Déjà vu;- it’s the sensation of feeling like you’ve seen something before, and it’s getting difficult to look at the world of movies without experiencing it somewhere. Whether it’s crazed killer Leatherface powering up his chainsaw, mother Jamie Lee Curtis and daughter Lindsay Lohan exchanging bodies for the day, or George Clooney limbering up to “take down” another Casino as Danny Ocean, the art of the Movie Remake is all around us, often taking historic points in cinema and transforming them into something wholly different.

The process of using a previously successful movie as a template for further success (either financial or artistic) might feel like a recent invention, a symptom of Hollywood running short of ideas- but it’s actually been around for almost as long as Cinema itself, with the first recorded remake happening as early as 1898. Since then, the Remake has turned up in many different guises across the decades, with Silent movies being reworked as “Talkies”, Foreign language cinema being tailored for the international market, and classic Hollywood comedies being remixed for modern audiences.

But why do films get re-made in the first place? Directors will often talk about “updating a story for a new generation”, or giving an old classic an “exciting new twist!!”, but the fact of the matter is that it’s mainly down to a combination of fear and money. Movies are a tremendously expensive and risky business, so in Hollywood where, as screenwriter William Goldman once famously observed, “nobody knows anything”, film studio executives don’t want to bet their careers on green-lighting a costly film production unless they’ve got some assurances it’s going to work. As a result, it’s often easier to ransack the past than gamble on an untested screenplay- and remakes are theoretically a safe bet, with a previously successful movie to work from, as well as a familiar title to help with the marketing.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, and there’s a whole selection of problems that can strike a remake dead in its tracks- like updating the story to fit with modern attitudes, or recasting roles made famous by previous actors. Even selecting a little-known foreign film to rework doesn’t always mean that success will follow- but with the current appetite for Remakes on the steady increase, it can’t be too long before even today’s movie hits are being fed back to us in new and bizarre combinations…

1: REMAKES THAT WORK

In the world of remakes, sometimes a healthy disrespect for the movie you’re updating is the best policy. Take director Steven Soderbergh’s opinion of the Rat Pack’s 1960 version of OCEAN’S ELEVEN:- “It’s the kind of film that gets remembered fondly by those who haven’t seen it- a wonderful document to have of those guys, but watch it for entertainment, and it’s excruciating.”

When setting out to remake the film in 2001, Soderbergh deliberately avoided duplicating the original, throwing out everything except the title, the basic plot and the character of Danny Ocean. The end result was a funky, slick heist movie that outstripped the original by a wide margin;- one of a number of remakes that reap large rewards by daring to remix, rewire or completely ignore their predecessors.

Often this happens because of a shift in attitudes, such as 2003’s lively remake of 1976 body-swap comedy FREAKY FRIDAY, which dumped the original’s chauvinistic portrayal of motherhood as being a “good little homemaker”. Or there’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR from 1999, which took advantage of relaxed attitudes about on-screen sex to replace the 1968 original’s suggestive “pawn-stroking” chess match with a genuinely saucy bout of rumpy-pumpy between stars Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo.

John Singleton’s loose 2000 remake of 1971’s SHAFT was sensible enough not to tamper with the basic set-up or Issac Hayes’ classic theme tune, but toned down the sexism and daft dialogue, while Martin Scorsese added intriguing levels to his 1991 remake of Fifties thriller CAPE FEAR by turning the whiter-than-white lawyer originally played by Gregory Peck into the morally flawed Nick Nolte.

Even additional gore helps when used in the correct manner- horror classics THE FLY and THE THING were both spawned from 1950s fright flicks, but transformed into genuine skin-crawling nightmares for the 1980s thanks to spectacular make-up effects, and directors David Cronenberg and John Carpenter working at full tilt.

In short- the remake game is a difficult one to play, but one that holds unexpected rewards- and stuffy film critics who blame the Decline Of Modern Cinema™ on remakes aren’t always speaking the truth…

2: CLOSE (BUT NO CIGAR…)

The original was a low-fi, almost plotless exercise in barnstorming terror. The remake was produced by the man behind PEARL HARBOUR and ARMAGEDDON. Horror fans were understandably spooked by the idea of Michael Bay masterminding a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake, particularly when all he seemed to care about was having a recognisable title, saying;- “Everybody’s heard it so many times, it’s in the horror lore and lots of people think it was true!”

Despite all these fears, the final product was a surprisingly respectable remake- but couldn’t match the sheer random terror of the 1974 movie, even with a bigger budget and better performances. It’s a problem the majority of remakes end up suffering from;- no matter how watchable the new version might be, you’ll often be better off hunting down the original.

