In Defense of Movie Remakes

Those familiar titles you're seeing on theater marquees are a sign of good stories, not creative bankruptcy

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It’s hard for any kind of entertainment or pop-culture writer to go wrong by discussing Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy, which they can easily back up by citing the most recent wave in the never-ending flood of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, and (I’m sure it’s only a matter of time) preboots. It’s easy to complain about studios continually trying to wring more money from stories that have already been told. But one film-industry franchise that always seems to come back for more and more installments is one I’m particularly weary of: media pieces critical of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy.

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Its true that this fall alone, we’ll be seeing (or at least be asked to see) remakes of Straw Dogs, Footloose, The Thing, and The Three Musketeers. There seems to be the most buzz about Footloose, possibly because this is only the first time it’s been remade. The Thing, however, is on its third outing, while The Three Musketeers may be one of the most remade films in movie history; it shares its title with nearly thirty other entries on the Internet Movie Database, if you count the translated ones, dating all the way back to 1903.

There is a wide range of “original” films in the theaters at any given time, but it’s no surprise that both creators and consumers want a known quality. If a given movie isn’t directly related to something audiences enjoyed in the past in a narrative sense (i.e. some kind or “-quel” or “re-“), it’s got actors they know, or, as has lately become the fashion, came from “The Guys Who Brought You” something they know. Hollywood is just like any other business: they stick to what works. As long as people go to see reboots and remakes, they’re going to keep making them.

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I’m not telling you to stop seeing them, though, because I don’t have any intention of doing so myself. Recycling may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but plenty of respected dramatic artists have retold familiar tales and done it in a fresh way. (One that comes to mind is William Shakespeare.) In fact, there are plenty of perfectly valid artistic reasons for remakes. As filmmaking technology, audience sophistication, and contemporary sensibilities evolve over time, it’s sometimes worth coming back to a story and telling it in a way that it couldn’t have or wouldn’t have been told in the time of the original. The modern remake (with the possible exception of Footloose, judging from the trailer alone) tends to be less of a remake — with that word’s implication of a word-for-word, shot-for-shot repeat of the original — than an update, an artifact of today’s world, rather than some relic with the top layer of dust blown off. If remakes can be accomplished with insight and imagination, and I believe they can, there’s no reason they shouldn’t exist. They’re certainly no threat to the first iterations. As my editors at Television Without Pity tweeted the day another remake was announced, “Worst part of the Dirty Dancing remake is how the producers plan to sneak into people’s homes and steal their DVDs of the original film.”

And after all, if a story is worth telling once, it’s worth telling again. Maybe not all remakes are up to snuff, but let’s face it: not all movies are either.