Robocop, My Fair Lady, Fletch Won, The Birds, Dirty Dancing and Romancing the Stone – I have been trawling the web and these are apparently some of the cinematographic delights that Hollywood has in store for us in the near future. What these particular films have in common is that they are all remakes. And I have to say they do not fill me with joy. This may be because I loved the original – Robocop, The Birds or My Fair Lady. Alternatively, it may be because I couldn’t really see the point of the original films.
I don’t want to alarm anyone, but for the last few years there have been worrying rumours that Hollywood is planning a remake of the teen-sex comedy Porky’s. Released in 1982, this film follows a bunch of high school kids and their attempts at losing their virginity. It did feature the British-Canadian actress Kim Cattrall, who later played Samantha in Sex in the City, in one of her first major roles. Her character, Miss Lynn “Lassie” Honeywell, appears in a sex scene in the boys’ locker room. The nickname, “Lassie” referred to her penchant for howling during intercourse. Why would anyone want to make this film again? Maybe the first one just wasn’t brilliant enough. I suppose the new version may be a sophisticated comedy about sexual mores in 21st century America, but I won’t be holding my breath I think Roger Ebert’s pithy review eloquently sums up the film:
I see that I have neglected to summarize the plot of Porky’s. And I don’t think I will. I don’t feel like writing one more sentence (which is, to be sure, all it would take).
In 2002 American shock-jock, Howard Stern acquired the remake rights and has been trying to get it onto our screens. Fortunately, the USA is a highly litigious society and the film ran into legal trouble in 2011 when two other production companies stepped forward claiming to own the rights to the franchise. We can only hope that it never sees the light of day.
An article in The Guardian last year cited a study of American-made releases in 2010 which found that, “60% were neither remakes, sequels or prequels, adaptations from other media, English language copies of foreign titles, 3D retrofits or even retellings of ancient myths.” Of course that means that 40% do fall into the categories above. And it’s these films which get the bulk of both multiplex screens and studio budgets. There is a widespread feeling that there is a creative vacuum. However ultimately the studios produce what we demand. This is the commercial reality. After the demise of the studio system, there was a period of creative explosion in the 1970s. We had the figure of the auteur. Scorsese, Coppola Polanski, Then we had the disaster of Heaven’s Gate, which led to the demise of United Artists. Since then big business has tightened its grip and wrested power back from the directors. What’s more bigger budgets mean that there’s much more at stake. The 1980s saw the rise of producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson with their high concept movies, films that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. Their works could not really be described as original; Flashdance, Top Gun and Days of Thunder were basically the same movie.
Remakes are not new. In 1903 the director Edwin Porter made The Great Train Robbery, the first movie with a real story, and it was a huge hit. Featuring Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson and Justus D. Barnes, it had 14 scenes and lasted a grand total of 11 minutes. But just one year later, Siegmund Lubin basically ripped off the movie. In those days you could not actually copyright a movie, so there was no real protection for producers against plagiarism.
Why is Hollywood so addicted to remakes? Fear and money do seem to the primary motivators. One critic had a nice metaphor to explain Hollywood’s attitude. Investing in movies is like a lottery – nobody really knows what is going to be a hit. And just like some lottery players like to choose numbers that have been lucky in the past, so producers cling to the hope that what has been successful for others before, will bring them good luck.
They do not just want to copy films; many of our current crop of directors grew up with television and they seem to be on a mission to recreate their childhoods – Scooby-Doo, The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and The Brady Bunch are just some of the movies born out of this desire.
Foreign films provide a rich source of material for remakes. I see the commercial logic; a popular remake will bring the film to a far wider audience. But it seems a bit pointless to be remaking films which make perfect sense in the original language, and most of the foreign films that get the Hollywood treatment were pretty good to begin with – that is why they were chosen in the first place. Many countries, like Germany and Spain, have a strong tradition of dubbing. This is not the case in the Anglosphere. We don’t normally have dubbing, foreign films have subtitles, but these tend to be restricted to arthouse movies. The general public are said to be subtitle-phobic. This is one of the reasons why we see so many Hollywood versions of international films. The problem is that they tend to lobotomise the film, sucking out all its distinctiveness and turning it into just another Hollywood vehicle. I enjoy the different ambience. I have no intention of going to see the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What I liked about the book and the film is that they take you to another world, a different psychological universe. I feel the same about The Killing and Wallender, two examples of Scandi-noir television, which have enjoyed relative success on BBC4 So I urge you to watch more foreign language films, such as the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu or the 1996 Spanish thriller Thesis. Such films are almost guaranteed to be better than any Hollywood remakes. Don’t let those subtitles put you off – I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised.
But for me if you really want a pointless activity, remake a classic. If you need an example of such futility, surely Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho is the gold standard. Or take True Grit. I have nothing against Jeff Bridges, but he just cannot compare to John Wayne in the role of Rooster Coburn. I could also mention Vanilla Sky, The Ladykillers, The Italian Job and the most egregious example – a 1983 TV miniseries based on Casablanca, featuring David Soul as Rick Blaine.
I am not trying to claim that all remakes are bad – The Magnificent Seven, The Front Page, Ben Hur, Some Like It Hot and The Maltese Falcon were all remakes. It tends to work best when you don’t even realise that you are watching one. Really my problem is not with remakes, but with the quality of the output. Hollywood has lost me. The kind of remakes we see is just a symptom of a greater malaise, a worrying lack of creativity and originality.