This is part of our series Origin Stories, a biweekly column that uses film history to understand the hot topics of today.
The number of complaints about remakes these days would have you believing Hollywood’s interest in rehashing old stories is a modern phenomenon. While it’s true that the 2000s had the most remakes of any decade, with 19 made in 2005 alone, the movie industry has been remaking its own hits since before synchronized sound was introduced to filmmaking. To understand why Hollywood favors the remake and why audiences continue to turn out for them, let’s take a step back in time.
The very first remake is difficult to track down. Many silent films from the dawn of cinema have been lost — as high as 75 percent of them — because the industry deemed them unimportant once sound technology became the standard. This makes it hard to trace the true firsts in film, but there are films widely considered to be among the earliest remakes.
One of them is Georges Méliès’ L’Arroseur from 1896. A year earlier, his fellow French filmmakers the Lumière Brothers made a silent short called L’Arroseur arrosé. The Lumière work is the earliest known example of film comedy, portraying a young boy tormenting a gardener by stepping on the hose he is using to water the garden. Méliès was not the only filmmaker to redo the original, though. L’Arroseur arrosé was copied and redistributed under several different titles in France and in the United States since there were little to no regulations for an industry still undefined at the time.
The Great Train Robbery is another early film remade less than a year after the first version. In 1904, Siegmund Lubin produced a shot-for-shot copy of the Edwin S. Porter-helmed original, but the imitation was not approved. Strict copyright laws for cinema did not exist until 1912, so there were no rules when it came to being “inspired” by other films. The Great Train Robbery was, therefore, easily ripped off, often with a new title, and also parodied over the next few years. The amendment to the 1909 Copyright Act did not prevent producers from remaking films after that, it just made it harder to outright steal and copy a film.
Remaking past films continued once the true business empire of Hollywood gained ground for several reasons. The main focus of the movie business has always been and always will be money, so most of the industry’s decisions can be boiled down to whatever makes them more of it. And historically, remakes have been profitable. As for why remaking films is lucrative for Hollywood, that is up for debate.
One reason Hollywood has turned to past successes for new projects is due to changes in filmmaking technology. Sound disrupted Hollywood in a way no other advancement has since. Studios needed to do a lot of catching up to meet this new standard set by Warner Bros. with their 1927 film The Jazz Singer. Expensive equipment needed to be bought, differently skilled workers needed to be hired, and existing movie theaters had to be wired for sound.
Screenwriters also needed to tell stories in a different way, now with realistic dialogue instead of title cards. Meanwhile, some of the biggest stars of the silent era could not sustain having their voices recorded, thanks to heavy accents or voices that did not fit their persona created on screen. All of this change created risks for studios (and at a time when the US was in the Great Depression), so it is no wonder they wouldn’t want to gamble with stories they were unsure audiences would like.
Films of every genre were remade, now with sound. The 1934 Count of Monte Cristo was a remake of the 1922 silent film Monte Cristo (itself based on the Alexandre Dumas novel). The now-classic 1935 adaptation of Captain Blood with Errol Flynn was a remake of the 1924 film of the same name. These films feature stories of classic adventure with a hero that the audience can root for, two elements that made for a sure-fire hit. They made great vehicles for emerging stars like Flynn and Robert Donat.
Adventure movies also created a great opportunity to show off new technology that allowed for sound effects that the industry was unable to produce with just a pianist in movie theaters. Updating an outdated film is a good way to present how Hollywood was progressing, which made the industry look better and as a result made it more profitable.
Technology sprouted yet another reason to remake successful films of the past when Technicolor became the shiniest cinematic attraction around. James Layton, the author of The Dawn of Technicolor, told The Atlantic, “Technicolor had developed this very vibrant, saturated palette. When these films started getting more colorful, that’s what audiences reacted to. They loved this artificial, fantasy, over-the-top palette. And that’s the way color shifted. It’s idealized.”
