2 weeks ago
It’s the same old story. Literally.
A new “A Star Is Born” is already in theaters. Then comes another “Halloween” (actually a third “Halloween II,” but retitled, rewritten, and with elements of “Halloween H20”).
Then it’s time for a gruesomely redone “Suspiria.” One more reprise of “The Grinch.” Plus remedial Olde English recaps of “Robin Hood” and “Mary, Queen of Scots.”
And those are just the remakes scheduled for the next three months.
Potential re-dos of “Pet Sematary,” “An American Werewolf in London,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Starship Troopers,” “WarGames,” “The Birds,” “Escape From New York,” “Romancing the Stone” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” have also already been announced. Or should that be “threatened”?
Mel Gibson was back in the news recently too, and while that’s never a good way to start a sentence, this bulletin was particularly surprising: He just got the go-ahead to go back to Sam Peckinpah’s classic “The Wild Bunch,” and shoot a new version. Because who couldn’t improve on that landmark film?
Call them re-boots, call them re-imaginings, call them regurgitations, call them anything you want. But first, can someone yell cut? Please?
Granted, it’s not as if we expect much originality in our movies anymore. Imagination is rarer in Hollywood than modesty, and the only thing in possibly shorter supply is courage. Studios feel a lot safer telling stories they’ve already told.
But now they’re starting to remake remakes.
We’ve already had two adaptations of “Little Women” this year – a mini-series, and an updated modern version – with a third ready to start shooting. And get ready for a computer-animated Grinch, even though we’ve already had one bad live-action one, and the original, classic cartoon is still an annual TV tradition.
It’s not as it repeats should be outlawed, outright (although it’s tempting). Broadway gets to revive great shows all the time. Singers still cover standards. If a movie has a sturdy story, and room for a couple of terrific performances – like “A Star Is Born,” currently on its fourth-go-round – it’s worth reviving every generation or so.
But it works best if it wasn’t a perfect movie to begin with.
I happen to love the first, 1937 “A Star Is Born,” but even I’ll admit some of it – the slapstick honeymoon, the spunky grandmother – hasn’t worn well. The second was brilliantly acted but badly recut by the studio. The third – well, maybe it’d help if I loved Barbra at least half as much as she does.
So, sure, this classic movie was one worth doing again. And while the recent version isn’t error-free either, the love story is still engaging and the bittersweet ending is guaranteed to send another generation reaching for their Kleenex, just like their parents and grandparents did.
Clearly, no one’s saying there often isn’t room for improvement, or at least another take, on an old tale. But no one needed a new “Suspiria” either, with entrails all over the floor and Tilda Swinton leading the dance troupe from hell – literally. Dario Argento’s 1977 version was fine just the way it was.
And the 1969 “The Wild Bunch,” with its brilliant study of machismo, loyalty and the vanishing West? And classic, late-career performances from William Holden and Robert Ryan? What could Gibson possibly add to that — beyond his usual mad mix of please-punish-me masochism and literally medieval theology? Why even try?
There are times when a remake makes sense – when the original version was censored, or miscast, or underbudgeted, and you finally have the ability to do it right.
John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” was the third version of that story within 10 years – but thanks to his cast and script, it was the only one that took. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” was able to indulge in the kind of cynical, sexy comedy that the original “Bedtime Story” could only wink at. The HBO “Mildred Pierce” miniseries a few years ago was able to use huge chunks of the novel the great Joan Crawford version couldn’t.
Sometimes a filmmaker has a genuinely unique approach to the story, too. Like John Carpenter’s version of “The Thing,” which replaced the original’s big bald alien with a shape-shifting monster, or David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” which swapped out the guy-in-a-bug-mask for something truly unearthly. Or Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” which took a Depression-era story of Italian-American gangsters and transplanted it to `80s, Cuban-immigrant Miami.
One of those recent “Little Women” versions, for example, sets Louisa May Alcott’s story in the present. I don’t know that I want to see Meg and Jo and Amy and Beth dragged into our ugly age – I’d much rather escape into theirs – but at least it’s a new idea. It’s not simply, let’s do “Predator” again. Or, hey, how about another “Death Wish”? Or a new “Tomb Raider?”
But most remakes are inspired by nothing more than the bottom line. Dust off a script you bought 50 years ago so there aren’t any pesky intellectual-property rights to negotiate. Put out a movie with a famous title and a familiar plot so you don’t need to spend quite so much time – and money – on advertising to let audiences know what’s coming. They already know, because they’ve already seen it. In fact, they’ve already paid for it, once.
And nothing makes Hollywood happier than a way to make them pay for it all over again.