Hollywood doesn’t like to take risks. Producers can be cheap and greedy. If something works, they’ll beat it into the ground until it stops making money. And the sky is blue.
The number of articles claiming sequels and remakes are killing Hollywood is staggering. They argue the cure to everything that ails the film-making industry is simply to never make another franchise again. These arguments tend to hearken back to the golden years of the 1970’s. They throw around luminary movies like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Alien, The French Connection, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, we forget most of these films spawned quality sequels of their own.
In fact, the internet exploded in an uproar when a Scarface remake was announced a few months ago. How dare they remake the 1983 classic? How dare they challenge the iconic Al Pacino role that defined villainy for a generation?
Oh. Whoops! The big problem is the 1983 film was a remake of the 1932 classic in which Paul Muni defined villainy for his generation. Viewers love the 1983 film so much they forget it ends with a dedication to the original’s director. In fact, in an American Film Institute poll of 1,500 creators in the film community, the 1932 version was named the sixth best gangster film of all time. The 1983 version was a respectable 10th.
We all like to complain about remakes until something we love comes up: John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Fly, The Ring, Ocean’s Eleven, The Birdcage, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and even The Ten Commandments. Then, the object of our fondness is somehow an exception, or we make overly complex rules that exempt the thing we love. The reality is we end up arguing, “Remakes and sequels are killing Hollywood…except for the ones we like!”
Remakes and sequels are in film-making’s blood.
There were countless early film adaptations of The Wizard of Oz, at least nine of which received a theatrical release before we got the Judy Garland classic. A new version had visited theaters every two-and-a-half years before the 1939 musical many of us grew up on.
You think that’s impressive? Between 1908 and 1923, at least 73 Sherlock Holmes films debuted in theaters around the world. That’s nearly five per year. Granted, many of them were shorter than what we’re used to today, but even the most conservative estimate gives us 112 films that feature Sherlock Holmes as the lead, to say nothing of at least 28 TV movies, 17 TV series, 18 video games, and thousands of radio plays following the character’s adventures. We may think James Bond was the first deathless film hero, or that Marvel’s doing something new with The Avengers, but for all their crossover success, they’ve got nothing on Sherlock. Now, I’m willing to tell Benedict Cumberbatch he’s not allowed to play the character anymore, but you’re going to have to tell Martin Freeman about not playing Watson because that man can pout.
Remakes even give us whole new genres: Westerns would have died out with John Wayne and Gregory Peck as simple tales of the good, the bad, and the stodgy. Instead, The Magnificent Seven remade Seven Samurai and A Fistful of Dollars remade Yojimbo. Both remakes transported us to a very different Wild West, where “good” was relative and motivations were personal. The original films they were based on were both directed by Akira Kurosawa, and an unofficial reinterpretation of his The Hidden Fortress would later rewrite our understanding of science-fiction: George Lucas’s Star Wars.
If you want to criticize studios, do so for focusing too much on flash and CGI and shallow characterization. In fact, look at the best action films from the last three years. Mad Max: Fury Road is the best this year has to offer, and it’s the fourth movie in its franchise. What it does successfully is push CGI into a supporting role in favor of live stunts and an important social theme. Last year’s best action movie was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to a reboot. Although it relied on motion capture CGI to depict its apes, the visual effects were used in service to the film’s characters and its anti-war message. Most of the film was about characters talking to each other, often in sign language. In 2013, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire avoided action until more than halfway through the film, choosing to focus instead on political maneuvering and characters’ emotional struggles. Make-up and costume design took center stage over any CGI.
Movies just wouldn’t be the same if remakes weren’t allowed. It’s in our blood not just to tell stories once or twice, but to retell them and re-frame them. Furthermore, our anger at remakes and sequels seems to be reserved for film alone among all creative arts. Literature relies on sequels and reinterpretations. Television wouldn’t function without series. Video games are reliant on established franchises. Comic books have dozens of versions of each major character, occasionally occurring simultaneously and even meeting each other.
Heck, the first great sequel to be more popular than its progenitor is Homer’s The Odyssey. And do we really think Homer was the first one to tell the story of the sacking of Troy in The Iliad? Our best estimates say the earliest Homer may have been alive was more than 150 years after the fall of Troy. He was the re-teller who captured an audience’s emotions the best, or maybe just the first to brand himself so successfully. The point is, what we’re taught as the foundation to Western literature consists of a remake and the sequel to a remake.
So I’ll go further than what I said earlier. Sequels and remakes aren’t just in film-making’s blood. They’re in the blood of storytelling itself at a fundamental level. Our favorite stories in life are retold again and again. If we have an adventure worth having in our own lives, we often seek to repeat its magic later. But sequels and remakes? To tell human beings to stop making those is to tell them to stop telling stories altogether.
Are sequels and remakes the bane of your existence? Or do you think the furor over them is misplaced?