From the blatantly unoriginal remake to the beneficial opportunity for improvement, the practice always has interesting results.
Remakes have been around almost as long as movies have. In 1904, Siegmund Lubin made a remake of The Great Train Robbery, only one year after Edwin S. Porter’s groundbreaking film of the same name, which is frequently cited as the first Western and first American action film. Roughly a decade later, Cecil B. DeMille took up the practice, but with a twist. While Lubin’s remake was an attempt to capitalize on someone else’s story, DeMille decided to take on a story he had already created. In 1918 he made The Squaw Man, a now lost silent film that was a remake of his directorial debut, a 1914 film of the same name. DeMille remade this story again in 1931, this time as a talkie. The 1914 film has the distinction of the being the first feature film shot in Hollywood, and the 1931 version gave DeMille the status of being the only director ever to make the same film three times. Aside from these accomplishments, though, the films are not exceptionally memorable additions to DeMille’s filmography.
But DeMille didn’t stop there with remakes. Arguably his most famous film, The Ten Commandments (1956), was a remake of his own 1923 silent film of the same name. The first of these films was successful both critically and financially, but DeMille’s second take on the story of Moses is nothing less than legendary. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive movie ever made, but this paid off. It is the seventh highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, and the film is frequently cited as one of the greatest American films ever.
Not every movie can be The Ten Commandments, though. Sometimes, directors make their films again and can accomplish something they didn’t the first time around. But, other times, these remakes are weighed down by a lack of originality and the films suffer for it.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Even the best directors can benefit from the knowledge gained by practice and experience. For proof, look no further than Alfred Hitchcock. In 1934, he made The Man Who Knew Too Much. The film is one of the most successful of Hitchcock’s British period, and it was the first English language film of Peter Lorre’s career. The film is by no means a failure, but it also isn’t exactly the most well known of Hitchcock’s movies, nor is it widely considered one of his best. By his own admission to François Truffaut during what would become their book of interviews, “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” The Man Who Knew Too Much is “the work of a talented amateur.”
This characterization is contrasted with the second of Hitchcock’s films bearing the same title, the 1956 one starring James Stewart. The second Man is described by Hitchcock as having been “made by a professional.” The second of Hitchcock’s two films about a married couple trying to rescue their kidnapped child and foil an assassination attempt also took home a Best Song Oscar for “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” sung by leading lady Doris Day. There’s a good debate to be had about the merits of both films, especially considering they differ regarding some plot points and tone. But at the end of the day, Hitchcock’s second Man is undeniably the work of an experienced director who has mastered his craft and his choice to remake the first film certainly paid off.
A similar situation to Hitchcock occurred with Yasujirō Ozu and two of his films: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959). The first of these films — a silent, black and white version — was a well made and successful movie. Upon its release, it was awarded Best Film by Kinema Junpo, Japan’s oldest film magazine. It was the third consecutive Ozu film to win this award. However, as good as A Story of Floating Weeds is, it didn’t garner the same reception as the 1959 film. The remake is widely accepted as one of Ozu’s greatest films, partly due to the technological differences. Floating Weeds is a sound film and was shot in gorgeous Technicolor. The colors of the film jump off the screen and showcase some of the most beautiful work of Ozu’s career.
Hitchcock and Ozu both took excellent films and made them great with remakes, but the award for improvement with a remake must go to Michael Mann. In 1989 he directed L.A. Takedown, a TV movie initially conceived of as a pilot for an NBC series that was then reworked into a 90-minute stand-alone film. The film starred Scott Plank as Vincent Hanna, a detective hunting down professional criminal Patrick McLaren (Alex McArthur), based on real-life Chicago criminal Neil McCauley. It received mixed to positive reviews but was unfavorably compared to Mann’s most notable TV project, Miami Vice.
Some years later, Mann returned to the concept of L.A. Takedown, expanded it to a nearly 3 hour run time, cast well-known actors, and in 1995, released Heat. The film was a critical and commercial success, grossing a total of $187 million worldwide. The film starred Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna and Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley. Heat is one of Mann’s greatest films (many would argue his greatest), and its legacy can be seen in countless crime thrillers made since.
The freedom of a bigger budget and a longer run time allowed Mann to explore a sprawling, epic story that he fundamentally wouldn’t have been able to with any 90 minute TV movie. Mann has said that he viewed L.A. Takedown as a dry run for Heat and that after making a shorter version of the story, he was able to figure out exactly how he wanted to structure the remake. In this case, being able to work on a story and later return to it for a remake benefited Mann greatly. If all remakes were this successful and well thought out, the film industry would be a very different place.
Maybe don’t try again
The examples of DeMille, Hitchcock, Ozu, and Mann are all a great counterargument to the belief that remakes are pointless, but unfortunately, these examples are still the exception, not the rule. Often, when directors remake their own films, it is so they can create an English language version of a successful foreign film. When this happens, the films run into problems of trying to adapt their ideas to fit the Hollywood model. Perhaps the best example of this is Dutch director George Sluizer and his two versions of The Vanishing in 1988 and 1993.
