Remaking classic films


To take our minds off the election while the in-person voting and counting starts, let’s talk films, especially classic films.

I have expressed before my mystification with film makers who take classic films and then remake them. It is one thing to remake a poorly made original because you think you can do a better job with a story that you think is compelling. But the only reason for doing so when the original was successful and is now regarded as a classic is because you think that there is a new generation that would benefit from seeing it that would not watch old films which feature actors that current audiences are unfamiliar with and are often in black and white and lack the high production values of modern films. But we sometimes even have remakes created after barely one generation has elapsed since the original. Take the film The Karate Kid released in 1984 that was commercially successful. Naturally, it spawned sequels in 1986 and 1989. But it was then remade in 2010.

The problem is that the new versions of classics almost invariably compare very badly to the originals, as we have seen with remakes of Charade and Psycho. We now have a new entrant to the remake of a classic, and that is Rebecca. The original 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film was based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, with Judith Anderson as the evil gaslighter, Mrs. Danvers, who manages to convince Laurence Olivier’s timid second wife (played by Joan Fontaine) that his late first wife Rebecca will always be his one true love and that Fontaine will never live up to the ideal of perfection set by her. This makes the Fontaine character (whose name is never revealed in either the book or the film) even more insecure, especially since her husband is curt and taciturn, refuses to speak of Rebecca, and gets touchy when she brings up the subject, which she puts down to the loss being too painful for him to think about.

Rachel Syme reviewed the remake and is not impressed.

Still, “Rebecca” could have warranted a remake. In a climactic scene in du Maurier’s novel, after Mr. de Winter has chastised the heroine for wearing the same dress as the dead Rebecca to a grand fête (the result of a dastardly scheme set in motion by Mrs. Danvers), she lies on her bed thinking that nothing could be “so shaming, so degrading, as a marriage that had failed.” In 1938, the dread in taking over a big house like Manderley came from the idea that one could end up an inept matriarch, a woman who could not fulfill her obligations. Today, the story could have been fertile terrain on which to explore issues of control, abuse, and the sheer terror of becoming a wife at all… A new film could have explored the violence and sensuality of du Maurier’s tale any way it pleased.

And yet Ben Wheatley’s superficial, slapdash new Netflix adaptation fails to plumb these possible new depths. It does not, in fact, really dip below its slick surfaces at all.

Here’s the trailer of the original.

Here’s the trailer for this year’s remake.

I cannot resist reposting this parody of the original film by That Mitchell and Webb Look. As is usual with film parodies, it is a lot funnier if you have seen the original.

Comments

  1. xohjoh2n says

    But the only reason for doing so [is] that there is a new generation that would benefit from seeing it

    Err, really? The only reason?

    How about: “That other guy made a shit load of money with that film. None of that money is my money. Morally all money ought to be my money. Making completely new films is risky. Remaking that one is a guaranteed success.” (And they always seem so surprised when that turns out not to be true.)

    (You missed out the ’94 film too.)

  2. xohjoh2n says

    But we sometimes even have remakes created after barely one generation has elapsed since the original.

    That’s hardly even the extreme case. There was only an 8 year gap between the (newer) Batman franchises because they had difficulty green-lighting several other projects. Spider-Man had some shorter gaps and more reboots. There were only *2* years between the Swedish and US versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

  3. mnb0 says

    “But the only reason for …..”
    Or because you can think of a different angle.

    Sergio Leone’s For a Fistfull of Dollars is a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.That one adapted Dashiell Hammet’s novel Red Harvest.
    Other good remakes are Cape Fear with De Niro, Down and out in Beverly Hills and Victor Victoria,
    Interestingly quite a while ago you yourself promoted an inferior remake (Roxanne with the bland Steve Martin, IMDb score 6,6) of the French movie Cyrano de Bergerac from 1950 (IMDb score 7,5), The French remake from 1990 (IMDb score also 7,5) is vastly superior and not only because Gerard Depardieu is a far better actor than Steve Martin.
    So this

    “The problem is that the new versions of classics almost invariably compare very badly to the originals”
    is a bit too pessimistic. Still way too often you are right. Especially American remakes of French comedies tend to be cringeworthy (Woman in Red, Three Men and a Baby).

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Spoorloos (English title The Vanishing) was a brilliant Dutch/French 1988 film, directed by George Sluizer.

    I guess the siren song of Hollywood money convinced Sluizer to remake the film in English a mere five years later. It should have been retitled Travesty. So, so bad.

