Movies · TV

A Long History of Remakes Where Male Leads Were Changed to Female

By  · Published on October 11th, 2016

Ghostbusters was hardly the first of its kind.

This week, fans can own the 2016 version of Ghostbusters, aka the all-female remake of the 1984 classic, as it hits DVD/Blu-ray/etc. Although gender-flipped versions of movies have seemed to be a hot trend for a few years, with talk of “The Expendabelles” and more, Ghostbusters was the first of the big ones to go all the way. But soon it will be joined by women-led remakes and spinoffs of Ocean’s Eleven, Splash, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Rocketeer, Road House, and surely many more. Well, it’s a concept growing in numbers but certainly isn’t a new idea by any means. Here’s a history of remakes that changed lead male characters to female going back 120 years:

1896: The Bad Boy and the Gardener – In 1895, cinema pioneer Louis Lumiere made L’Arroseur Arrose, a very short work considered to be the first comedy film. It involves a little boy pranking a male gardener by stepping on his hose and then making it spray him in the face when the man inspects it. As was typical back then, there were many ripoffs, apparently including a US version released the following year by Thomas Edison. He altered the story in one way, however: the gardener is a woman.

1902: Grandpa’s Reading Glass – This short from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company directed by Wallace McCutcheon is a redo of a 1900 UK short titled Grandma’s Reading Glass. As you can tell by the title, the grandparent was gender-flipped to male, but the main character is also a little girl instead of a little boy.

1915: Miss Minerva Courtney in Her Impersonation of Charlie Chaplin – The title of this short tells us that it’s basically a comedy routine involving Minerva Courtney parodying Charlie Chaplin. But it’s specifically a scene-for-scene redo of almost the entirety of his film The Champion. Technically she’s still playing Chaplin’s role as a man, though. She also released two more Chaplin impersonation films the same year.

1921: Hamlet – Shakespeare’s works involve a lot of gender-flipping, so it’s not a surprise that there are a lot of gender-flipped remakes of his plays on stage and in film. This German adaptation of “Hamlet,” for instance, stars silent film icon Asta Nielsen. The idea is that Hamlet is in fact a woman disguised as a man for the sake of the throne.

1926: Miss Brewster’s Millions — George Barr McCutcheon’s 1902 novel “Brewster’s Millions” is one of the most-adapted literary works, with at least a dozen movie versions plus another long in development. The third of these is an early Paramount film that’s lost forever where the title character who inherits a huge amount of money is a woman named Polly Brewster, played by Bebe Daniels.

1940: His Girl Friday – This classic Howard Hawks-helmed feature is actually the most famous of the adaptations of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play “The Front Page.” The original work and its 1931, 1949, and 1974 movie versions (the middle one for television) all feature two male leads as newspaper reporters while His Girl Friday changes one of them into a woman for a romantic angle. That version is also the inspiration for a loose TV-set remake from 1988 called Switching Channels.

1956: “Twelve Angry Women” – When the original TV movie Twelve Angry Men debuted in 1954, women were not allowed to serve on many state juries, didn’t have the right to serve on federal juries, and weren’t required to serve on most juries in the US. Still, an all-woman jury version of the teleplay was adapted for the stage fairly soon (the first mention of one in Long Island I can find is from 1956). There was also quickly a mixed-gender version titled “Twelve Angry Jurors.”

1972: “Freaky Friday” – Mary Rodgers’s children’s novel about a mother and daughter who swap bodies has been turned into a few movies. It’s basically a female take on the 1882 Thomas Anstey book “Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers,” which itself has been adapted a number of times. More notable, however, is how Rodgers wrote a gender-flip take on her own novel with the sequel “Summer Switch,” which involves a father and son swap.

1977: It Happened One Christmas – Marlo Thomas stars in the role famously played by James Stewart in this TV movie remake of It’s a Wonderful Life. Additionally, the guardian angel is also female here, played by Cloris Leachman.

1981: The Incredible Shrinking Woman – Although this movie is credited as being based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” and viewed as a take on the 1957 film adaptation, The Incredible Shrinking Man, there is little similarity in the specifics of the story other than it involves a shrinking protagonist. What it does do with the gender flip is turn an old concept into a fantastic feminist satire. All female-version remakes should actually say something about gender, like this does.

1982: Ms. Pac-Man – One of the most successful instances of a male-led property redone with a female lead is a video game. It might actually be the most successful depending on measurement. Less than two years after Pac-Man took the world by storm, this improved version with a female protagonist arrived, and part of the reason for the gender flip was credited to the large number of women who played the original.

1984: Supergirl – Like Ocean’s Eight will be, this is technically a spinoff, and it’s also based on preexisting material that might make it seem out of place in this history. But as a movie, its existence in the context of the success of the first few Superman movies is relevant to the trend today, how something that did well with a male character is retried with a female character. As far as the comics go, the female-version heroes over the years have also included Batgirl, Aquagirl, She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, X-23, and Lady Punisher.

1985: “The Female Odd Couple” – Playwright Neil Simon redid his own classic stage work “The Odd Couple,” which famously became a movie and popular TV series (and later some unpopular TV series), with the explicitly titled female version. Felix and Oscar became Florence and Olive, and the Pigeon sisters were also flipped to brothers. Surprisingly Hollywood hasn’t made it into a movie yet.

