Essays · Movies

We Need To Talk About The Word “Remake”

By  · Published on March 23rd, 2017

If we’re going to use it as an insult, let’s define our terms.

The film industry seems to have no shortage of words that either serve as synonyms or subsets of “adaptation,” most of which are brought to you by the letter “R”: reboot, reimagining, rendition, redo, revival, retelling, recreation, reanimation (and looking to the other 25 letters in the alphabet, version, homage, makeover, update). One, however, is not treated quite like the others, and that word is “remake.” When filmmakers bring it up by choice, it usually seems to be to explain why their films should not be thought of by that term, thank you very much.

Perhaps you know exactly what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you think I’m reading far too much into things. After going through over 500 pages of research on remakes and adaptations, I myself thought the latter just as possible as the former.

So I decided to collect some data.

I looked at 50 reviews of Bill Condon’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast, which I then categorized as being largely positive, largely negative, or solidly mixed, focusing on how they characterized the relationship between the new film and the 1991 animated version (for example, if they loved Dan Stevens and Emma Watson, but made disparaging comments about Disney’s new live-action obsession, I marked it as mixed). I just picked the first 50 reviews over 100 words in length that I found from a combination of Rotten Tomatoes-acknowledged critics and a Google News search. This left me with 25 positive, 16 negative, and 9 mixed reviews. No, I’m not winning any awards for experimental design any time soon, but I did put in a fair bit of effort (yes, 50 is an arbitrary number).

Of the positive reviews, 7 (28%) referred to the 2017 film as a remake at some point or another. Six of nine mixed reviews (66.7%) used the term “remake.” Every single one of the 16 negative reviews, meanwhile, referred to the film as a “remake.” [For the record: the IMDb blurb of Beauty and the Beast (2017) refers to it as an “adaptation.”]

Of course, that is not to say that every single negative review lurking out there on the internet of the new Beauty and the Beast includes the word “remake,” but I think the data provides strong enough evidence to call it: on some level, the word “remake” rubs a good deal of people the wrong way.

So, there we have it: “remake” is a dismissive term.

But ‐ and here’s the real $1,000,000 question ‐ what is a remake? Considering we have that veritable treasure trove of “re-” terms currently used more-or-less synonymously, can we come up with a solid working definition of “remake” that incorporates this dismissive subtext?

Now, defining and categorizing and sub-categorizing adaptations and remakes and updates and expansions and compressions and transpositions and homages and superimpositions and revisions (oh my!) escalates a lot quicker than one might think. I braved my way through a “eurhythmatic analysis” (no connection to the pop duo, sadly) of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and the only thing it made me certain of is that I will never be able to mindlessly enjoy those films again. I saw homage defined as a subtype of remake in one essay and a subtype of adaptation in another book, which would be a lot less ironic if I hadn’t then realized they were written by the same person. So either he had a change of heart or considers remake a sort of sub-umbrella of adaptation. It’s hard to say, because according to the index of the latter work (and a thorough re-reading of the context in which homage is defined), the term “remake” wasn’t worth featuring in a 300-page volume on film adaptation. All of this is to say that my research on this subject left me feeling like Palmer Smith (David Rasche) and J. K. Simmons’ nameless C.I.A. authority figure at the end of Burn After Reading. But I digress.

I do, incredibly, have a point in telling you all this, and the point is this: my usual method, in which I boil down some film theory and pour it over some recent releases and season with semi-obscure references to taste, failed me this time. That is to say: it’s (mostly) my own attempts at logic and reasoning from here on out, folks.


Okay. So let’s start with adaptation, and crudely define it as the basing of one work on other, pre-existing work(s). The line between inspiration and adaptation is at best hazy, at worst non-existent.

My go-to cinematic illustration of this is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later ‐ or, as I like to think of it, my favorite adaptation of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Screenwriter Alex Garland has been relatively frank about his debt to Wyndham. When asked about his choice to introduce the protagonist, Jim (Cillian Murphy), waking up from a coma, Garland responded: “It was really to facilitate a lift from Day of the Triffids ‐ where a guy goes into hospital and the world is normal, then comes out and everything is turned on its head.” But really, it goes much deeper than that. From the way Jim ends up in that fateful coma (a work-related incident), to the way he and love interest Selena (Naomie Harris) end up with a young female tagalong, to the military status of the non-mob-creature antagonists introduced relatively late in the narrative (Christopher Eccleston’s Major Henry West), there are echoes of Day of the Triffids running through 28 Days Later from beginning to end. Boyle’s film is basically the (fantastic) answer to, “what would happen if you modernized Day of the Triffids and conflated venomous tripedal man-eating plants and a blinding green meteor shower into a zombie rage virus pandemic?”

