‘Closer to the source material’: the new justification for a remake?
Is James Bond responsible for a new trend in remakes that purport to more faithfully adapt their source? Here’s Simon’s view on a common Hollywood phrase…
Looking back, we might just have James Bond to blame for this one. Back when Eon was looking to reboot the 007 franchise, with Daniel Craig set to take the title role, it wisely opted to film an Ian Fleming Bond book that had already made it to the big screen. Of course, that book was Casino Royale, the maiden James Bond story.
Casino Royale’s original film treatment was a world away from the 007 films that would follow. Starring David Niven as James Bond, and co-starring Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and Orson Welles, the 1967 Casino Royale was played as a comedy, and not a bad one at that.
It did leave some justification, though, for revisiting the novel and investigating its darker tone in a more formal 007 movie. The end result, Martin Campbell’s 2006 take on Casino Royale, remains one of the very best Bond movies for my money, save for a scrappy last 20 minutes or so.
What it seems to have inspired, though, is a new bit of parlance when a Hollywood producer decides to plunder the archives for another remake.
We saw it, for example, with last year’s Conan movie, starring Jason Momoa. There was an argument that the world didn’t really need a Conan remake, and the producers were insistent we weren’t going to get one. Instead, they argued, the original source material from Robert E Howard left room for another take on the character.
I still don’t think this is a bad argument. Back when the Starship Troopers reboot was first announced last year, the argument was rolled out again. And once more the suggestion was put forward that there was space for a more faithful telling of Robert A Heinlein’s novel. Ryan wrote about it here, where the case of Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale – returning to the screen as Total Recall later this year – was cited.
Total Recall, though, is an example that sets my suspicions tingling. Because, if the genuine justification here is to avoid a remake, and instead go back and do something more faithful, then why use the name Total Recall at all? It’s not as if it’s the name of the source material in the first place?
The truth is, more likely, a mixture of factors, the main one of which is trying to sneak through a remake or reimagining by any other name. Audiences show little sign of rejecting remakes, but studios are having to become savvier about selling them. And that process is clearly now beginning from the point where the relevant project is announced in the first place.
To be fair, there’s sometimes substance to the overall argument. The Coen Brothers’ True Grit and John Wayne’s version are suitably different. But it’s hard not to feel increasingly cynical when a remake of Carrie is announced, and the ‘closer to the source material’ answer is wheeled out before anyone has even asked the bloody question.
It also overlooks the fact that on many occasions, there’s a reason why a film has strayed so far from the source material in the first place. I’m a passionate believer that a book is not a film, and shouldn’t thus be treated with outright reverence. Respect, yes, reverence, no. Often, fairly ordinary or perfectly decent books have found themselves elevated by someone working and adapting the source material properly.
On the flip side, the first two Harry Potter films felt, at times, that they were acting out the exact words on the page. A bit harsh, maybe, but is it any coincidence that the best Potter films were the ones where the script was willing to go a bit off-piste?
The new takes on Carrie, Total Recall, Starship Troopers et al may turn out to be something rather special, and they may turn out to be second-rate remakes, in spite of their makers’ claims of the opposite. I don’t view them all with suspicion.
Where suspicion kicks in is in the spinning of what some of these projects actually are. And that might just be remakes by any other name…