Remakes and Reboots and Re-Dos, Oh My!
This article was originally written for The Next Best Picture
Well, it finally happened. Warner Bros. has announced a "reimagined" remake of the 1939 cinematic classic The Wizard of Oz. As expected, this was met with a series of audible groans worldwide, specifically online, where the loudest detractors can be heard most of all.
To be clear, the concept of a remake is not new. After the 1927 introduction of sound in Hollywood, many films that had previously been made silent were remade as "talkies" as a way to guarantee a film's financial success. In fact, the Judy Garland-led musical is technically a remake itself. Frank Baum's story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first adapted in 1910 and again in 1925. Both these films were much more faithful to the original 1902 novel, which means they were undeniably creepy. However, it is a miracle that both these films, unlike so many of the era, have not been lost.
Depending on the length of time between both films, whether or not the films are based on a pre-existing property, or if the film's setting/era is updated for modern audiences, not all remakes are created equal. Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (which was the best-selling American novel of its time) was first adapted into an unauthorized short film in 1907. In 1925, the story was adapted into a 141-minute silent film epic and became one of the highest-grossing films of the era. This success was repeated over forty years later with William Wyler's remake of the film in 1959, which again became one of the highest-grossing films of all time and won several Oscars, including Best Picture. But that wasn't the end. The story of Judah Ben-Hur went through various TV and video adaptations and a cinematic remake in 2016 starring Jack Huston (relative of Walter, John, and Angelica). Other beloved silent films remade in the sound era include Broken Blossoms, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, Way Down East, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Stella Dallas, and The Phantom Carriage. These films, like The Wizard of Oz and Ben-Hur, are based on pre-existing literature. Actress Greta Garbo starred in two adaptations of Anna Karenina, the Russian epic romance by Leo Tolstoy, in Love (a silent, condensed, modern adaptation of the story) and the 1935 version of the film.
In a few cases, silent film directors remade their own work in the sound era. Cecil B. DeMille did this several times with his films Adam's Rib and The Ten Commandments. Yasijuro Ozu did the same with his film Floating Weeds. More recently, Austrian director Michael Haneke remade his 1997 German-language psychological thriller Funny Games in English ten years after the original film's release. This indicates a common trend of American remakes of foreign language films. While Akira Kurosawa considered himself a disciple of western director John Ford, Kurosawa's samurai flicks were reinterpreted into the wild wild west, such as Seven Samurai (made into The Magnificent Seven) and Yojimbo (made into A Fistful of Dollars). It was unknown to me that Billy Wilder's comedic masterpiece Some Like it Hot was based on a 1935 French film Fanfare of Love (later remade in the German language in 1951), as was the comedy hit Three Men and Baby (originally a French film titled 3 hommes et un couffin).
In the early sound era, concurrent production and releases of the same film in different languages was common, with one crew filming a different set of actors interchangeably on the same set being a budget-friendly option for international markets. While subtitles were not an option at this time, the recent slate of English-language remakes of successful foreign films is understandably irritating. To quote Bong-Joon Ho, "Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." Generally, the English-language, American version of said films lack the same depth and subtly as their European counterparts, such as Downhill (a remake of Robert Östlund's Force Majeure) and The Upside (a remake of Intouchables). Even Martin Scorsese, a champion of international cinematic appreciation, remade the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs in 2007 into his Best Picture winning film, The Departed. The same can be said about last year's winner, CODA, based on the French film La Famille Bélier. Sometimes, a film remake will give viewers a glance at a familiar story in a totally new environment, era, or setting, even modifying the genre for an all-new interpretation. A prime example would be Luca Guadagnino's remake of the 1977 cult horror classic Suspiria (Guadagnino also remade the 1969 film La Piscine as A Bigger Splash in 2015). With an all-new script, style, and aesthetic, the film presented the story through a totally new lens. Other recent remakes, such as Carrie (2013), Pet Sematary (2019), and Firestarter (2022), tried to have their cake and eat it too, attempting to reclaim the glory of their predecessors while making no attempt at offering audiences an exciting new vision.
The ultimate, most idiosyncratic horror remake that almost deserves a category of its own is Gus Van Sant's version of Psycho. While Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film is based on the book by Robert Bloch, Van Sant makes no attempt at reinterpreting this story and instead gives audiences a baffling shot-for-shot remake of the slasher masterpiece. Now and then, the question on everyone's mind was, "Why?" To his credit, Van Sant has explained away the film as an "experiment." In an interview with Collider, Van Sant recounted: "It was more that during the 90s, the joke about the executives was that they would rather make a sequel than they would an original piece, because there was less risk. They would rather continue a story that's already known in the public, and they were really searching for some way to do that. Now they've found out that comics is the way to do it."