Take the bizarre case of MANHUNTER and RED DRAGON- both adapted from the Thomas Harris’ novel that introduced Hannibal Lecter, but MANHUNTER came first in 1986, helmed by MIAMI VICE creator Michael Mann with a brief appearance from Brian Cox as Lecter. Naturally, when Anthony Hopkins turned the character into a horror superstar, the aim was to “correct” the original movie with a more faithful adaptation- but despite boosting the size of Lecter’s role and being much closer to the original novel, 2002’s RED DRAGON still isn’t as interesting or scary as the subtle, chilly original.

Remakes may sometimes surpass what’s gone before- but for every OCEAN’S ELEVEN there’s an ITALIAN JOB, replacing a well-loved original with a fun but forgettable action movie that just happens to have the same title. Other remakes can easily follow the same pattern- even unofficial ones like 1987 psycho-thriller FATAL ATTRACTION, closely recycling the “vengeful ex” plotline that was done first and better by Clint Eastwood in the edgy 1971 movie PLAY MISTY FOR ME.

From Disney’s pointless live-action take on 101 DALMATIONS, to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan going through the motions in YOU’VE GOT MAIL, an internet-enhanced reworking of the 1940 James Stewart movie THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, below-par and average remakes are all around. The best way of coping with these is to remember- “New” doesn’t automatically equal “Improved”…

3: REMAKE DISASTERS

You don’t mess with a classic. It’s a well known rule when it comes to Remakes- but apparently, nobody told this to Sylvester Stallone. Urgently wanting to reclaim action star credibility after a long time out of the spotlight, in early 2000 Stallone chose to update 1971’s brutal Michael Caine gangster thriller GET CARTER for the new millennium.

Unfortunately, the faded star was so hungry for a hit, he decided the original’s ultra-dark climax wouldn’t play in today’s climate. “I’m a big sucker for redemption,” said Stallone at the time. “What we’ve done is take the character and try to move it into a year 2000 sensibility.” With a tacked-on happy ending, the new version of GET CARTER dumped classic Brit fatalism for dull action, and flopped so spectacularly that it limped straight onto video in the UK.

It’s a big risk with remakes- changes intended to update sensibilities or increase commercial potential can easily blow up in the filmmaker’s face, and tweaking the ending can be the biggest risk of all. Tim Burton found this out to his cost on 2001’s PLANET OF THE APES, when his attempt to out-do the original 1968 movie’s classic “Statue of Liberty” twist ending resulted in one of the most ludicrous climaxes in cinema history, an incomprehensible scene that pushed an already unremarkable remake into the realms of brain-bending disaster.

Whether it’s Jan De Bont turning previously creepy 1963 chiller THE HAUNTING into an overblown CGI-fest, or John McTiernan tripping himself up doing a teen remake of 1975 sci-fi thriller ROLLERBALL, remakes can make you wonder if anyone involved even watched the original- but sometimes, being too faithful can be just as dangerous. Gus Van Sant’s exact, shot-by-shot 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO might have looked great inside an art gallery, but was as a film was a pointless exercise that somehow looked even more dated than the original.

The pitfalls of the remake won’t be turning filmmakers away any time soon;- and choosing a flawed original is no guarantee of success. Just ask Guy Ritchie or Madonna, who must both be wishing that they’d never looked at the original 1974 version of SWEPT AWAY and thought “Hey, we could do that!!”…

4: FOREIGN REMAKES

“I didn’t even know it had already been done until I finished the movie.” admits actor Brian Cox about his appearance in 2003 fright flick THE RING. “It didn’t strike me as a Japanese film- I just thought it was a very exciting thriller.” The horrifying tale of a cursed videotape, RINGU (1998) and its respectable US remake are just the latest in the long history of Foreign Language movies being given a Hollywood makeover.

No matter how many break-out hits like AMELIE or CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON might rake in cash at the multiplexes, mainstream cinema audiences feel that reading subtitles is way too much effort. They far prefer watching the story remade with English dialogue and familiar actors- a process that’s been happening for a surprisingly long time, including classic 1960 western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN plundering the plotline of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterwork THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

It was, however, the success of frothy comedy THREE MEN AND A BABY (adapted from French hit TROIS HOMME ET UN COUFFIN) in 1987 that really got Hollywood’s attention, and soon producers were rooting through the output of other countries for the latest sensation to rework. Luc Besson’s LA FEMME NIKITA was spun into the Bridget Fonda vehicle THE ASSASSIN and then into a TV series, while even James Cameron got in on the action, with his 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger spy comedy TRUE LIES being a close remake of the French comedy LA TOTALE!

