Using a phrase like “Hollywood is shameless” is such an oft-repeated practice, that, as a professional critic, doing it can only mark you as gauche. But, at the risk of once again sounding like a whiner, I think we can all easily agree that the statement is true. On the latest episode of The B-Movies Podcast here on CraveOnline, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I discussed, briefly, that two remakes are in the works, both of Alfred Hitchcock films. And while they're not remakes of Hitchcock's better-known classics, it seems like a line is being crossed. Like Hollywood is, once again, making the sacred profane.
But, of course, this has happened plenty of times in the past. Many may remember the 1998 remake of Psycho, directed by Gus Van Sant. Despite being a shot-for-shot remake, Van Sant's little experiment only revealed that old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, even great ones, cannot be translated directly into a modern idiom. Hollywood has spent plenty of time and money remaking older films, and, most often they're remakes of little-known films. Gone in 60 Seconds or 3:10 to Yuma, for instance, are not immediately recognizable by the public at large, so it's fine to jump in and muck around with the material. A classic is not being besmirched. Ditto with the largely identical English-language remakes of J-horror films or other foreign classics (like The Grudge or Let Me In). They're pretty much useless, especially considering how subtitles are more and more widely accepted these days, but only purists like me get huffy over the idea.
But, sometimes – and with an alarming increase in frequency – the remake machine is turning to more and more legitimately classic films. I felt that remaking J-horror films was tolerable, but I thought there were certain movie monsters so well known to the horror community, that Hollywood wouldn't dare touch them. Sadly, they've all been groped roughly in the subway of the showbiz machine. The four big ones have all been remade: Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Either young audiences are less well-connected than I assume them to be, or (and this is more likely the case), Hollywood is giving us all a big ol' middle finger. They also redid John Carpenter's The Thing, and we keep hearing tales of The Evil Dead and even Hellraiser. Put down my horror icons. You're getting your greasy hands all over them. If you prefer any of these remakes over the originals, then you are a fool.
As a professional film critic, I do try to remain objective and scientific in my expectations; each film, after all, has to be given the chance to speak for itself. But sometimes the material is so familiar to me, I find myself struggling. And then if the material is not only familiar but well-loved and well-established in the public consciousness, I begin to react negatively. In a fair voice, I have to judge what I see on the screen. It doesn't have to be greater than the original, it just has to be well done. But then I begin to openly resent that a studio is trying to crassly insert themselves into any conversation about a classic film, even if only as a footnote, i.e.; “I love Halloween a lot, but the original, and not Rob Zombie's remake.”
Other great films that have been remade, and should have been left alone: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Casablanca. Planet of the Apes. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cat People. Sabrina. Charlotte's Web (!). Fame (!). Y'know what? I'll stop. The list is pretty much a rundown of 80% of films to have been released over the last three years.
Are there films too sacred to be remade? Indeed there are. And I don't just mean films that shouldn't be remade, but films that cannot be remade. Some just would never work (even though I'm sure someone would love to try). Some are too familiar. Some are too special. Some have shaken the zeitgeist so entirely that a remake would be laughed off stage by even the most cynical and greedy of ad execs. What films can we never touch? Here's a few I could think of:
The Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)
Yes, there have been several adaptations of L. Frank Baum's famous children's novel over the years, and there was even a sequel made in 1985 called Return to Oz (which is actually weird and fun), but most of these little re-examinations are smart to only quote the famous 1939 original, easily one of the most famous films ever made, and acknowledge that they will never stand up next to the shining monolith that is The Wizard of Oz. This is one of those films that kids manage to see without trying, and has pervaded popular culture in such a way as to make all cinema seem unable to exist without it. There are some future Oz projects in the works, of course (can't let a familiar name like The Wizard of Oz go unexploited), but they, like Return to Oz, allow the events of the original film stand outside of the new action they propose; one, for instance, is supposedly about the early days of the Wizard after landing in Oz for the first time. Even the shockingly complicated and blisteringly stultifying musical Wicked left the events of the original film alone. If someone actually tried to redo what we saw Judy Garland do, there would be a public lynching.