The same could be asked of a similarly ill-conceived 2005 remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, based on the 1920 silent film of the same name, starring contortionist extraordinaire and Guillermo del Toro collaborator Doug Jones as the somnambulist Cesare. The original film is considered a classic, an emblematic example of German Expression, given its elaborate, distorted set design, expressive makeup, and dark themes. This remake was apparently filmed primarily on a green screen, superimposing images from the original film to recreate its atmosphere with no attempt at innovation. Again, with a great sigh, I ask: "Why?" Not all remakes, of course, are dead on arrival. David Lynch's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune is widely accepted to be a failure as an adaption, though a worthy attempt given the novel's length and depth of themes and is now considered a sci-fi cult classic. Denis Villeneuve's version, however, received almost universal acclaim for its storytelling and visuals, conquering a novel thought once to be "un-filmable." Master of melodrama Douglas Sirk remade several films from the 1930s in the glorious Technicolor era of the 1950s, such as Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, two films originally directed by John M. Stahl. Sirk's own masterpiece, All That Heaven Allows, was closely reinterpreted by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and loosely by Todd Haynes as Far From Heaven. These three films now exist as an artistic conversation spanning decades and genre, allowing for frequent revisitation and in-depth discussion. A title like A Star is Born stands alone as an exceptional case. With four versions following the same plot in different eras and styles, the film was practically designed to be remade as entertainment evolves. I would put money on the assumption that in approximately 30 years, the story will once again be given an updated treatment.
If I were to analyze the specifics of every remake, re-do, and adaption throughout cinematic history, this article would go on forever. As established, no two remakes are quite alike. Brian De Palma's Scarface epitomized the excess of the 1980's the same way Howard Hawk's 1932 version epitomized the grime of the 1930s. I realized that Sweet Charity was a remake of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria about halfway through the tiresome musical's runtime. I could not even begin to explore the blatant cash grab that Disney Studios has been conducting over the past decade with their soulless (debatably) live-action remakes of their own intellectual property. One thing all have in common, consciously or not, is an implication of necessity and superiority.
A few years ago, director Taika Waititi, whose early work includes sharp comedies of his own creation and whose latest endeavours have been under the command of the Marvel overlords, was selected by Warner Bros. to head a proposed live-action remake of Katsuhiro Otomo's ground-breaking anime film Akira. Due to Waititi's commitment to Marvel's Thor franchise, this project has been put on hold by the grace of God. While remakes are generally based on a director's admiration for a previous project (which I can only assume is the case for Waititi), the very idea of proposing to remake a film, let alone a legendary classic, implies a belief that you could do it better. Because if you couldn't, then why make it?
There's something conceited about the idea of remaking a film. First, there is the unfounded assumption that a new version should be made in the first place, that somehow the current generation has an obligation to use their advanced intelligence to improve upon a film in some way. We are newer, therefor we are smarter, and we are better. The very proposal of a remake indicates the original version of said film is in some way lacking, that it has lost its relevance to modern audiences and that the tastes of past audiences are outdated, when in fact, the existence of a remake decidedly deflates a film's cultural currency as it has to share the stage with a shiny new model. If Waititi were to remake Akira, the 1988 original would by default become the "old" version, implying a lack of usefulness or necessity. This is exactly what happened when Stephen Spielberg decided to remake West Side Story. Now, there is the "old" and the "new," and the two will always be compared using this binary.
From the perspective of a student of film preservation, I know what happens when a film is deemed "irrelevant." Back in "the day," films became irrelevant once their profitable theatrical run was finished, and tragically, many of the art form's earliest works are lost forever due to negligence and purposeful destruction. This was especially true during the transition to the sound era when audiences no longer had any interest in silent films; there was no reason to keep them. Now, we know how terrible that has been for studying and appreciating film history, as so many works of art are completely out of our reach. With every copy of a copy of a copy produced, I can't help but fear for the status of the original as it loses its place in the cinematic canon. We cannot, and should not, eliminate the past 120 years or so of remakes because thousands of our favourite films would be lost if we did. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a film that is a remake, reboot, or sequel, but I can't help but hope that they will fall out of fashion, and the sooner, the better. If the concept of the remake was frowned upon rather than applauded, it would encourage creativity and artistic innovation rather than the laziness of relying on the guarantee of established material. As for the older films themselves, they do not need our approval or reevaluation through our modern lens to be deemed important. We must allow them to breathe, let them age, and become valued relics of the past.