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Why no film should be considered unremakable

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Photo: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," 1978. Courtesy the Everett Collection.

One little word -- shouldn't -- gets one writer really worked up.

The Telegraph has a slideshow this week entitled “Films that shouldn’t have been remade.” The list, inspired by the news of an impending remake of the ’80s comedy “Police Academy” (because the brilliance of the original “Police Academy” cannot be improved upon, I guess?), includes such inessential cinema as Jan de Bont’s “The Haunting,” Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon,” and Wolfgang Petersen’s “Poseidon.” There’s one or two films on the list I don’t mind — F. Gary Gray’s “The Italian Job” strikes me as innocuous, well-crafted fun — but on the whole, it’s hard to argue than any of these films are better than, or even equal to, their original texts. If any of them were erased from existence, very few people would care. Hell, nobody would (except maybe Jan de Bont, Brett Ratner, and Wolfgang Petersen).

Still, I’m having a really hard time with the title of this piece: the films that shouldn’t have been remade. Yes, anecdotally, these movies turned out pretty poorly. But hindsight is always 20/20. Just because the results were bad doesn’t mean the idea was bad. And remaking a film — even a classic — isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

I realize that most remakes are symptomatic of creative bankruptcy in the studio system. I realize that most exist purely to cash-in on the name recognition of a popular cinematic brand. I believe that film lovers should fight for more originality in their movies. But putting up arbitrary limitations is the wrong way to foster creativity. Movies have enough rules already. The best movies are the ones that break all the rules. Even, sometimes, the rules about what should or shouldn’t be remade.

We could very easily make a list of movies that shouldn’t have been remade but were, and turned out pretty well regardless. There was no reason to remake “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but Philip Kaufman’s version from 1978 is just as or maybe more vital than Don Siegel’s original from 1956. By 1978, the McCarthyism that fueled the allegory at the heart of the ’56 version was long gone, which is why on some level you could say it shouldn’t have been remade. But Kaufman found new subtext to graft onto the pod people motif and he made the pod people themselves way scarier than they were in the first film. That’s two “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” both of them excellent.

In explaining why Nicolas Cage’s version of “The Wicker Man” shouldn’t have been made, The Telegraph‘s Mark Monahan says the 1973 “Wicker Man” was “too strange, too original, too of its time ever to brook a remake.” We could probably say the same of Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” which became such a good remake — 1964′s “A Fistful of Dollars” by Sergio Leone — it practically invented an entire genre, the spaghetti Western. F.W. Murnau invented the vampire movie with 1922′s “Nosferatu.” Does that mean Tod Browning’s “Dracula” from 1931 — which is essentially a remake — shouldn’t have been made, too? If it hadn’t, that would leave us without Bela Lugosi’s magnificent and iconic Dracula — to say nothing about Christopher Lee’s Count in the Hammer films of the 1950s and ’60s, or Klaus Kinski’s in Werner Herzog’s incredible “Nosferatu” remake from 1979.

Do the bad remakes outweigh the good ones? Absolutely. But the bad sci-fi movies outweigh the good ones, and the bad legal thrillers outweight the good ones, and the bad of any artistic medium outweighs the good of any artistic medium. Remakes aren’t necessarily the best place for cinematic invention — but that doesn’t mean they render cinematic invention impossible. One of Monahan’s “shouldn’t have been remade” titles is the 2011 version of “The Thing.” But the 1982 “The Thing” by John Carpenter was itself a remake of a pretty damn good 1951 thiller called “The Thing From Another World.” The story’s the same, the setting’s the same, even the title card is basically identical. Nevertheless, Carpenter remade it into what some, including this author, consider one of the best horror films of all time. So why should the 1982 “The Thing” exist and the 2011 “The Thing” not exist? The same motivations — i.e. the desire to make a good movie and the desire to make money — drove both productions. One turned out great, one turned out not so great. That’s the gamble of moviemaking. And, to my mind, the brilliance of Carpenter’s “The Thing” is all the proof I need why it’s a gamble worth taking.

“But Matt,” you’re saying, “there’s got to be some movies that are so perfect that they should be untouchable.” “Citizen Kane.” “The Godfather.” “Seven Samurai.” Oh wait, they already remade that one.

And that’s my point. I wouldn’t be dumb enough to remake any of those masterpieces myself, but I’d be mighty interested to see the results of the crazy person who would. Some films shouldn’t be remade? No. What we really shouldn’t do is restrict what filmmakers should or shouldn’t do.


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