Article – Remakes

Remake/Remodel

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, September 2003)

In a month when that most British of films The Italian Job gets moved to Los Angeles with an ex-rap star in the Michael Caine role, it’s time to ask the question: why do people want to remake classic films in their own image?

Remakes. The word sends terror into the hearts of most film lovers. Of all the money-grubbing activities the film world regularly goes in for, surely remaking old ‘classics’ is right up there with the worst of them. In the month when the Americanised version of The Italian Job is released, with Mark Wahlberg in the Michael Caine role (did he learn nothing from Planet of the Apes?), let’s examine the history of this sordid practice.
I mean, it’s got to be for the money right? Perhaps not. Unlike the sausage factories of the horror or porn genres, it’s not the case that remakes are made simply to procure easy cash. For a start, some of the people involved in remaking films are the biggest names in film history. Arguably the founder of the cinema, Cecil B. Demille, remade his own 1925 version of The Ten Commandments in 1956. He also made the first version of Brewster’s Millions in 1914, which must hold the record as the most remade film ever. Alfred Hitchcock also remade himself, making both a British and American version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
But both of these remakes were rightly seen as inferior to the original versions, which brings us to the question at the heart of this whole thing; why do otherwise very talented people think they can improve on what’s gone before? Why did Gus Van Sant remake Psycho virtually shot for shot? Why did John Carpenter gorily remake The Thing From Another World? Why did James Cameron spend a fortune remaking the lightweight French film True Lies? The fact is that just about every well-regarded director has indulged in remakes, from Steven Spielberg (Always) and Martin Scorcese (Cape Fear) on down.
Clearly they all thought they were doing something worthwhile; whether introducing a new audience to a classic story or using existing material to give your film resonance. When Terry Gilliam effectively remade Chris Marker’s film La Jetee as Twelve Monkeys, he was using the resonances of the original to infuse an entirely original plot. The same could possibly not be said of Brian De Palma, who has made a career out of remakes, notably using far worse actors: e.g. Blow Out from Blow Up, Dressed to Kill from Psycho, and Obsession and Body Double from Vertigo.
Sometimes remakes can work. Steven Soderbergh’s career is littered with not bad remakes such as Ocean’s 11 or Solaris. Sometimes they’re completely pointless; why on earth did anyone think the Sylvester Stallone version of  Get Carter or the Samuel L. Jackson version of Shaft would be worth doing? Sometimes they’re completely sacrilegious, where someone thinks it’s worthwhile to pointlessly ‘relocate’ a film, or just do away with the thing that made the original film work in the first place. On the wall of shame in this particular category must lie the aforementioned photocopy of Psycho, along with George Sluzier’s Americanised remake of his own The Vanishing, which actually had the nerve to add a happy ending, along with Jeff Bridges’ worst ever performance. Add on City of Angels, the remake of Wings of Desire, relocated to Los Angeles and missing most of the point of the original film. Why not remake Star Wars whilst you’re at it? Not that George Lucas would ever allow it of course.
A lot of remakes are of original films that you may never have heard of. It’s been a popular Hollywood practice to take foreign films and remake them for an American audience. We should all know about the likes of The Woman In Red (original: Pardon Mon Affair), Three Men and a Baby (original: Trois Hommes et un Couffin) and The Assassin (original: Nikita). But did you know that recent films like Welcome to Collinwood, Insomnia and Swept Away are also remakes of classic foreign films? Unless you’ve heard of them, it simply doesn’t matter.
The rule of remakes should be avoid the classics and concentrate on ‘lost’ films, but, much like sequels, the anticipation of a new take on an old classic can provide a lot of a film’s word of mouth. Some of the most anticipated films at the moment are remakes: how are the Coen Brothers going to handle the quintessential British comedy classic The Ladykillers, now it’s been relocated to the Deep South and stars Tom Hanks in the Alec Guinness role? How is Tim Burton’s take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory going to compare to the Gene Wilder version, particularly with Johnny Depp as Willy Wonker?
The remake of The Italian Job has been relocated to Los Angeles with a completely different plot but it does feature three minis being chased around a traffic jam. It might not be all bad but would it have hurt just to make a completely original film? How can you have a film with that name that doesn’t star Noel Coward or Benny Hill? And is anyone going to say anything about only blowing the bloody doors off?
The Italian Job is released on 19th September

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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