If the film industry had a mantra it would be: “if it ain’t broke, remake it”. As long as cinema has existed so have remakes, recycling popular books, films and musicals to feed the appetites of audiences hungry for familiar big-screen fare.
The reuse of creative material comes in so many forms, and it’s pointless to try and distinguish between them. Whether it’s an adaptation, a remake, a reboot, a reimagining, a sidequel (The Bourne Legacy), or whatever ludicrous name you want to give it, the principle is the same. At its least dependent, this could be something like Dr Strangelove, which was based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, and at its most extreme something like the shot-for-shot remakes of Funny Games and Psycho by Michael Haneke and Gus Van Sant respectively. There is no hard and fast rule about the quality of such films, but my choice of examples here should speak for itself.
Dr Strangelove is an acclaimed film and a successful adaptation because it had something new to say about its source material. Stanley Kubrick retained most of the plot except for one crucial change to the ending and a change in tone. In Red Alert, the bomb fails to destroy its target, unlike Kubrick’s more darkly satirical version where the world is pushed to the brink of apocalypse. When the source material is one part of the director’s overall vision rather than its foundation, the result tends to be much richer, inventive and worthwhile.
On the other hand, you really have to wonder why Haneke and Van Sant bothered to get out of bed and film their remakes. The 1998 version of Psycho is such a slavish imitation of the original that the only skill present is in how accurately the cast and crew have followed Hitchcock’s vision. Van Sant bizarrely justified his decision as an “anti-remake statement” which he expected to become “a huge blockbuster”.
Instead, you have to ask why audiences would bother to go and see a film that prides itself on being a carbon copy of Psycho. Why not just watch the original? Haneke’s remake is arguably even more baffling, as he doesn’t even have the flimsy defence of wanting to recreate the work of a legendary director. Instead, his 2007 version of Funny Games is an English language version of the film he himself had written and directed nine years before (he made the English language version because, apparently, he thought it would get a wider audience with English speaking filmgoers. It didn’t quite work out). If he was trying to improve on the lukewarm response his original received then he failed, with the new version faring 9% worse on Rotten Tomatoes.
Films like these are the exception rather than the rule in Hollywood. Executives love greenlighting remakes and adaptations because they are guaranteed a certain level of financial security. For example, even with the budget of $385 million for the Twilight Saga there was never any real risk in producing it, particularly the later films. Predictably, die-hard fans of the books flocked to the cinema, creating a total box office revenue of over three billion dollars. Although the films were critically panned, it’s hard to see production company executives caring much with that amount of money pouring into their bank accounts.
Suddenly, in the last few years, things have started to change. Not in the fact that things are still being adapted and remade, but that now, their destination is that shiny screen in your front room. Once upon a time having your favourite TV show turned into a film was the holy grail but now television is taking over. A&E recently announced that they would be broadcasting Bates Motel, a contemporary prequel of that much-flogged dead horse, Psycho. After watching the trailer, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the series might have potential. It stars Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, and shows signs of exploring the famous oedipal relationship between Norman and his mother in an exciting new way.
It’s unlikely to get anywhere near Psycho in terms of quality, but then few TV shows or films ever will. Instead, it has a chance to use its roots in the mythology of the legendary motel as a means to create something new and exciting. The warring impulses that govern audience appreciation are the shock of the new and the lure of the familiar, and when done imaginatively, remakes strike a fascinating balance between the two. An iconic film like Psycho loses some of its power when most viewers already know the key twists and turns; likewise for perennial spoiler warnings Fight Club and The Usual Suspects. Remakes give you the opportunity to look at something you love in a new way, opening your mind to more meaning and enjoyment.
As well as Bates Motel, other beloved films like Fargo and About A Boy are making the move to the small screen. The Coen brothers are continuing the story of Marge Gunderson in an hour-long special for FX, and NBC have commissioned a pilot based on the Hugh Grant comedy drama (in turn based on the Nick Hornby book of the same name). It’s tempting to view this new wave of adaptations as a sign of the times in this golden age of television.
From the start of the millennium onwards, classic shows have emerged at an astonishing rate, each raising the bar a little bit higher than before. First there was The West Wing and The Sopranos, both beginning in 1999 and running until the mid-noughties. Then came my favourite, The Wire, from 2002 to 2008 with its unparalleled realism and scope, followed by Mad Men in 2007. The latest pretender to the crown of ‘Best TV show ever’ is Breaking Bad, which currently has most of the world hanging on tenterhooks as they await the final half of the final season. Television has never been in ruder health, with the scope for ambition and character development playing a major role in its strength compared to film.
Indeed, many of the greatest living directors are making the move to television, something that would have been unthinkable 20 or even ten years ago. Martin Scorsese was one of the first, directing the pilot of Boardwalk Empire and praising the freedom it gave him compared to film. Now he is being followed by other big names like Ridley Scott, who is directing the pilot of The Vatican, a political thriller set in the Catholic church. Clearly there is something irresistible about the modern television industry, whether it’s a reduced pressure to perform or greater creative freedom. What is certain is that if you follow the trail of remakes you’ll find money is the motivator. The latest batch of TV remakes proves that television is king, and it’s attracting more money than ever before. We can only hope that it uses its powerful position to keep releasing ground-breaking new content instead of relying on tired old ideas.
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