Monday, July 23, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #13: What films should be remade?

A reader named John writes:

“There have been many unnecessary movie remakes lately, as you have frequently discussed on your blog. I was wondering if there were any movies that you feel should be remade.

With Ray Bradbury's recent death, one that comes to my mind would be Fahrenheit 451. Frank Darabont has wanted to remake that movie for years (or more accurately re-adapt the book) and I wish that he could. I am positive that he would do an excellent job with the material. The original Truffaut film has not aged well over the years, plus the story is more relevant than ever.”

John, that is a wonderful question, and I’m sure it will provoke good discussion here. 

I like and admire very much Truffaut’s version of Fahrenheit 451.  But I feel, too, that going back to the book and adapting it again would prove an interesting exercise in today’s world. I wouldn’t be debauched  by a Darabont-driven Fahrenheit 451

I’d be satisfied that -- in the hands of an intelligent filmmaker – the Bradbury material would be presented well, and perhaps, as you say, speak very meaningfully to our times: the era of short attention spans, apparently.

The great irony of our epoch is that everyone is walking around equipped with digital readers -- Kindles, tablets or IPhones -- and yet the breadth of the discourse is becoming reduced, widely, to 140 word chunks.

So I agree with you that Fahrenheit 451 might prove very timely and interesting if remade today.

My qualm with movie remakes in general is that there are so many great stories out there that have not yet been transformed to film at all.  Why not focus on some of them instead?

For instance, I’d love to see film versions of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space, Asimov’s Foundation (1951), or some of Arthur Clarke’s books, including Childhood’s End (1953) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972).

Technologically-speaking, we’re at a point where cinematic adaptations of these works could well match the fantastic imagery of the books.

This initial preference established, I also feel that some authors’ works would be well-served by intelligent and faithful remakes. 

I’m certain that no producer is racing to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ properties after this summer’s John Carter, alas, but I’d love to see At the Earth’s Core remade. It could launch a series of Pellucidar films.  In our culture, we've moved away from the brand of “lost world” story that this cycle of books represents. But done right, At the Earth’s Core could set off a renaissance in the form.

I would also really love to see a new Doc Savage film, but fear it would suffer from the same poor marketing and general disinterest that John Carter unfortunately met.  It's a "myth" that has not translated to the 21st century, sadly.  But a remake would be welcome in my eyes.

My determination of what films would succeed as remakes rests, largely, I suppose on the times. 

Right now, we’re seeing vast inequalities in wealth and opportunity here in the United States: the one percent vs. the ninety-nine percent. 

In this world, They Live (1988) and The People under the Stairs (1991) -- both of which focus on this very idea -- are certainly more timely than ever. Contemporary remakes of either would reflect the current Zeitgeist.  The problem is finding a Carpenter or Craven who can remake those films well, however.

I do try – and try hard -- to consider and respect every remake on a case-by-case basis.  But I am not enthusiastic about remakes for a two specific reasons, which I shall now enumerate.

1.  A no sub-text, no symbolism age.  Many of the remakes we see today are recasting of films from the 1970s; originals that remain rich in subtext and symbolic meaning.  I interviewed a prominent film editor working in Hollywood in 2007 who told me it is actually a rule at many studios that modern movies cannot boast significant subtext or symbolism.  He confirmed for me that scripts are written with subtext and shot with subtext…and the subtext is rigorously ripped out during the editing process.

Now, clearly, we do see some films featuring significant subtext and meaning in this modern environment. Prometheus (2012) and Black Swan (2010) are but two examples of recent films that I’ve reviewed here featuring layers of meaning.  But I believe they tend to be the happy exception rather than the mind-numbing rule.  

Accordingly, I have no desire to see lobotomized remakes of Logan’s Run, Silent Running, Soylent Green, THX-1138, Zardoz and other beloved films from this era.   

Now, if it were announced that Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Brian De Palma, or Darren Aronofsky were helming any one of these remakes, I would be excited and optimistic. I’d also take Zack Snyder or Andrew Stanton.    

But realistically…what are the chances?

2. Brand Name Theft/Artistic Hubris. In general, there’s a weird conflict happening in Hollywood right now.  Old properties are being mined deeply as “brand names,” but the artists helming these remade properties evidence zero respect for the original properties.  They don’t seem interested in adaptation, but  rather imposing their own (often bad...) ideas on a fiction-based world with an already established subset of characteristics, values and meanings. 

So long as remakes aren’t approached with some sense of respect, we’re going to keep getting ones like Land of the Lost (2009) with Will Ferrell, or the dreadful 21 Jump Street (2012), or even Dark Shadows (2012). 