2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Well, for one, we've already passed 2001, so this vision of the future is now 11 years in the past. For another, how can you possibly re-capture the grandness of Kubrick's sci-fi epic? Maybe you can re-film the events, but the events would not implicate what was really being said: That we are mere children in the arms of the cosmos, and that space is much more enormous, and perhaps better calculated than we, puny mortal humans, can possibly understand. Kubrick was a master of the cinematic craft, and had important things to say about the imagination-destroying vastness of space. Others have tried to update Spartacus and The Shining. I once heard rumors of a remake of A Clockwork Orange. But no one has tried to even approach – or even suggest approaching – the whacked out meditation that is 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film is so very much of itself. A remake would be churlish.
Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977)
Again, a film too much of itself. As Hollywood rushes to grab anything iconic and cast newer, younger actors (anything from Footloose to Star Trek is fair game), it can be a relief to realize that some icons will always have to remain hermetically sealed into their own idiosyncrasies. Surrealism is already pure in itself , and a surrealist films like Eraserhead (which Lynch doggedly claims is not, technically speaking, surrealist) are examples for pure imagination dumped onto the screen. They are so singular of vision, that there is no “new direction” to take the material. Eraserhead cannot be “re-imagined” because it was so powerfully and vividly imagined in its full form already. Also, just about any film made by Luis Buñuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky, or any number of other “experimental” filmmakers. I think this should be the goal of an imaginative filmmaker: try to make a film that can never be remade. Imagine a visual aesthetic, a story, or a character so awesomely unique and so undeniably of itself, that no one would dare undercut it. Only a few filmmakers work with this ethos in mind. Herzog, for one, has said that the world of cinema is constantly struggling for new images, and he does his part to provide them.
Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee, 1989)
This film is, unlike the others, less a striking and original piece of art (although it is certainly that) than it is a marked piece of its time. In 1989, race relations were bubbling up, black filmmakers like Lee were beginning to have a louder voice in the filmmaking world, and the cultural visibility of hip-hop was on the rise. Sure, one could make a film that relates the events of the film (various people's relations and experiences on a hot day in Bed-Stuy, leading to a violent climax of explosive release), but, well, the impact wouldn't be there. One could update the names of the characters, update the music to a contemporary idiom, and even set the events in post-Giuliani New York, but, y'know what? You wouldn't have a film. You'd have a vague connection of urban characters leading to a meaningless action sequence. The cultural relevance of Do the Right Thing only works because it came out when it did. The lessons are still relevant, and the film is still striking, but it has to exist in 1989 to lave its mark. Many films are great, but can have come out at any time, and remain great. Some bold voices are direct reactions to the politics of the day, and Do the Right Thing has a desperate immediacy that couldn't be recaptured in an update, a remake, or period piece.
Anyway, I know these choices (undisputed classics, all) are kind of obvious, but it's very late, and, well, I am right about them after all. No doubt William has some more imaginative entries to consider. Also be sure to let us know which untouchables you think are out there.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
Nothing is sacred. Even Nothing Sacred, the 1937 Carole Lombard comedy classic, was remade in 1954 as a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis vehicle called Living It Up. I’m not personally offended by the recently announced remakes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion, but they’re edging dangerously close to sacrilege territory. You’ll know we’re in trouble when they announce that they’re redoing North by Northwest though. Not only is it patently unnecessary – since the original film is a perfectly deft and exciting thriller to this day – but it’s also genuinely insulting, both to the filmmakers and modern audiences, who would be told in no uncertain terms that they are too stupid to know about the 1959 Cary Grant classic.
I’m not one of those critics who think that remakes, in and of themselves, are evil. Many of the best films ever made are remakes, and often of films that were already brilliant. The Magnificent Seven came from Seven Samurai. The Maltese Falcon we all know and love was the second (!) remake of 1931’s The Maltese Falcon, after the Bette Davis-starring Satan Met a Lady. The film that finally won Martin Scorsese an Oscar, The Departed, was remade from the exceptional Chinese crime thriller Infernal Affairs. The world is better for having all (or at least most) versions of these films. So where do we draw the line?