Where sound changed how audiences interacted with narratives, now color film did the same. This prompted Hollywood to recycle some of the most-loved stories from black-and-white films such as Pygmalion, The Philadelphia Story, Little Women, and Kismet. Several of these examples derive from the adaptations of works that are adaptations of other works, etc. For example, Pygmalion, which spawned the Broadway musical and then the film My Fair Lady, is based on a play inspired by another play based on an ancient myth.
Many of the color remakes of black and white films evolved into musicals. State Fair from 1933 was a straight narrative film, but the 1945 version adds musical numbers. This is also true for the 1954 remake of A Star is Born. And Kismet, which was originally based on a play, the remake of which is based on a Broadway musical version. The Philadelphia Story, also based on a play, spawned a renamed musical called High Society. The best way to show off colorful visuals and the lyricism of this new technology was to put the plots to song and dance.
It’s interesting to note that a large number of these musical remakes happened after World War II. While black-and-white film noir was delving into darker themes in postwar America, these colorful musicals are direct opposition to the existential issues of World War II. They offer a reprieve from heavy subjects and the past difficult years.
Hollywood would go on to redo films with newer special effects as well. Horror is a genre very accustomed to remakes of successful movies and cult favorites. Many of the top slasher films have been remade since their introduction in the 1970s, replacing the practical effects with digital effects as the technology evolved. Whether or not digital effects make Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees scarier is up to the viewer, but the possibility brought audiences out to new versions of Halloween and Friday the 13th in the late 2000s.
Digital effects have more recently prompted remakes of animated features, namely those from Disney’s vault of classics. The studio has found new ways to recycle its content for new generations. Live-action remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Alice in Wonderland not only attract children but their parents and grandparents as well. They feed off of nostalgia, just as Disney’s strategy of regularly re-releasing these animated films once did, and that’s a big moneymaker. Last year’s remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King made Disney over $900 million in the US and Canada alone.
Hollywood doesn’t only look to itself for source material to mine from. Remakes of foreign films have been happening since sound cinema brought about language barriers for audiences, and not all moviegoers were willing or able to read subtitles. As we saw with the backlash against Parasite winning Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, many Americans today are still completely unwilling to watch foreign films.
Remakes of international features involve more than just translating dialogue, however. Most of them also change settings, adapt stories and themes for cultural differences, and Americanize the plot in order to appease audiences used to a Hollywood ending. The classic Western The Magnificent Seven, the 2009 horror movie The Uninvited, and Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture-winning crime drama The Departed are all movies considered quintessentially American, but each has roots in foreign cinema.
Regardless of the original source, audiences turn out for remakes with the hope that they will get something different out of the new version. And there are numerous remakes that diverge substantially from their base material and create something unique. The comedy Airplane! is a remake of the disaster thriller Zero Hour!, but it’s extremely different in tone, genre, and reputation. The Front Page saw one of its characters gender-swapped to create the classic comedy His Girl Friday, adding romance in just the right places. Such remakes feel honest in their intentions, setting out to achieve more than just box office success.
More recently, the classic Universal monster movie The Invisible Man was remade for the studio by Blumhouse Productions with a unique story of its own. There are hints of the original (based on an H.G. Wells novel) in the plot, but the new Invisible Man does not just rehash the 1933 version. The remake breathes new life into the mysterious figure of an invisible man and presents audiences with an entirely different perspective, this one following a separate character, without tarnishing the original’s reputation.
There is still a risk in remaking a movie when the new version feels like an entirely different story, however. A lot of fans don’t like to see their favorite films changed too much, even if the truth is that their beloved originals remain, untouched. But this approach is really the only warranted reason to remake a film, to tell a story in a very different way, and it shouldn’t be looked down upon if there is real creativity involved.
Remakes are not new to Hollywood and they are likely not going away any time soon. As long as they bring a profit, there is still a good enough reason for studios to produce them. Hopefully learning the history of them will offer a better understanding of why they are made and how to engage with them.