  5. flex says

    @ mnbo, #3,

    Sergio Leone’s For a Fistfull of Dollars is a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.That one adapted Dashiell Hammet’s novel Red Harvest.

    I find that one interesting because while Yojimbo is inspired by Red Harvest, A Fistful of Dollars is almost a scene-for-scene remake. Some of the dialog is almost identical. But Red Harvest has four strongmen in the town whose allegiances shift while the un-named Continental Op protagonist stirs things up. So calling Yojimbo inspired by Red Harvest is probably the best way to put it.

    Some remakes are better than others. Speaking of movie versions of Hammett novels, the first version of The Maltese Falcon didn’t follow the book closely at all, neither did the second. It was only with the third version (or second remake) in 1941, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, that the book was followed fairly closely. Of course the movie left out Gutman’s daughter, the strip search of Miss O’Shaughnesse, the explicit clues of Joe Cairo’s homosexuality (although the movie strongly hints at it), and the story of a man’s reaction to a close shave with death which I think is really the heart of the novel. The third remake is considered such a classic that few additional remakes have been made, although references to the 1941 movie abound.

    I guess this is an example of such a successful remake that the original movie versions are forgotten.

    Then there are remakes which are excellent, like The Thomas Crown Affair, or Ocean’s Eleven. The original movies are not bad, but to be honest I like the remakes better.

    And of course, here are movies which are better than the books. I can think of one right off the top of my head. Goldman’s, The Princess Bride is a good, fun, movie; but the book is terrible. When I finally got around to reading the book I was astounded that someone was able to deconstruct it enough to create a delightful screenplay from that hot mess.

    Or there are movies which missed the message of the book. I think both Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are inspired by really terrific books, and are really terrific movies. But the messages are different. Albeit that Roy Batty’s soliloquy in Blade Runner approaches what Philip K Dick was writing about.

    As for A Clockwork Orange, I sometime wonder if Kubrick had only the first American edition of the book which left out the last chapter. What Kubrick did in his movie version of A Clockwork Orange is so brilliant, and so subtle, that I know many people missed the detail that the de-programming of Alex, wasn’t really de-programming. Instead, it is clear to me that the end of the movie shows that Alex is re-programmed to what society believed he was like and not restored to his original personality. Each treatment chipped off the more complex facets of his personality until he was only left with the monstrous behaviors, simply reflecting the records society had of him. It was the process of simplification of a human personality until only the behavior which matched the recorded profile was left. And it was terrifying.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    flex @7:

    Speaking of movie versions of Hammett novels, the first version of The Maltese Falcon didn’t follow the book closely at all, neither did the second.

    I haven’t read the book, but to my eyes the 1931 and 1941 versions are nearly identical, storywise. The main difference was more openness about sexuality in the earlier (pre-Code) version.

  7. flex says

    @Rob Grigjanis, #8,

    … but to my eyes the 1931 and 1941 versions are nearly identical, storywise.

    I may be too critical, but the 1941 version used large sections of the dialog directly from the book. I don’t recall the 1931 version doing that. My recollection is that the 1931 version was much less nuanced than either the book or the 1941 movie. That the 1931 version was influenced stylistically by the other gangster movies coming out around the same time. But I will admit that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the 1931 version.

  8. jenorafeuer says

    I remember being startled recently finding out just how many ties Brewster’s Millions has been remade. After the original novel, there was a stage production, and according to Wikipedia there have been thirteen film adaptations. Five of them were just called Brewster’s Millions, one was Miss Brewster’s Millions (yes, the ‘horror’ of recasting movies with female leads dates back to 1926), one was Three on a Spree, and the other six were made in non-English speaking countries (four in India for three different languages).

    @flex, #7:
    With The Princess Bride, Goldman wrote both the book and the screenplay for the movie; the same person did both. Now, it’s worth noting that the movie was influenced at least as much by the director, Rob Reiner; and that Goldman is generally far better known as a screenwriter than a novelist anyway, so he probably knows how to handle writing for screen better than writing for prose.

  9. nifty says

    Another movie far better than the book: The Godfather. “The Godfather Notebook” with Coppola’s annotations and cross-outs over pages taken from a copy of the novel are a great read into how one person thought through converting the novel into cinematic form.

  10. flex says

    @Jenorafeuer, #10:

    With The Princess Bride, Goldman wrote both the book and the screenplay for the movie; the same person did both.

    Hah! I did not know that. I guess that means screenwriter really knew his source material. 😉

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