28 Days Later

With that in mind, and since I am a “prepare for the worst” sort of person, let us then consider all films as existing on a sliding scale of adaptation, in which remakes are so far to one extreme of the scale that they actually fall right off. In other words, I am asking you to imagine remakes as both being adaptations and not being adaptations.

This is actually a lot less crazy than it sounds. I’m basically asking you to think of remakes and adaptations as night and day. We pose day and night as opposites due to the presence or absence of sunlight, but night is also a subset of the 24-hour periods we call days ‐ a subset that is also in opposition.

How remake is a subset of adaptation is quite obvious: it is, by necessity based on some other work. How remakes are in opposition to adaptations is decidedly less so, yet one need look no further than the words themselves to see the conflict: adaptation has a decidedly forward connotation to it ‐ adaption, evolution, process, change. Remake, meanwhile, is by definition going backwards ‐ returning.

So there we have it: a conflict between remake and adaptation. But that still leaves us with a very important question: what the hell is a remake?

In the essay “Twice-Told Tales: Disavowal and the Rhetoric of the Remake,” Thomas Leitch defines movie remakes as “new versions of old movies.” This might seem incredibly obvious, but there’s an important implication here: if you are taking a story from one medium to another, it cannot rightly be called a remake. The inherent challenges of translating a story from one medium with specific advantages and disadvantages to a different medium with different specific advantages and disadvantages are also a considerable source of value (this concept is literally known as medium specificity). [Cross-language adaptations face a similar hurdle that prevents even the most faithful of such adaptations, like Let Me In and Let The Right One In, from being remakes.]

For example, the anime auteur Satoshi Kon explained his heavy use of live-action references in his animated films thusly: “I’ve always been inspired by live action. But it isn’t for the love of cinema. In fact, it’s more because I don’t want to take references from other animation. If you make animation from another animation, I don’t see the interest in reproducing the very same thing. I think that when you change the form, new ideas are born. For example, when you adapt a play for the cinema, the interest comes from the change of form. Allowing you to bring in fresh ideas.”

But wait, you might be thinking, isn’t that the whole point of this slew of new live-action Disney films? Like what Kon said, but in reverse? The answer to that question would be a big fat “no,” because while they might not be the driving forces behind these films, advancements in computer graphics opened the gates ‐ advancements which have the ability to selectively erase the animated-to-live-action medium specificity hurdle. Disney’s not approaching the concept of, for example, talking household objects or a bratty prince cursed to resemble a bipedal water buffalo from a different angle ‐ they’re all still fundamentally animated, just with greater verisimilitude. If they could have done these films with the technology available 20 years ago, they would have ‐ just look at the live-action 101 Dalmatians.

Before moving on, there is an important subgroup that must be identified and weeded out before we move forward: the pseudo-remake. Considering the number of films adapted from other media, one must be careful dealing with “remakes” of adapted films. Is the primary point of reference for the new film the old film, or the old film’s source? In other words, is it a remake or a re-adaptation?

For example, no one in their right minds would call Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy a remake of Ralph Bashki’s 1978 animated film. Really, the only arguable case for the latter influencing the former is perhaps as a cautionary tale.

As the name would suggest, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looked much more to Dahl’s novel than to Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (of which Burton is not a fan).

The Coens themselves refer to their True Grit as a re-adaptation as opposed to a remake of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version, Ralph Lamar Turner notes in “‘Why Do You Think I am Paying You if Not to Have My Way?’ Genre Complications in the Free-Market Critiques of Fictional and Filmed Versions of True Grit,” there are certain elements of their film ‐ the severity of Cogburn’s drink problem, for example, that can be traced back to the earlier film much more than the novel.

Remake… or re-adaptation?

You’ve Got Mail openly pulls from both Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner and the play Parfumerie from which the 1940 film is adapted.

The disaster that was last year’s Ben-Hur attempted to present itself as a “re-adaptation,” but then had their version of the chariot sequence ‐ i.e., the most iconic scene of the iconic 1959 film ‐ front and center in their promotional materials. Take that as you will.