More recently, we’ve had Adrian Lynne’s 2002 erotic drama UNFAITHFUL directly updating 1969’s LA FEMME INFIDELE, and Steven Soderbergh treading the remake trail again in 2003 with his stunning take on the 1972 Russian sci-fi movie SOLARIS.

As with all remakes, however, there’s still the potential for filmmakers to be brought down to earth with a bump. Hugh Grant failed to twitter his way through NINE MONTHS, the appalling 1995 retread of French comedy NEUF MOIS; the dreary Sharon Stone update DIABOLIQUE ruined one of Cinema’s nastiest twist endings; and- funniest of all- VANILLA SKY fumbled it’s reworking of Spanish drama ABRE LOS OJOS, giving us the priceless sight of Tom Cruise looking like Quasimodo and shrieking “Tech Support!” for no apparent reason…

5: THE STEALTH REMAKE

So, you’ve got a prospective bridegroom meeting his in-laws for the first time- and making a serious mess of things. What you haven’t got is either Robert DeNiro or Ben Stiller playing the lead roles, as low-budget 1992 American comedy MEET THE PARENTS and its 2000 big-league reworking are a great example of the Stealth Remake- choosing an obscure original movie, and then keeping extremely quiet that you’re doing a full-scale update.

The original MEET THE PARENTS was an American independent comedy that only got a minimal cinema release, but it shares the title and plot as well as enough gags in the big-budget remake for the original’s screenwriters to get an official story credit. It’s a strategy that gives filmmakers all the advantages of a Remake without worrying about annoying fans of the original- and it’s more common than you might realise.

Long-forgotten B movies can be a gold-mine for quick and easy updates, as THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS proved, stealing the 1954 original’s title and a few aspects of the storyline. GONE IN 60 SECONDS performed a similar act of thievery on a low-budget 1974 thriller- while, on supposedly classier terrain, 1998’s MEET JOE BLACK took the basic premise of the 1934 movie DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY- which only lasted 79 minutes- and stretched it over a mind-numbing three hours.

Easier to cope with was Mel Gibson’s 1996 kidnap thriller RANSOM, which took it’s storyline from a dimly remembered 1956 movie starring Glen Ford, while even the Michael Caine and Steve Martin romp DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS had its roots elsewhere, being a reworking of the 1964 David Niven comedy BEDTIME STORY.

Stealth remakes can turn up anywhere- and can even be used by directors as a cunning way of “upgrading” a previously made film. Michael Mann’s epic 1995 crime drama HEAT scooped major acclaim- but Mann was remarkably quiet at the time about the whole film being an expanded version of LA TAKEDOWN, a TV movie he’d written and directed in 1989. Whatever happens, keep your eyes peeled- you never know from what direction the next Stealth remake might appear…

6: MISCASTING

Cary Grant. Michael Caine. Charlton Heston. Any actor would be nervous about stepping into the shoes of these Hollywood Titans- but you have to wonder how the most recent replacement for all three of these icons ended up being the Artist Formerly Known As “Marky Mark”…

He gained acting credibility playing Dirk Diggler in 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, but ex-pop star and Calvin Klein model Mark Wahlberg has since been seemingly determined to be crowned “King of the Remakes” in a clutch of toweringly unimpressive roles. PLANET OF THE APES saw him lost amongst the monkey make-up effects, proving exactly how important Chuck Heston’s biblical performance was in the groundbreaking original, while THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (a 2002 rerun of the 1956 thriller CHARADE) saw him mistakenly trying to be as suave and sophisticated as Cary Grant while simultaneously wearing a Frank Spencer-style beret.

Only 2003’s THE ITALIAN JOB is in any way forgivable- and while it’s bizarre to think of Wahlberg instead of Michael Caine as Charlie Croker, the sight of Noel Coward’s Mr Bridger being replaced by Donald Sutherland is a lot more brain-taxing. It also shows how difficult it is to recast such an iconic role when remaking a film;- assembling a movie cast is difficult enough under normal circumstances- for example, only a small twist of fate prevented first choice Ronald Reagan from playing Rick in CASABLANCA- but trying to correctly cast an already famous role can be like trying to bottle lightning.

Many remakes have stumbled thanks to this problem- you only have to think of a bleach-blonde Bruce Willis in the bland remake of classic thriller DAY OF THE JACKAL; Harrison Ford looking uncomfortable standing in for Humphrey Bogart in light comedy SABRINA; or butcher-than-butch Wesley Snipes trying to camp it up as a transvestite in TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR, the lame US take on Australian hit THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT.

It’s a simple fact that as long as there are remakes, there’ll be miscast actors taking on completely unsuitable roles- and in a world where the ideal replacement for Peter Cook in the 2000 remake of BEDAZZLED is Elizabeth Hurley, it seems that anything could be possible…

SIDEBARS

HOORAY FOR BOLLYWOOD!

