Movie remakes are certainly not new.
Remakes have been around since 1914. Cecil B. DeMille, one of the greats of American cinema, remade his first film, The Squaw Man (1914), twice in 1918 and 1931. DeMille frequently remade his own films; the Academy Award-sweeping biblical epic, The Ten Commandments (1956), which famously starred Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, was a remake of his similarly-titled 1923 silent film.
The past few years have seen more remakes than at any other point in history, in a trend that even average moviegoers have started to notice.
Mining for nostalgia, the film industry has seen the number of remakes, sequels and adaptations steadily increase by an incredible 700% in the past 25 years. 2018 alone saw 16 remakes.
Novelist Stephen King is no stranger to this trend: 2019’s Pet Sematary, a remake of the 1989 adaptation of his book, marks a renewed attempt to tap into King’s special brand of 80s horror, along with the It movies, the Carrie movies, and most famously, The Shining and its sequel, Doctor Sleep.
But what good are remakes, really?
From a purely business perspective, remakes have been integral to the film industry for the past century, propping up and in some cases, revitalising the film industry whenever filmmakers’ originality flagged. From a purely creative perspective, though, the outlook is a good deal more iffy.
Take King Kong, for example. Considered one of the greatest films in history – deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” by the United States’ Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry – the 1933 monster movie has been remade three times.
The first remake in 1976 by John Guillermin was no bomb. The seventh-highest grossing film of that year, it won the Academy Award for best visual effects and was praised by various prominent critics and newspapers, notably The New York Times as a “dazzling display of what special-effects people can do when commissioned to construct a 40-foot-tall ape who can walk, make fondling gestures, and smiles a lot”.
Critics were less generous, however, with the direction and acting. “The original Kong took itself seriously; and so, even now, 43 years later, do we?” wrote Gene Siskel in his Chicago Tribune review. “But the kidding around in the new film, though frequently amusing, knocks down the myth its special effects staff has so earnestly tried to build.” Film historian Leonard Maltin was harsher in his take, saying the “addle-brained” film “dispels all the mythic and larger-than-life qualities of the original with idiotic characters and campy approach”.
The general consensus, in other words, was that the movie really only served to retell the story with the most stunning special effects the technology of the time had to offer. It is a sentiment movie enthusiasts today should be very familiar with, considering how extensively computer-generated special effects are used in film today.
And therein lies a question central to the debate: are remakes merely opportunistic cash-grabs by greedy film studios, or are they useful in reintroducing classic stories to young viewers today, making originality a necessary sacrifice?
On one hand, you have good remakes that add to and retell good stories. On the other, you have movies like the 2016 Ghostbusters remake; the movie replaced the cast with an all-female one that, though well-cast, was generally considered by critics to be a waste of talent on an unevenly-told and uninspired script. The reboot did so badly that Columbia Pictures abandoned plans for a sequel and decided to continue the original two movies with a third, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, to be released in July this year.
Point is, remakes will always be necessary to cinema. They’ve been around since the beginning, and contrary to popular opinion, are constructive in reworking and retelling good stories for new audiences. The many remakes of classic stories such as Scrooge (seven remakes based on Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol) and Seven Samurai (three, based on the 1954 epic by Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa) prove you can skin a cat in enough ways to keep audiences’ curiosity satisfied.
The Future of Cinema
We can’t deny that remakes have oversaturated the market in the past few years, what with Disney and its chokehold on the film industry. But then again, we’re equally to blame for how things are. On one hand, we moan about unoriginality and Emperor Mickey’s liberal application of the Galactic Empire’s playbook in his conquest of cinema. On the other hand, we throw our money at cinemas every time they announce yet another remake.
Maybe it’s time for us to just stop buying tickets to remakes, and force studios to have a good hard look at what audiences really want. Or maybe our new hope for originality lies with indie filmmakers and streaming companies. Maybe they can loosen Disney’s hold on the industry, and continue a now-increasing trend of original digital movies. And when we have exhausted our current reserves of creativity, remakes can return. It’s a pattern much like breathing. Perhaps it’s time to exhale.
This article is an excerpt from Unreserved’s March 2020 issue from the article Film Remakes: The Fight For Originality.