1988: Big Business – Another Shakespeare play reworked, this comedy starring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler is a modernized take on “The Comedy of Errors” (itself a redo of Plautus’s “Menaechmi”) where the actresses play two sets of twins mixed up at birth.

1994: The Next Karate Kid – This one is a sequel of sorts but also a kind of remake set in the same series, as it shares characters from the original. However, it’s clearly an attempt to reboot with a fresh angle in following a female martial arts student instead of the boy who led the franchise for the first three movies.

1994: Chasers – Dennis Hopper’s final movie as a director is unofficially a more-comedic take on the 1973 film The Last Detail. The original stars Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as sailors escorting another Navy man to prison, while in this version Tom Berenger and William McNamara transport a woman, played by Erika Eleniak, who keeps trying to escape.

1995: GoldenEye – Dame Judi Dench has played M in eight James Bond movies (four Brosnans, four Craigs), and it seemed rather natural by the end to have a woman in the part. But this was her first appearance as the head of MI6, a role that was written as a man and then portrayed by male actors, namely Bernard Lee and Robert Brown, for 30 years prior.

1996: Barb Wire — Pamela Anderson was the 1990s equivalent of Humphrey Bogart, wasn’t she? The actress stars in this sci-fi comic book adaptation as a character loosely based on Bogie’s part in Casablanca. Set in the future during America’s second Civil War, there’s also a male version of Ingrid Bergman’s classic role, played by Temuera Morrison.

2000: Bedazzled – Harold Ramis, one of the writers and stars of the original Ghostbusters, co-wrote and directed this remake of the 1967 British comedy of the same name starring Dudley Moore as a modern-day Faust and Peter Cook as the Devil. Here, Moore is replaced by Brenand Fraser while Cook’s satanic role is filled by model and actress Elizabeth Hurley.

2003: Battlestar Galactica – TV shows do it, too, as we saw with Ronald D. Moore’s popular BSG reboot. There were a number of changes made from the original, which began in 1978, but one of the most notable was the gender-flipping of the characters Starbuck, who was played then by actor Dirk Benedict and here by actress Katee Sackhoff, and Boomer, who was played then by Herbert Jefferson Jr. and here by Grace Park.

2003: The Bachelorette – And reality shows could be included, as well, as was immediately done following the success of The Bachelor. This spinoff of the original hit male-led series, which debuted in 2002, gives women the opportunity to find a husband from a competitive pool of 25–30 guys.

2004: 13 Going on 30 – While never officially recognized as such, this comedy about a girl who wishes she was older is an obvious redo of the 1988 movie Big, about a boy who wishes he was older. Again, the circumstances and effects of the premise are very different but the idea is the same, and only because it’s now a girl/woman is it not as blatant a copy as it could be.

2004: Connie and Carla – Although not an official remake, this Nia Vardalos-scripted comedy is a clear redo of Some Like It Hot. The twist is that Vardalos and Toni Collette are women on the run from the mob who pose as men who perform as women. If that sounds confusing, maybe that’s the reason the movie flopped so hard.

2005: Herbie: Fully Loaded – Another movie that is both sequel and remake, Disney’s sixth Herbie movie stars Lindsay Lohan in the lead where previous installments featured Dean Jones and Bruce Campbell as their protagonists.

2006: Last Holiday – The original plan was to remake the original 1950 Alec Guinness-led comedy with John Candy as the main character, who goes on an expensive vacation upon hearing he has little time left to live. But after his death, the project was shelved until Queen Latifah took it over.

2010(November): Ghost: Mouichido Dakishimetai – For the Japanese remake of the 1990 Hollywood romance thriller Ghost, the two main roles have been reversed so it’s the woman in the relationship who has been murdered and comes back a ghost and the pottery-making man who she must warn by way of a psychic – the one major role that stayed the same gender.

2010(December): The Tempest – Director Julie Taymor loves to do creative things with well-known properties, and with this, one of a few Shakespeare adaptations she’s made, the big deal is that Prospero is now Prospera, played by Helen Mirren.

2011: Revenge – This TV series, which ran four seasons, stars Emily VanCamp as a woman who changed her identity to take revenge on the people who framed her father when she was a little girl. If the plot sounds familiar, it’s inspired by the Alexander Dumas novel “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which of course centers around a male hero.

2012: Elementary – Another classic literary character was recently remade as a woman on TV recently, with a modern take on the stories of Sherlock Holmes co-starring Lucy Liu as sidekick Dr. Watson – her first name being Joan instead of John.

2015: Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Finally, we’ve got the biggest examples of the “remakequel” trend, as well as the “legacy sequel” trend, where The Force Awakens is viewed whether positively or negatively as a rehash of the original Star Wars but with the primary hero being a woman, Rey, instead of a man, Luke Skywalker. It could also be said that Maz Kanata is a female substitute for Yoda.

2016: Ghostbusters – After all that’s come before it, Paul Feig’s redo of the 1984 paranormal comedy is the most famous female-led remake, with Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon basically playing reworked versions of the characters made iconic by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Harold Ramis. Plus there’s Chris Hemsworth as the gender-flipped equivalent of Annie Potts’s secretary.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.