These remakes appropriate a popular title, but not the artistic essence of the original property. 

I like to haul out the example of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to illustrate this point.  It gets remade all the time, with sometimes a slightly different accent or stress.  But by and large, we know what we are going to get when we see a remake of Hamlet.  The values of the original work of art remain largely intact, no matter what lens an artist uses to translate it. It's still Shakespeare, but Shakespeare through the lens of a committed adapter.

You can’t make the same statement for the remake titles I listed above. 

In Land of the Lost, 21 Jump Street and Dark Shadows the values of the original piece are replaced with entirely new values, thus making the films not valid remakes but rather mere appropriations of popular brand names.

As long as this paradigm reigns, I prefer no new movie remakes at all.  But when they come – and they will – my pledge is that I will weigh each one on an individual basis, and judge the artistic merits accordingly.

Overall, I assess that there are enough original ideas and un-adapted books out there to assure that a bad remake never again darkens a single movie screen.

And yet, rest assured, one will. Movies now get one weekend to live or die. As long as that's the case, studios are going to gird their "product" with every possible advantage.  One advantage is the all-important brand name.  It will draw people to the theaters on opening day.  Only later -- after the tickets are paid -- will the artistic recriminations begin.


  1. Theoretically, I have nothing against remakes. Great plays are done over and over in the theater with new casts, new directors, new visions. I see no particular reason why great screenplays of the past can't serve as the basis of repertory in a similar way. They can be re-imagined, or they can be redone pretty much straight. I actually approve of Gus Van Sant's experiment in remaking "Psycho" - why shouldn't a new generation of actors and technicians get a crack at that material? Rob Zombie's "Halloween" is imperfect, but especially in its opening, prequel-ish hour, offers a powerful offshoot of the original.

    Of course, in practice, as you rightly point out, remakes are frequently lazy and disappointing. But they needn't be. For example, I think that the first three versions of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" - Don Siegel's, Philip Kaufman's, and Abel Ferrara's - are all quite wonderful films in their own right, in addition to being fascinating variations on the same basic material. (I haven't seen Oliver Hirschbiegel's version, but none of us have seen the film that he intended.)

    As to the brand names issue - if this keeps up, what will the future remake from our era? Because of changes in demographics and technological delivery, none of the new television shows are remotely as numerically popular as the old ones, and therefore will not be attractive remake candidates in the future (for which we should perhaps be grateful). There hasn't been a significant new comic book universe or set of super-heroes in 50 years, since the Marvel Silver Age. Unless I'm missing something, the only significant new franchise properties are coming from children's and young adult literature - "Harry Potter," "Twilight." The makers of pop cinema and television are by and large not IMAGINING anything new. They're cannibalizing, and there is hardly any flesh left on the bones.

    Most vital theaters mix old and new plays, and some of the new plays become the great old plays of the future. American film-making today lacks that sort of balance. "New" is perceived as too risky, because no one has heard of it yet. That is such a lame and timid way of looking at things, but it has become Hollywood's way.

    1. Patrick,

      A thorough and detailed comment, and good consideration of remakes.

      I very much agree with all of your points here. I am not, in principle, against remakes...just against what I see as the tide of bad remakes serving mostly as brand name marketing (or more accurately, as brand theft). Still, my mantra is to take each one individually -- as I would any work of art -- and judge on individual merits.

      I agree with you about Rob Zombie's Halloween and extend that sense of appreciation to Halloween II. His "versions" of the franchise are not what I prefer, and not what I like, in particular, but they are the individual visions or expressions of a committed, unique artist. I'll take it! I find his films fascinating for that very reason. I prefer the Carpenter aesthetic, but I enjoy the opportunity to see Zombie get a crack at the material and see it through his own lens. I find his vision too dark for my taste, but eminently artistic.

      I also like the three Body Snatcher films you mention, and feel each boasts considerable and artistic merit. My favorite is actually the 1978 film from Kaufman. One of THE great remakes, in my opinion.

      So remakes can work, under the right circumstances, as your comment trenchantly makes note.

      The problem comes, as you say, when artists stop innovating and inventing, and just satisfy themselves with rehashing.

      "Cannibalizing" is indeed the right word, and I fully agree with you that this fear of the "new" represents an unfortunate timidity.

      Excellent comment, and great, insightful thoughts about remakes. Very well-written.


