if you are adapting an original film it's because you have something to say. People are different, so I'd assume what they have to say is different and new, in some vague way. If you have nothing to say, don't "remake".

Univarn said...

@Mike Well, lately their choices in what films to "Americanize" has been a bit off. Quarantine couldn't escape $30m, Let Me In bombed at $12m. I can't imagine Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fairing much better. Oh, and on your Kurosawa note - I'd slide Scorsese over to The Bad Sleep Well instead.

@Rich Well put, but unfortunately Hollywood doesn't like to gamble on failed realizations.

@Andrew One of my main points, exactly. There's so much backlash that comes from remake, I don't see the value in them using it if their plot is basically going to be something entirely different anyways.

Dylan said...

In regards to your question about saying remake, I'll say this: any press is good press, and you're aware of the fact that there's a Seven Sam remake. Would it be so if they were doing a thinly veiled reinterpretation or something like that? Possibly - I don't know.

James brings up a great point. Cover songs, or even entire albums of cover songs, are often welcomed with open arms. The TV/theater comparison is solid as well. Perhaps the difference is the ratio of original:non-original entities? Hollywood has had a reputation for being unable to put out original fare for decades now, and every time "remake" is uttered, we've been trained to groan, even though, as you say, there's quality to be found. Were the remakes fewer and further between, we might not get so angry with them.

Dylan said...

Oh, and I forgot...it's all about the money. :D

Univarn said...

@Dylan I've always disagreed with the notion that any press is good press. Unless of course you're a soulless being who prays on seeing you're name in headlines and could care less that the following words are 'bankrupt.' In that case, good on you.

I think we all know remakes are all about the $$$ - but I'm saying if you look at the way remakes generally play out in theater, they're not the most consistently bankable category. Especially not remakes of foreign films. Unless of course you're turning a Kurosawa film into a western...

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