Film Remakes That Don’t Suck
It’s inevitable. A studio announces a remake of a beloved film and a wave of armchair critics cry that the “classics should be left alone” and “Hollywood has run out of ideas.”
I concede that these comments aren’t entirely unreasonable. There have been many bad remakes over the decades. For example, the 1975 film “Rollerball” was a brilliant movie that explored individualism in a hyper-capitalistic system. The 2001 version of the same film, on the other hand, should have all known copies incinerated and anyone who suffered through it should receive an immediate refund with interest. The 2003 film “Old Boy” was an intriguing Korean film based on a Japanese comic book that explored the themes of shame, hidden secrets, and revenge, all through the lens of the Japanese and Korean cultures. The 2013 version of the film, as directed by Spike Lee, was mediocre at best.
But there are remakes that are worthy of our attention. They bring new interpretations to the older films that keep them relevant, or they showcase the brilliance of the older films that might not have been fully appreciated upon initial viewing. For example:
Yojimbo (1961) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
This isn’t the first Japanese film to be remade into a western, nor is it the first Akira Kurosawa film to be reinterpreted, but we will start here as it is a prime example of how a remake can shine a light on the brilliance in the original film, and how that can change other films that follow.
Over the years, I have forced relatives and friends to watch these films back-to-back, not just because they are both brilliant works of cinematography, but mostly to see their jaws drop open when they realize that one of the greatest western films of our times is practically a mirror copy of a Japanese samurai film.
“Yojimbo” triggered a revolution in both Japanese and American films. Before this film, the good guys were easily identified as the good guys. Good guys had honorable intentions, flawless costumes and unquestionable motives. The bad guys, on the other hand, were often filthy, had loose morals and clearly only shaved once a week.
After these films, those lines blurred.
No longer was the “good guy” the person with the white hat and the badge. Instead, the protagonist in both “Yojimbo” and “A Fistful of Dollars” is a broke, filthy, crude fighter who is wandering from town to town. He finds a community being terrorized by two competing gangs who have fought to a standstill, and he sees a chance to make a quick buck. He has no problem with killing people for a few dollars. But as he plays each side off each other, he learns about the real sins of the community — a wife has been kidnapped from her family and is being held as a concubine by one of the gangs, and the community has come to accept this as OK. This is when he grows a conscience and takes action.
Both movies are brilliantly filmed, with many twists and turns. Both also have fantastic soundtracks that amp up the tension, and in a first for American films, the American soundtrack copies the cadence of the Japanese music in the original. In both movies, the “hero” of the film never mentions his name , thus creating the first “nameless hero” meme that would be copied in countless movies to come.
“A Fistful of Dollars” would revolutionize the Western motif. It would lead to “For a Few Dollars More,” “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” and dozens of other similar films. Also, the motif of the “not-so-good” good guy would eventually be translated into modern cop films and science fiction as well, leading to “Dirty Harry,” “Die Hard” and the “Mad Max” quadrilogy.
The Seven Samurai (1954) and The Magnificent Seven (1960).
This is another Akira Kurosawa film adapted as a western. Just like “Yojimbo,” “The Seven Samurai” is another ground-breaking film from Kurosawa and is considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made, often making it on the AFI’s annual top 100 films list.
The difference between “The Seven Samurai” and “The Magnificent Seven” is that the makers of the American film did not believe that a Japanese movie could be translated directly for American audiences. The movies share an overall plot — a small agrarian community that is terrorized by a group of bandits hires seven questionable fighters to help protect the community.
The Americanized version stripped much of the Japanese sense of honor from the movie, Americanized the “young lovers” story from the original, made sure the good guys could be distinguished from the bad guys in the way they dressed and spoke and emphasized one-on-one gunfights as opposed to the teamwork emphasized in the Japanese version. Yet despite these Americanizations, “The Magnificent Seven” is considered a classic, as the acting is solid and the preservation of the overall story arc managed to break through cultural barriers and be presented as a universal underdog story. (It should be noted that this film was made again in 2016 as “The Magnificent Seven” but only received mixed reviews despite its all-star cast.)
Being a “remake” does not mean that a movie has to be a near-identical copy of the source material or even use the same story arc. For an example of this, we turn to:
Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Heaven Can Wait (1978).
Watching these back-to-back is a master class in rewriting and reinterpretation, as these two classic films couldn’t be more different from each other. Besides the title, they only share one other commonality — the movies revolve around a man who has died and the subsequent discussion in the afterlife about what to do with his soul.
