Remakes and Adaptations: Diminishing Returns or New Perspectives?
Each year Hollywood appears to be remaking more and more classic older films, repackaged with the glossy finish of modern filmmaking technology and tailored to the sensibilities of a new generation of movie-goers. At the time of this writing, a remake of Carrie is in the theaters, preceded by a trailer for the new Robocop which will be released next year, and the rebooted iterations of Evil Dead, Conan the Barbarian, and Footloose have all recently become available from Netflix. This is to say nothing of all of the superhero movie franchises being remade and rebooted every ten years in an effort to cash in on property licensing rights. What gives, Hollywood? Are you truly out of new ideas?

In one sense, it could be argued that the “idea-mill” has indeed run dry, but the financial realities of movie-making costs and recoupment dictate which projects actually get green-lit for the silver screen. Modern updates of tried and true box-office success stories are a smarter bet on a tens-of-millions-of-dollars investment than riskier, creative, original ideas, especially in an entertainment market that has become fractured by the rise of home theaters, streaming content distribution services and online bootlegging.
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Hollywood is engaged in business, not art, it is often helpful to remember while scratching one’s head over the new Road House remake. Well-paid movie executives don’t want to be left holding the bag when a box-office bomb costs their studio millions of dollars, so the movie-going public is left with retreads of past successes. (It is also helpful to keep in mind that the public votes loudly on this issue, by nature of what they choose to spend their admission money upon.)
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Much of the critical reception of remakes is negative and these projects are often viewed as cynical cash-cow operations -- shiny, redundant spectacles featuring today’s hot stars amid over-the-top CGI-enhanced explosions and action without regard to the nuance or craft that made the original films enduring and memorable. That may be true in a lot of cases but this is not actually much of a change from the way Hollywood has often operated in the past.
There is a long tradition of retelling stories in film going back to the serial adventures of the ’30s. One could make the argument that all art, from music to writing, etc. is actually a form of “borrowing” or reinterpretation of earlier works (Led Zeppelin’s first album consisted of all cover songs, for example. This is also true with The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and other musical icons).

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In the earlier days of the movie industry a film’s shelf life would not be extended by replay on television or video, and many were simply re-made ten years after their original release with a new cast and title. Archetypal characters, recurring themes and temporal stasis are often-occurring elements in these types of films, and hearken all the way back to mythology and oral tradition. Historically speaking, this type of storytelling often makes a resurgence during periods of social strife or transition, and perhaps this points to some uncomfortable parallels between the ‘30s and today. Maybe the current glut of remakes coming out of Hollywood is a reflection of larger cultural issues and zeitgeist happening in the country today, rather than just a commentary on the entertainment industry itself.

Aside from the issues of taste and aesthetics (and the consensus that many remakes contain neither), the exploration and study of remakes can actually generate jumping-off points for discussion in the classroom, much like the study of other types of media. There is value to be found in the comparative study of remakes and adaptations with the source material they were inspired by. Many times, a comparison of a remake that was produced years or decades after the original can yield interesting discoveries about the various cultural differences between the different eras.

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Films are time capsules of the eras they were produced in, and in addition to containing the physical artifacts (technology, clothing, black & white photography in some cases) of their day, they also reflect the cultural mores and sensibilities of the times they were produced in. Issues of race, gender, language, violence, and taboo can all be comparatively studied when exploring the differences in remakes and originals.

The ways people of different races are portrayed and interact with each other, the way in which men and women’s “roles” in society are presented, the ways in which “vice” habits such as drinking and smoking are represented (interestingly, modern movies rarely feature any characters who smoke, but if they do there’s a very good chance that they are a villain) and even the manner of characters’ dress (ie. men wearing hats, public vs. casual demeanor) can all spark conversation about bygone historical eras and the issues of societal progress and decline. Films provide us with the closest approximation that we have of acquiring a “virtual time machine,” and while they are not “reality” (any more than other forms of media are) they do approximate and reflect the times in which they were created, much like a portrait or other forms of art. We usually find that remakes feature updated dialogue and modern role portrayal to make the film current to modern audiences; the story is usually not changed very much but it is in the small, periphery details that we can observe the ways in which the society and culture that produced two different works are different from each other.


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Some remakes attempt a “shot-for-shot” recreation of an original film. One notable example is Psycho, the 1998 Gus Van Sant film that attempts to recreate via cinematic mimicry the 1960 Hitchcock horror classic. The film flopped, however, and received poor reviews. Van Sant considered the remake an experiment, and admitted afterwards that “no one can really copy a film exactly the same as the original.” In his review of the film, Roger Ebert remarked “genius resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that can not be timed or counted.”
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Aside from the change in setting from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, what is it about the films (one of which was made to mirror the other) that differentiates them from one another? An interesting analysis or student critique may be to figure out why one “works” as a film and why the other one does not.

It is important to note the difference between a sequel (a continuation of the story started in the first film) and a remake (uses the storyline of the original film with updated language and sensibilities). They are both used to expand film franchises but the remake usually features an updated tone to match modern sensibilities. One example of a film that attempts to “reboot” a franchise while simultaneously asserting itself as a sequel is Superman Returns.
This film is interesting because it was released nineteen years after the previous Superman film (Superman IV, a low-budget, box-office flop that signaled the end of the franchise) and features new actors, a new director, new art design and special effects – all things that we would see in a remake or a reboot. The plot of the film, however, picks up the storyline after the events of Superman II, with the assumption that the following two films (Superman III and IV, widely regarded as failures and the nadir of the series) would just be cast out of the movie audience’s collective memory.


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The film also borrows heavily from the previous films in the way it presents the characters (Brandon Routh doing a remarkable Christopher Reeve impression), borrows the opening title sequence and famous John Williams score, plot elements (Lex Luthor as mad land baron, the Fortress of Solitude) and even reuses footage of Marlon Brando from the first film. Superman Returns mirrors many aspects of the first film in the series, much like a remake, but advances the storyline like a sequel, all while asserting itself as Superman “canon.”


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Superman films are interesting in that there are decades of texts (comic books, cartoons, radio shows, television series) that they pull from in order to tell their story. These adaptations are remakes of a sort, and they can be seen as an intertextual assortment of media that borrow from, reference, and complement each other continually.


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Other films that can be considered adaptations of different mediums are the Zach Snyder-produced Sin City, 300, and Watchmen, all recreations of iconic graphic novels. When we compare a graphic novel to a film, we can often generate good discussions by picking out what elements remain the same or change and whether these changes improve or lessen the story. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different types of media when it comes to storytelling?

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Outside of film there is a world of TV remakes that could also be used in the same way to facilitate classroom discussions. The common theme we can use to break down remakes of any sort is: “This remake has been made to appeal to a different audience than the original. How does it accomplish this, and what can we infer about the audience from this product that is being marketed to them?” All analysis springs from this idea, and in the remake-saturated media environment we find ourselves in, there is no shortage of things to find and compare.