Anyone thinking that Hollywood has it easy ripping off other countries’ movies can take comfort in the fact that payback exists, thanks to the dazzlingly colourful world of Bollywood cinema. The Indian film industry actually beats Hollywood by sheer volume, producing an incredible 800 movies a year- but in order to keep up with demand for their brand of extravagant drama, Bollywood producers often have to hi-jack their plots from some very familiar sources.

Adding the traditional Bollywood ingredients like daft sentiment and immense song-and-dance routines to light comedies like SOME LIKE IT HOT ( and MRS DOUBTFIRE (AUNTIE NUMBER 1) isn’t straining credulity too much- but a three-hour musical version of THE EXORCIST (JADU TONA) takes some beating… Alongside this, there’s been rewrites of RESERVOIR DOGS (KAANTE), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (KHOTEY SIKKEY), THE ROCK (QUAYAMAT), DEAD POETS SOCIETY (MOHABBATEIN) and THE GODFATHER (DHARMATMA), amongst many others.

Naturally, Bollywood’s habit of never bothering to ask permission to remake has attracted some legal wrangling from the US, so they now have to be a little less blatant in their plundering- but it’s difficult to imagine how they could have been less outrageously blatant than with the amazing Bollywood take on SUPERMAN.

Cunningly retitled SUPERMAN, the 1987 production actually hi-jacks huge chunks of special effects footage and music from the original 1978 Christopher Reeve movie, as well as throwing plenty of new romantic subplots and knockabout comedy into an overstuffed storyline. With a baggy-suited Superman battling his evil Elvis-quiffed childhood nemesis, it’s a jaw-dropping combination of superhero action and dancing girls, and one of the most deliciously insane remakes you’re ever likely to see…

FAMILIAR FEELING
The Five Greatest Remakes currently available on DVD…

HIS GIRL FRIDAY
One of the oldest remakes, and still the best;- this lightning-paced 1946 comedy from director Howard Hawks rewires newspaper satire THE FRONT PAGE with a female twist, pitching devilishly cunning editor Cary Grant against his top reporter (and ex-wife) Rosalind Russell.

OCEAN’S ELEVEN
George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh get in a Las Vegas state of mind along with Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in this superior reworking of the Rat Pack’s flawed 1954 original. A state-of-the-art heist movie, this smash hit oozes style and confidence from every pore.

A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS
The film that invented Clint Eastwood also took its plot from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai movie YOJIMBO. Playing two gangs off against each other, Clint’s nameless gunslinger is in control from the start, while Sergio Leone’s operatic direction rewrote the rulebook on Westerns.

THE FLY
The original was a genial 1950s horror flick. The remake had those not terrified out of their wits reaching for the sickbag, as David Cronenberg’s body-horror sensibilities cranked up the fear, and Jeff Goldblume’s teleportation-obsessed scientist found himself mutating into a monstrous insect.

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR
A sassy, sexy crime caper for grown-ups, this update of the 1968 original swaps Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway for Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo, and cranks up the heat between the billionaire gentleman thief and the female insurance investigator out to snare him in more ways than one…

NOSTALGIA AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE…
The Re-makes We Don’t Want To See

It might only be a matter of time- but if we’re lucky, there’ll be a while before the remake craze plumbs these murky depths…

PERFORMANCE
Giving the wigged-out 1971 original an urgently needed touch of BritPop, Robbie Williams is the cheeky reclusive musician and Jason Statham is the gangster who hides out in his dilapidated mansion. Soon they’re swapping identities, while singing songs about how terrible it is to be rich and famous.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Relocated to a near-future Beverly Hills, this teen-comedy update of the Kubrick classic stars Frankie Muniz as Alex, the wacky skateboarding tearaway who just can’t help indulging in ridiculous ultraviolence. Wrongly jailed and reprogrammed to behave himself by mad scientist Nicolas Cage, will Alex make it to the Prom on time?

CASABLANCA
The GIGLI reunion everyone’s been craving!!! Ben Affleck is Rick, and Jennifer Lopez is Ilsa in this latino-pop musical take on the mysteriously song-free 1942 original. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays up a storm as Sam, while Ralph Fiennes mugs shamelessly as Victor Laszlo.

GONE WITH THE WIND
Catherine Zeta Jones is Scarlett O’Hara, Michael Douglas is Rhett Butler, and Gary Oldman is the head of the Martian Fleet sent to eradicate humanity, in INDEPENDENCE DAY director Dean Devlin’s adventurous sci-fi “re-imagining” of the classic Hollywood romance.

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2005