Remakes Rethink: Is Hollywood Really Out Of Ideas?

Oct 14, 2011

It's been a big year for Hollywood remakes — more than a dozen, not counting sequels. There were new versions of Conan the Barbarian and Arthur this summer. Fresh incarnations of Footloose and The Thing open today. And soon we'll see Hollywood's take on the Swedish hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Cue the standard complaint: Hollywood has run out of ideas.

Hold on, though. Let's think this through.

Otis Redding wrote and recorded a little ditty called "Respect" in 1965. Made it sound pretty good, too. A couple of years later, Aretha Franklin "remade" it in her own image. Anyone want to claim she shouldn't have? That Redding — the composer, let's note — did the definitive version?

Okay, I know, music is an interpretive art. But there are parallels in other disciplines too. How different is it when Picasso models cubist images on a 300-year-old painting by Velazquez? And does the fact that Laurence Olivier was a legendary Hamlet in the 1940s mean that Richard Burton can't be one in the '60s? What about the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and Jude Law? Dame Judith Anderson even did a one-woman Hamlet, playing all the parts, when she was in her 70s. (Curiously, the one part she wasn't convincing in was Gertrude). If you're a theater critic, watching different takes on familiar roles is part of what makes the job interesting.

Film, it turns out, is one of the few media where remakes, re-dos, rediscoveries and re-interpretations are regarded skeptically. Rap artists sample soul standards and no one bats an eye. Everybody loved it when John Steinbeck based parts of his novel East of Eden on the Book of Genesis. But say you're going to remake Footloose, and even if the original wasn't all that good, fans stomp their feet and say "leave it alone."

Film is a young medium, which may be why movie remakes strike people negatively. Shakespeare based King Lear on an ancient folk tale, but movies don't go back very far — barely a hundred years — and in a lot of cases, the old versions are still around to be seen.

Since 1903, for instance, Hollywood has made 29 Three Musketeers movies, an average of one every four years. Evidently feeling that it had to do something new, the teen-oriented one that opens next week will be the first to thrust it's d'Artagnan at us in 3-D.

Now, I thought director Richard Lester's version was great fun in 1973, but I remember my elders saying then that Michael York's d'Artagnan wasn't buckling his swash nearly as thrillingly as Gene Kelly had in 1948. And I imagine their elders pooh-poohed Kelly in favor of Douglas Fairbanks in the 1921 silent Musketeers. So young Logan Lerman, the 3-D d'Artagnan, has a lot to live up to ... kind of like a composer who decides to do a variation on a theme by a famous someone else.

Maurice Ravel, for instance, got a commission in 1922 to revamp a little suite for solo piano that had never really caught on with the public when Modest Mussorgsky wrote it in 1874. Ravel's arrangements for full orchestra made "Pictures at an Exhibition" a little more, um, technicolor, and Mussorgsky's themes finally clicked with the public.

Movie directors could sort of be considered both the composers and the arrangers of cinema, so it can be intriguing when a world class talent decides to rethink someone else's work. Steven Soderbergh's snappy take on the crummy rat-pack comedy Ocean's 11 felt like one-upsmanship. Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho felt like homage. And when the Coen Brothers put some actual grit into True Grit, it felt like a revelation.

True Grit, I'd argue, is the real deal — a retread that had more traction than the original. Admittedly, that's easier when the first movie's sloppy. But even quality originals can be overshadowed. There was a fine Maltese Falcon a decade before the one starring Humphrey Bogart. And Some Like It Hot reworked a funny German comedy that no one remembers any more.

So keep fingers crossed. The world may not need a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in English, but audiences could do worse than having Fight Club director David Fincher making a case for it. And The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio next year? Well, he did pretty good work for director Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet (also a remake). And Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (also sort of a remake) was certainly respectable.

And Gatsby, remember, was a real believer in the re-do. When he's talking about putting a shattered romance back together, and is told by a buddy that you can't repeat the past, he's thunderstruck. "Can't repeat the past?" he marvels. "Of course you can."

Hollywood proves that all the time.

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