Call me a remake skeptic. Too often I’ve seen a beautifully told story from a French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, etc. director turned into a surface, shallow, ghost of the original story, sometimes bearing no more in common than the title and maybe a little misguided direction from the plot. Sometimes it is a classic from the early years of Hollywood that gets tarted up, a few puerile stereotype scenes thrown in, fatuous music and voilà! “Lame Remake”. I always assume this happens because the original garnered International acclaim and even, gasp! did well at the US “box office”. So let’s do it again!
Well, I also believe that there have been some remakes done for the best of motives, among them: directors remaking their own movie; directors paying tribute to another director or beloved and influential film; directors wanting to bring a great story to a newer or larger audience. I call these the “Righteous Remakes”. You can tell the difference when you watch these remakes. A “Lame Remake” may follow the plot, but tend to pick out only the peaks or hotspots of the original–peaks of humor or violence and lack a real feel for the story. “Righteous Remakes” not only carry the plot but also the richness of the story, you will often note a care in lighting, framing, pacing that may not copy the original but still captures the heart and style of the original, subtleties of character, sense of place and subplot remain strong and faithful to the original. It just FEELS right. The main character may be modernized and have a slightly tweaked script yet, the heart and soul of the character remains true to the original.
Directors unhappy with their own work, have been known to remake their own movies, sometimes there is new technology available–“A Story Of Floating Weeds” (1934)/ “Floating Weeds” (1959) director Yasujiro Ozu’s original was from the silent era and he wanted to remake it with sound. Stories vary about why Alfred Hitchcock wanted to remake “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934/1956)–one story goes that producer David O. Selznick, with whom Hitchcock was by then contracted, wanted Hitchcock to make a US version of the UK original–another is that Hitchcock himself was not quite happy with the original. Personally, and I may be in the minority, while I like them both, I prefer the 1934 version. Michael Mann felt that “L.A. Takedown” (1989) lacked richness of character and subplot and later retold the story the way he envisioned it in “Heat” (1995).
Peter Jackson’s remake “King Kong” (2005) was a tribute to his favorite film, the 1933 “King Kong” from director Merian C. Cooper (and Ernest B. Schoedsack, uncredited). It comes across as pure tribute in its cinematography, unfolding of the story, the amazing King Kong himself and the feel of adventure you get while watching it.
“Vanilla Sky” (2001) director Cameron Crowe said of “Abre Los Ojos” (“Open Your Eyes”) (1997) that it was like a favorite song, a folk song even, that gives itself over to interpretation, Crowe thinks of “Vanilla Sky” not as a ‘cover’ of this favorite song, but as a ‘remix’. He also says he would never encourage someone to see only his version, rather to see both. “Abre Los Ojos” director Alejandro Amenábar said of “Vanilla Sky”:
“When I learned, quite some time ago now, that Cameron Crowe was going to write and direct the film based on Open Your Eyes with Tom Cruise in the leading role, I felt honored. Now that I have seen Vanilla Sky, I couldn’t be more proud. Cameron has all my respect and admiration. Respect, for having plumbed the deepest meaning of the work. Admiration, for having sought new viewpoints and a fresh approach to the mise-en-scene, giving the film his own unmistakable touch. Vanilla Sky is as true [sic] the original spirit as it is irreverent towards its form, and that makes it a courageous, innovative work. I think I can say that, for me, the projects are like two very special brothers. They have the same concerns, but their personalities are quite different. In other words, they sing the same song but with quite different voices: one likes opera, and the other likes rock and roll.”
“Insomnia” (1997) director Erik Skjoldbjærg turned down the opportunity to remake his own Norwegian film to bring it to a broader US audience (though this film did have a following in the US of those of us who don’t mind reading subtitles). He didn’t want to make the same film twice. Luckily Christopher Nolan agreed to do the remake giving us a fairly “Righteous Remake”. While I’m partial to the original, I also like the remake. I can’t say it any better than Roger Ebert: “Insomnia,” the first film directed by Christopher Nolan since his famous “Memento” (2001), is a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name, made in 1998 by Erik Skjoldbjaerg. That was a strong, atmospheric, dread-heavy film, and so is this one. Unlike most remakes, the Nolan “Insomnia” is not a pale retread, but a re-examination of the material, like a new production of a good play.”
Leave it to the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan to make a “Righteous Remake” that, well, isn’t a remake. The brothers wanted to tell the story of the Charles Portis book “True Grit” and the book, not the 1969 Henry Hathaway film, was their reference as they planned and shot their 2010 “True Grit”. The draw of the novel was not so much as a western, but as a “beautiful young adult adventure story,” where the heroine is a young woman with a “divine sense of mission.”
Remake skeptic, yes, but given examples that “Righteous Remakes” can happen, I do feel compelled to take a chance on a remake and hope for a gem.