There are three kinds of films, in my estimation, that simply cannot be remade…at least wisely. The first is a film that is so utterly iconic that it had such an indelible impact on the medium, that every film in the same genre must be compared directly to it. Remaking Rocky is pointless, since practically every fight movie – hell, almost every sports movie – has been remaking Rocky since 1976. The second type of film is one that simply can’t exist in the current political climate, thanks to evolving social views. Good luck getting a Song of the South remake into production. And the third is a film that is so the product of a singular vision that even if you were to remake it, you’d either be stupid as hell or forced to embrace an entirely new interpretation of the material, in order to preserve the original for posterity (and avoid negative comparisons, obviously). Most Witney’s examples fit this last theme, with the exception of The Wizard of Oz, which clearly fits the first.
So with that ideology in mind, I present to you a list of films that Hollywood pretty much can’t remake, even though in at least one instance, they’re already trying to. Ugh…
The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1915)
Yeah, this isnever going to happen. One of the great tragedies of film history is that The Birth of a Nation, the first long-form “feature”film, is also racist as all hell. It’s the sort of film everyone knows about, but few actually bother to see. All the name recognition in the world couldn’t get a remake of The Birth of a Nation off the ground, even though it grossed over $10 million in its first year of release, which roughly translates to over $210 million today. The film, based on Thomas F. Dixon’s novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (yikes), tells the story of two families – one abolitionist and one anti-abolitionist – during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. One sequence involves a white woman who kills herself when a black man wants to marry her, and the Klan killing the guy for it. That’s supposed to be a good thing, by the way (double yikes). There’s another scene in which Klansmen, on the run for their beliefs, are sheltered by Union soldiers, accompanied by a title card reading, “The former enemies of the North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright”(triple yikes).
Let’s not remake that, okay?
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (dirs. Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1974)
On the lighter side of things – the much, much lighter side – we find Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The first original feature film from the sketch comedy troupe Monty Python (after And Now for Something Completely Different, for which they pretty much reshot parts of their classic TV show), was a spectacularly zany romp through the Middle Ages, with hilarious asides (shrubbery!) sharing screen time with legitimate historical commentary (“If I went around saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!”). Audiences around the world are so captivated with Holy Grail in particular – although stalwart enthusiasts sometimes insist The Life of Brian is the better film – that they’ve got the whole movie memorized. Remaking Monty Python and the Holy Grail would be the utmost folly, since the original holds up to this day and has become a permanent part of the pop culture lexicon. Woe betide the poor fool who suggests such a thing.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim Sharman, 1975)
Believe it or not, MTV Films and Sky Movies have announced that they are, really and truly, trying to remake The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With new songs, if you can believe it. Utter pointlessness, that is. Even if they did a good job (doubtful), there’s no way it could have the same impact as the original. The original film, for all its flaws (and they are many), was a powder keg of anti-establishment kinkiness that infected an entire generation of outcasts, and played at least a small part in the increased acceptance of outsider sexual attitudes that continues to this day. Any attempt to actually fuel a similar uprising would have to include material so shocking to mainstream audiences that it would be borderline unmarketable. Even the core fan base would be against it, since they don’t even think you’ve actually seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show unless you’ve seen the original, in a theater, with a live shadow cast. And nobody, but nobody, writes lyrics like Richard O’Brien. There’s no greater folly than trying to mainstream the film that practically defined the term “cult classic.”
My Neighbor Totoro (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
The day they announce a remake of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, I’m pretty much going to have to kill myself. When we think of “singular cinematic visions,”we tend to think of bizarre creations like Eraserhead or at least broad quirkiness like The Big Lebowski. But Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 masterpiece has a distinctly calm atmosphere that wraps audiences of all ages in a nice, warm blanket of comfort and fantasy. I can’t imagine any American production company giving it the green light. There’s no plot to speak of, and no villainy afoot. The conflict comes from the disappointment of the real world interfering with the idyllic dreams of childhood, and the appeal lies in the film’s assurances that the world stays beautiful and mysterious even in life’s harsher times. And it is – to use an expression I reserve for barely a handful of motion pictures – absolutely perfect. There’s no way to improve it, and no other interpretation that doesn’t risk injecting My Neighbor Totoro with sensibilities that contrast with its purpose. It is simply untouchable. I’m sure there’s some producer out there who sees the adorable Totoro toys on the market and wants to whip out a cheapie American version to load up with product placement and overt drama. If you know this person, please slap them. Tell them it’s from the human race.
That’s just scratching the surface. What films do you think should never be remade?