The original film is a sweet light comedy about an aristocrat who is trying to convince Satan about why he deserves to be condemned to Hell. He reasons that he never lived up to the expectations of the women in his life. The film is mostly flashbacks and montages of his life. It’s a good film that bucked the trend that year, as most other films focused on the war, gangsters and “manly men.” So this movie was seen as “refreshingly quirky.”
Contrast that to the 1978 version of “Heaven Can Wait.” In that film, an up-and-coming football player is pulled out of his body just moments before a car crash, because his guardian angel (played by the brilliant Buck Henry, who also wrote the screenplay) wants to spare him from pain and suffering, not knowing that the football player would have survived the crash. So in this version of the film, the angel places the player’s soul in someone else’s body while he searches for a more permanent solution for him to correct the error.
Both movies are considered timeless classics with the earlier version being remastered by The Criterion Collection and both being nominated for numerous Oscars (the 1978 film won for best design).
Scarface (1932) and Scarface (1983)
Just like with “Heaven Can Wait,” these two seem to be completely independent of each other. But while “Heaven Can Wait” was a complete rewrite from end-to-end, “Scarface’s” remake maintained its original story arc about a gangster who relies on violence to rise to the top, and then is brought down by his own personal misgivings.
The original is a Howard Hawks filmed produced by Howard Hughes (yes that Howard Hughes, the man who later wore tissue boxes on his feet and kept jars of urine around his house). Paul Muni plays a violent, psychopathic mobster who quickly rises to head up a New York-style gang, only to be brought down by his weaknesses.
The 1983 version modernized the gang to be cocaine smugglers, the city changed from New York to Miami, and the lead actor was Al Pacino who delivers a brilliant performance. Because of the way the story is told, this movie has stood the test of time and is still a fan favorite nearly 40 years after its original release.
Sometimes, a remake is warranted because of how bad the original is. Take a look at:
Casino Royale (1967) and Casino Royale (2006)
The original Casino Royale was based on the first Ian Fleming “James Bond” book. The film rights were purchased before the first Sean Connery James Bond movie was made. The makers of those later classic films — famed producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman — attempted to purchase the rights to “Casino Royale” but the parties could not reach an agreement. So instead, it was independently produced as a “spoof.” It stars David Niven as “James Bond” and includes several scenes with an extremely young Woody Allen. This film’s only redeeming quality is its film score.
It wasn’t until through the power of media acquisitions that MGM eventually swallowed up the company that owned this film and secured the rights to the book. Hence it was remade in 2006 as a “proper” James Bond film with Daniel Craig. This later film would revive the then-waning James Bond film series, tearing it away from the campy feel that the late 70’s and early 80’s movies had and bringing them in line with the more hard-core realism that is found in the books. And not-so-ironically, it ended up remaking one of the worst James Bond films of all time into one of the best James Bond films of all time.
Sometimes remakes are just made because someone has a fun twist to the original. Check out:
Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Both movies are very similar in plot, right down to having a sadistic dentist and a love-lorn but an oppressively shy clerk in a gardening store. But the original was a B-movie film that was destined for limited runs in art houses and drive-in movie theaters, while the newer version became a box-office sensation.
The original was made by the master of schlock-horror Roger Corman. It’s worth watching not only to see one of his first movies ever made (he would later make such classic B-films as “Bucket of Blood,” “Boxcar Bertha” and “Death Race 2000”) but to also see Jack Nicholson in one of his first on-screen roles. Overall, the movie is campy with cheap sets and bad lighting and pretty much everything you would want from terrible B-movie horror.
Now compare that to the 1986 version, which was based on the Broadway musical that was based on the original film. In the later film, the colors are vibrant, the acting is great, the music is awesome, and the cameo by Steve Martin is classic. This film would become a megahit, spawning a best-selling soundtrack album to boot.
Other originals and remakes worth checking out include:
· The Killers (1946) and The Killers (1964)
· Infernal Affairs (2002) and The Departed (2006)
· The Thing (1951) and The Thing (1982)
· True Grit (1969) and True Grit (2010)
· The Fly (1958) and The Fly (1986)
· Cape Fear (1962) and Cape Fear (1991)
Not all remakes should be immediately condemned. Yes, there are beloved classics that we wish would not be touched, but some remakes are so clever they serve as a testament to the power of creativity and the impressions that the art of film continue to have on our psyche.