The original Vanishing is terrifying. It follows a young couple who are on vacation when she vanishes without a trace. Three years later he begins to receive letters from the man who kidnapped her, and he tries to figure out what became of her. No spoilers, but this movie is not afraid to get dark, and it is all the better for it. Then, in 1993, Sluizer was hired by Fox to film a remake set in Seattle. In this version, the story is changed and has a happy ending that destroys the feelings of fear and dread that the first one so brilliantly created. The film was poorly received and is considered to be one of the worst remakes ever.
In the individual case of The Vanishing, the happy ending that is a trademark of Hollywood films ruins the story, but this also speaks to a larger problem with Hollywood remaking foreign films. Original foreign films often succeed by providing audiences with stories that are uncommon in Hollywood, stories that are not straightforward, that don’t have happy endings, that take more risks. When these films are successful, studios take that as a sign they should remake the movie in English because, presumably, American audiences will be more likely to see it. When this happens, you end up with a watered down version of a foreign film that, unlike the case of Mann and Heat, is a result of directors having less freedom and more pressure to conform an unconventional story into one that is viewed as being palatable for Hollywood audiences.
But what if directors don’t conform? Could the movies work then? Well, yes and no. A good example of his is Michael Haneke‘s 1997 and 2007 versions of Funny Games. The original didn’t do well in its limited theatrical run in the United States, which is the exact market Haneke had hoped his film, which questions the enjoyment of violent movies, would most challenge audiences. A decade later, when given the opportunity to make an English version starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as a couple who are attacked in their vacation home and subjected to the titular games by a pair of sadists (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet), Haneke remade his film hoping more American audiences would see this one. The film is nearly an exact shot-for-shot remake and Haneke also created sets based on the same blueprints as the earlier film. His plan for the film to impact audiences didn’t exactly work — the movie was a box office failure that grossed little more than half its budget. But regardless of its lack of success, the film is an interesting case study.
Full disclosure, I prefer the Funny Games remake, and I am 100% sure it is because that’s the one I saw first. The film is certainly redundant, and I won’t deny that the original is objectively better because of its originality. But either version of Funny Games is a visceral viewing experience, and I believe the one you see first is the one that will always have had the greatest impact on you. For those who saw the original first, the remake is rather pointless. The two versions could be interesting to view together and compare for Haneke fans, but for most, one experience with Funny Games is enough.
Those familiar with the original would find the remake to be unnecessary and even potentially, as they’ve seen this all before, tame, a word never associated with Haneke. But for American audiences unfamiliar with Haneke, who are lured into the film by its recognizable stars, the violence can come across as extreme and, even putting violence aside; the film is purposefully uncomfortable and confrontational in a way Hollywood films rarely are. This puts the film in a bit of a no-win situation. Depending on who’s watching, it’s likely either going to be viewed as too redundant or too extreme. Ideally, Hollywood and audiences would learn to appreciate foreign films on their own without the need for an English language remake, but that is still an uphill battle foreign films face.
Neither The Vanishing or Funny Games having bombed at the box office put a stop to the practice of hiring foreign filmmakers to remake their own movies. Other directors have undergone the process, such as John Woo, who turned his 1991 Hong Kong film Once A Thief into a 1996 TV movie with the same name. Japanese director Takashi Shimizu remade his 2002 horror film Ju-on: The Grudge into The Grudge (2004), a film that wasn’t critically successful but was a box office hit. Georgian-French director Géla Babluani remade his 2005 film, 13 Tzameti, a black and white thriller, into 13 (2010), a film in color starring Jason Statham. In 1999 and 2008, the Pang Brothers made and then remade the crime thriller Bangkok Dangerous, the first in Thai and the second in English. Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal made the horror-thriller Nattevagten in 1994 and was then enlisted to direct the American remake, Nightwatch in 1997. Erik Van Looy, who made the erotic mystery film Loft in 2008 in his native Belgium, also directed The Loft, a 2014 English language remake. Some of these remakes were more successful than others, but the consensus among those who have seen both is that the original is superior to the remake.
Learn from the mistakes
Though sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, the practice of hiring directors to remake their own films won’t be ending soon. Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, who took home an Oscar last Sunday for A Fantastic Woman, will next be making an English language remake of his 2013 film, Gloria. The film will be his second English language movie after Disobedience, which opens later this year. The original Gloria is an extremely enjoyable romantic comedy-drama about a middle-aged woman’s experiences dating after her divorce. One of the strengths of Gloria is that it doesn’t deliver a conventional romantic ending and often focuses on the experiences of its titular character outside of her relationships. It’s not the type of film that is usually made in Hollywood, and for this, it could be a refreshing and welcome change to the standard American romantic comedies.
The key to a good remake is to give filmmakers the freedom to explore their own stories further, without constraints imposed on them by a studio. Even a legendary director like Hitchcock could admit that there were things he wished he could have done differently the first time, and with his only remake, he delivered a film he was proud of. Although sometimes this practice results in situations like The Vanishing, every now and again, when directors can make the movies they want to make, the film industry is fortunate enough to end up with a film like Heat.
With any luck, Lelio will be free to explore his story further without pressure to conform to anyone else’s ideas of what the film should be to be successful with American audiences. Though, while it’s fair to be optimistic about the upcoming remake of Gloria, Lelio’s Oscar win will hopefully prompt viewers to seek out his previous films. As good as a remake might be, it never hurts also to appreciate the original.