Ben-Hur and the Craft of the Remake

Pondering The Remake

Exploring the purpose, execution, and possibilities of remakes.

If you’re anything like me (God help you), you’ve forgotten that there’s a $100 million remake of Ben-Hur releasing this coming weekend about three times already. You may have even grumbled “what the hell is the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter guy doing screwing around with my beloved William Wyler/Charlton Heston epic.” You may even have forgotten that the Wyler/Heston iteration was itself a remake, the second of the initial adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel. If we’re really good like that, though, we’ll forget about Ben-Hur a fourth time and ponder the remake itself, in a cosmic sense.

This is not a knock on the new Ben-Hur, which may be wonderful for all I know and the best one yet, because this is not about Ben-Hur. As unnecessary as it may seem, being made for and marketed to people whose taste differs from mine, the fact that it’s being made for and marketed to anyone grants it purpose by default. But, not to belabor a possibly obvious point, money isn’t the only purpose for a remake. You’ll often hear from the kind of annoying people able to finish a piece without five nervous breakdowns that writing is about revision, and the same can be true of art. The ideal candidates for a movie remake are either films unintentionally rendered awkward over time by distracting anachronisms (i.e. “this all could have been avoided if they had cell phones”) or films with an interesting premise that for whatever reason failed in execution. The latter, I submit, is illustrated perfectly by Ocean’s Eleven, first an excuse for the Rat Pack to hang out in Vegas and act cool, and remade as something close to the Platonic ideal of caper comedies.

It’s the rare remake that takes something that worked just fine the first time around and makes it over as something equally, if differently good, but they do exist. Take Memento, Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough, which famously unspools its story of an amnesiac on a quest of vengeance in reverse, thereby putting the audience in the position of not remembering anything the protagonist doesn’t, and, drolly, makes Memento stick out in one’s memory. It does what it does about as well as can be done. For this reason, I was surprised to hear, less than a decade later, that there was a remake of Memento, in Hindi (which was itself a remake, by the same director of his earlier Tamil remake of Memento). Not because remakes are rare in Bollywood – remakes are, to put it mildly, not rare in Bollywood – but because this is goddamn Memento. And yet, A.R. Murugadoss’ 2008 film Ghajini is a stunning, deeply affecting work. Aamir Khan puts a more desperate spin on the character than Guy Pearce, who while mildly addled by his short-term memory loss was still a recognizably, if confused, human character. Khan’s head injury, at the hands of his wife’s murderer’s, leaves him almost bestial. Unlike Memento, Ghajini flashes back to the life the protagonist and his love shared before her murder, and abruptly in the middle of being a dark revenge thriller it shifts into the gear of lilting, innocent romantic comedy. That tonal shift deepens the ultimate tragedy of the murder, which is frankly shattering in this context, and makes Khan a far more sympathetic figure in his quest for revenge than Pearce. The end result is, Ghajini and Memento stand as variations on theme rather than as one being a stencil of the other.

The allusion to music is deliberate, because while the dynamic is most stark in music where there are a finite number of notes to arrange, the finity of the universe is an obstacle in all the arts. Narrative film, particularly in commercial film industries looking to broaden their reach to the greatest tenable extent, faces the problem that there are only so many stories. The nouns may change, but the verbs remain constant, and at the most elemental, stories boil down to want, and satisfaction – or lack – thereof. As such, they’re basically all about the same few basic things that govern all human lives. Thus, at a certain point all stories are the same, and every new story is a retelling of earlier ones anyway.

Putting the bong down for a second, what this means for film remakes is that no matter how inviolate a given film may seem – even, and don’t clutch your pearls so hard they snap, Ghostbusters – it is theoretically possible to revisit, reshape, and whether by differing perspective or cinematic craft or what have you, to produce a viable remake. The possibilities diminish in directly inverse proportion to how much motivation in producing the remake is from profit, but they still exist.

Still not getting me out to the theaters for Ben-Hur, though. Philosophical expansiveness only goes so far.