Spend a few minutes over at Hit Record – the art collaborative headed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – and you find all sorts of things. Experimental electronica mixed with country music that acts as the inspiration for a short story. A photograph of an old house that becomes a short film. A writing prompt that evolves into a series of water color portraits. The skill level ranges from the kind of high school creative fiction magazine you’d cringe at to the truly magnificent, but no matter where people land on the craftsmanship scale, creativity is never in short supply.
That’s why Hollywood remakes are so frustrating.
Let’s unpack that a bit. At this point, film fans have worked through the mental question of remakes in a Five Stage of Grief sort of way that happens to end in Apathy. There’s no shortage of opinions out there – ranging from pure hatred to the optimism that a fresh take could lead new fans to an old favorite. There’s even the, gasp, raw hope of seeing movies remade over and over until the filmmakers get it right. In perhaps the best piece of counterintuitive writing, Annalee Newitz over at io9 hails remakes as the American version of folklore. At the very least, those of us writing about movie trends have moved beyond the knee-jerk frustration and are now rationalizing the here-to-stay existence of a fad that belies a complete lack of originality. Yet, at their core, Hollywood remakes represent a knock out combination of compelling subjects and bland handlers that grates no matter how hopeful we can be.
Like any kind of story, remakes can be excellent (see: The Thing, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 13 Assassins), terrible (see: Black Christmas, The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), Planet of the Apes (2001)) and everywhere in between. It isn’t the form itself that’s troubling, it’s the reliance on it as a crutch, but even as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing new remake concepts announced, we’ve too often witnessed uninspiring and uninspired choices for the personell behind projects. Sometimes there’s a Matt Reeves or a Paul Haggis behind the helm (and historically, greats like Herzog, Capra, de Palma and others have tackled the tasks). However, even when there’s an interesting name behind the word processor, camera or editing bay, there’s almost universally a studio accounting department pulling the strings.
Newitz’s argument about folklore is most likely correct, but the concept she hits on that’s more striking is the enjoyment we gain from seeing new twists on familiar tales coupled with the solid storytelling backbone that many of the best remade lore contains. The originals, for the most part, were popular for a reason, and the name recognition that a lazy marketing department might see as their stepping stone translates to fans as the core compelling element of the earlier work – the merit of the story being told again.
In short? There is a host of copyrighted material that’s ripe for the most creative, daring minds to tackle, but it’s locked behind the bars of a studio system whose top three priorities are return on investment. Meanwhile, the cream of the crop on Hit Record and on other networks are making astounding work. It would be explosive to see what they could do if given the keys to the kingdom and the vault of old titles to toy around with. That includes, sadly, a ton of professional Hollywood screenwriters who find themselves shut out.
Remakes won’t erase the original, and even if they change the context in which the original is viewed, there is great merit in remaking films. That’s why there are thousands out there. There’s less merit in relying on them more and more, but what’s truly frustrating about the Hollywood remake trend is the sheer amount of potential that will never be given a second look, let alone a chance to flourish.