As with most things, there are a lot of grey areas. even when inspired by the original film’s source material, re-adaptations—especially when the earlier adaptation is a well-known work in its own right ‐ often show at least some relation to earlier adaptations, either by homage or, in some cases, carefully avoiding paths already trodden by earlier adaptations.

Ultimately, though, if you’re going to call something a “remake” you need to be able to argue that that film’s content is pulled primarily from a single earlier film.

Much like Leitch, Björn Bohnenkamp and colleagues, in a Journal of Cultural Economics article, state that movie remakes “tell a story again that has been told before, in the same modality in which it has been told before.” But this is hardly sufficient. By either of these definitions, remakes include a large number of hugely diverse films with a variety of relationships to their predecessors. Leaving the definition here does not explain why “remake” is the preferred term of unimpressed critics everywhere.

The key is change ‐ that concept of progress, of evolution, that I referred to earlier. While changing the medium guarantees this sort of change, it’s hardly the only way to get there. Going back to Disney, Maleficent is hardly to Sleeping Beauty what the live-action Beauty and the Beast is to the 1991 one. This perspective switch on a familiar story isn’t seen in movies a quarter so much as it is in literature, where novels ranging from Wicked to Grendel have revisited popular narratives from new perspectives, and though these works cross no media boundaries, people seem to have no desire to refer to them as remakes. So why would we refer to their cinematic equivalents as such? I say we shouldn’t.

The general rule of thumb I’ve come up with for differentiating remakes from all other movies based on other movies, after far too much research and time, is that if you can pitch the overall relationship between the old film and the new film in specific terms (i.e. “like the original, only better” won’t fly) without it sounding pathetic, it’s not a remake:

Maleficent is Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s perspective.

Treasure Planet is Treasure Island set in the future, in space.

Ghostbusters (2016) is a gender-flipped update of Ghostbusters (1984).

For films that fail this test, there’s one last hope: there is something deeply satisfying in a film that realizes its full potential ‐ something almost as satisfying as a film which fails to reach its full potential is disheartening. Giving a second chance to missed opportunities has considerable potential as a motive for recreating an existing film, only Hollywood is not known for its history of seeking future success in the wreckage of past failures. It’s known for doing the exact opposite.

Which finally brings us to the real deal ‐ the true remake. The reason for these films’ existence is purely economic. They seek to repeat a success verbatim, only perhaps writ larger. That is not to say that films that are not remakes cannot be made for purely economic reasons, but at least there’s hope. Remakes, to put it bluntly, have no soul or substance. That does not mean that they cannot be entertaining or enjoyable, that they cannot be well-crafted. They can be all of these things ‐ or none.

Are remakes inherently repulsive? They certainly have some ugly qualities, especially if you peel back the curtain a little, but I generally put them somewhere on the scale between mindless fun and necessary evil (movie business is a business, after all).

Regardless, the new Beauty and the Beast is unequivocally a remake. Of all of the live-action “spins” on old animated films from the Disney canon that have been released since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, it is the only one that leaves little room for argument on this matter. Maleficent completely shifted the perspective of Sleeping Beauty, in a way that also had significant thematic implications. The Jungle Book and Cinderella featured no such seismic shifts, but pulled from sources beyond their Disney animated versions. For the former, this included a significantly different ending, for the latter, some smaller but still quite important differences, like changing the timeline of Ella and the Prince’s relationship so that it’s a little bit more like an actual relationship and less hi/bye/I-think-you-left-your-shoe-also-marry-me.

The new Beauty and the Beast has an “exclusively gay moment” that has simultaneously snowballed into both a controversy and, quite frankly, a joke, and interracial kisses between minor characters who spend most of the film as household objects. It fills in a few plot holes and expands a few back stories. It changes nothing of any substance, but it dangles out little sparkly baubles of “inclusivity” and “feminism” to distract you from this fact. It’s a remake that wants desperately to trick you into thinking it’s something beyond what it is, which is actually the only part that I personally find irritating. Because it’s one thing to be a piece of cotton candy ‐ that singular foodstuff that entirely lacks both physical and nutritional substance ‐ it’s another thing to act as if said confection wouldn’t melt like the Wicked Witch of the West in a gentle rain.

But then again, it is working. After all, I’m sitting here writing about the film, aren’t I?

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.