Anghus Houvouras wonders whether there’s such a thing as a respectful remake…
Between the release of the Evil Dead remake and the Flickering Myth Reaction to the Carrie trailer, I’ve spent a lot of time this week considering remakes and weighing their worth.
Fundamentally, I’ve never been a fan of remakes. So many of them are unnecessary and pointless endeavors. Unoriginal and uninspired efforts that do little to improve upon the original. Not every remake is a travesty. Every so often you find a nugget of gold among the pile of cinematic dirt. Something like David Cronenberg’s The Fly or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Unfortunately you have to dig through garbage like Clash of the Titans, Straw Dogs, Last House on the Left, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, or The Fog, or The Stepford Wives, or Poseidon, or Arthur starring Russell Brand… I think you see where I’m going.
And even the ones that aren’t abominations feel completely pointless. Was anyone clamoring for a Carrie remake? Or an American urban version of Death at a Funeral?
The very proposition of remakes is tough, because it kind of cuts right down the middle of the problem we currently face in a retread-heavy world of cinema. The Carrie trailer provides us with an interesting cinematic proposition: it’s a well cut trailer because it makes me curious to see how the material is reinterpreted. And yet the trailer is far too revealing for anyone unfamiliar with the original. It gives away the entire movie from start to finish, almost as if MGM and Screen Gems assumes the intended audience already knows this story from start to finish. That idea is both confounding and fascinating.
It’s as if the movie industry is going through a mid-life crisis. It wants to grow and find its way into a new chapter and yet its so rooted in the past and mired in nostalgia that it can’t seem to produce anything new. The Carrie remake provides a well put together trailer for a movie that is so woven into the fabric of pop culture that it never needed a remake in the first place.
Every remake is a risky proposition, creatively speaking, because by its very foundation it is an act of disrespect. The idea that something needs to be remade, re imagined, or rebooted implies room for improvement. Some are more disrespectful than others (Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, I’m looking in your general direction). However by my logic, every remake is disrespectful.
The new Evil Dead movie provides another interesting perspective, because by most accounts the movie tries to remain faithful to the original. It even has the blessing and involvement of original producers Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell. But isn’t even the best remake still nothing more than a carbon copy of the original? A recycled idea? A rehashed premise? No matter how respectful the film tries to be, its very existence will draw comparisons to and be invariably tethered to the original. The remake, by nature, diminishes the stature of the film it claims to be paying homage to.
And there will be those who will debate this assertion by throwing out qualifiers. “It’s not a remake it’s a reinterpretation.” That’s the kind of thing you hear when the Coen brothers do their take on True Grit. Everyone tries to diffuse the situation and avoids using the word ‘remake’ because of the negative connotations. ‘Remake’ is a dirty word. Director Steven Soderbergh invoked this logic with Solaris when he said that he “didn’t intend Solaris to be a remake of Tarkovsky’s film but rather a new version of Stanislaw Lem’s novel”. Serious filmmakers try to distance themselves from the word because they know what it implies: creative bankruptcy.
I’m by no means saying that a remake cant possess some new ideas or find new territory, but it cannot claim any sense of discovery because it will always be rooted in the already cemented foundation of the film it is recreating. Every new idea, every creative accomplishment is still immediately indebted to the original. It could not have been berthed without it’s predecessor.
Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is viewed as a successful remake in the court of pop culture popular opinion. Taking the premise and set up of the original, notching up the scare factor with faster moving, feral zombies, and creating a real sense of tension and dread. There are even those who will claim it is superior to the original. This kind of logic paints me into a weird existential corner. Can you really deem a remake as being superior since it’s existence must be credited to the original movie? No matter how much better you believe Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead to be, it wouldn’t have existed without George A. Romero’s original vision of the material. Subjectively, you can prefer one version or the other, but I’m starting to wonder logically if you can ever call the remake ‘superior’. If it was so superior, why couldn’t come up with its own premise, characters, and title?
Maybe the proposition of a remake wouldn’t seem so troubling if there weren’t so many of them. The sheer volume of remakes being mass produced in Hollywood makes it difficult to see beyond the production line. We are drowning in films from a generation of filmmakers who seem content rehashing stories that have already been told.
And yes, I will concede that many films are adapted from any number of sources: books, comics, magazine articles, TV shows (God forbid). That most films are not born of an original idea but inspired by other works. But the number of direct, carbon-copy remakes out there is obscene, and none of them, no matter how good can really be respectful of the original.
If you really want to respect a movie, leave it alone.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the graphic novel EXE: Executable File, is available from Lulu.com.