  2. Anonymous6:54 PM

    John you have extremely interesting thoughts here about remakes from the 1970s era v. today. I liked the original Fahrenheit 451(1966) and would love to see it remade in today’s much more complicated world. At the Earth’s Core(1976) would be interesting to remake with all the post-Jurassic Park CG to use. In today’s atmosphere of the 99% v. 1% Soylent Green(1973) seems to be ripe to be remade if not dumbed down, it needs the right writer-director. A Logan’s Run remake is in development for actor Ryan Gosling to play Logan, I hope it is made intelligent with deep meaning too. Silent Running (1972) was such a relevant film in 1972 that even though I was a very young boy I understood the real life Earth Day/Don’t Pollute/crying Native American tv advertisement meaning back then. Even President Nixon established the E.P.A. this being remade could be impressive with today‘s global warming/climate change situation. I agree that Land Of The Lost(2009) was totally disrespected as a SNL/Will Ferrell comedy vehicle. If and only if it had been done serious like the original (1974-1977) Saturday morning series that we had watched as boys or even the (1991-1993) follow up Saturday morning series than this Land Of The Lost movie might have been a monster Trex-size box office hit. I read at ComicCon 2012 David Gerrold is working with Sid & Marty Krofft on a novel that will be produced as a second reboot serious Land Of The Lost movie. Director Stephen Hopkins Lost In Space(1998) remake went to the other extreme by taking a family friendly franchise and going far, far too serious almost feeling like a horror Alien franchise film complete with space spiders/altered spider-Smith. On a bright note, I am looking forward to Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel(2013) because from what I have seen he has successfully set the new gold standard for the Superman franchise that was previously done in the ‘70s by Director Richard Donner’s Superman:The Movie(1978) and Superman II(1981).


    1. Hi SGB,

      I agree very much with your observations, and would hope that remakes of Fahrenheit 451, Silent Running, Soylent Green and Logan's Run could all carry on the tradition of social commentary and meaning evidenced by the originals. If they do, I have no problem with remakes made for a new generation. If not, however, I just don't see any point.

      Before your comment, I had not heard anything about David Gerrold's efforts to reboot Land of the Lost in a serious way, and it's a great idea. That series -- though cheap -- was a brilliant initiative and a clever science fiction vision. It was a travesty to turn it into a Will Ferrell comedy.

      I too am looking forward t Man of Steel. I like Snyder's work in general, and Superman is my favorite superhero. I don't feel that we need a reboot -- I'd rather have a great adventure with Superman already established. But I am optimistic about the film, and hope it doesn't get "darked down" to the point that it is unrecognizable as Superman.

      Excellent comment, as always, my friend.


  3. I loved the Land of The Lost as a kid and actually like Will Ferrell movies but honestly the remake was just plain bad. It didn't bother me just put it out of my mind as soon as possible, the Star Trek reboot however still haunts me, the script was so terrible and such a typical summer blow shit up summer movie I am still offended by it. Star Trek TOS means a lot to me, I know it wasn't perfect but it deserved better than the crap they put out

  4. Another example of using a classic screenplay as a basis for repertory is George Clooney's and Stephen Frears's live television version of "Fail-Safe." It may fall just shy of the original, but it was well worth doing. This is not surprising, because with the single, self-admitted exception of "Batman & Robin," George Clooney doesn't take on stupid projects. Talk about a positive brand identity! You tell me Clooney's involved, I'm there.

    It's fascinating to do a man-by-man comparison of the two exceptionally strong casts. One triumph of the remake is Richard Dreyfuss's portrayal of the President, which is successful precisely because Dreyfuss doesn't try to "do" Henry Fonda (which would be impossible, Fonda is sui generis). Rather, he goes back to the lines and finds something new there, something that is right for him.

    This is ALWAYS possible. A few years ago, I saw a touring production of "Twelve Angry Men" with Richard Thomas and George Wendt on its Appleton, Wisconsin, stop. That script is rock-solid entertainment and was ably performed, but one doesn't expect any surprises from such a familiar property. Nonetheless, I came out of the theater bowled over by T. Scott Cunningham's spin on Juror No. 12 (the advertising guy played by Robert Webber in the original). Cunningham found something completely fresh in the part, and I was glad to discover later that I was scarcely the only one who noticed this; Bob Verini wrote at Variety, "Perhaps best of all, because ad man #12 is so often just played for comedy relief, is T. Scott Cunningham's persuasive portrait of a slick careerist who, for the first time ever, is forced to think through life-and-death questions and is transformed as a result." (Sadly, Cunningham died of AIDS in 2009.)

    It all comes down to having a point of view. I think the only rule for re-makes, and for actors performing familiar parts, is best stated in the immortal words of Jim Rome: Have a take and don't suck.


Nemo Blogging: Mysterious Island (1961)

Jules Verne's   Mysterious Island  opens with images of a turbulent, unsettled ocean (over opening credits and a brilliant, bombast...