Every couple of years, there seems to be a rush of articles written about Hollywood’s remake culture, most recently brought on by the upcoming (and totally baffling) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, courtesy of Michael Bay. There’s always a great deal of lamenting the loss of originality in movies, pining for the good ol’ days of the 90s or the 70s or the 50s when people made real movies, and some grave predictions of the future, where there’s a new Spider-Man or Transformers movie every year and any sense of innovation and creativity is lost forever. These articles are generally nearly as repetitive as the trends that inspire them, but are often very clear on two fronts: that this tendency to remake and reboot films is ruining cinema, and that it is a new trend. But both of these points are debatable, at best.
While the word “remake” tends to bring forward thoughts of, say, RoboCop, remakes don’t have to be frustrating, unnecessary films. Good remakes usually can bring something new to the original film, perhaps change it to the point of being unrecognizable, or at the very least improve on the original in some way. For a recent example of remaking done right, you can look back to David Fincher’s 2011 version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo–not a totally different beast than the Swedish original, but given a sleeker look and more assured direction, considered by many to be an improvement overall. A perhaps more interesting example would be the 2010 remake of True Grit by the Coen Brothers–the same story, but with a distinct Coen-y feel and more fleshed out characters, even if it lacked John Wayne.
But those examples are all recent – even if we can make some good remakes, wasn’t everything better when movie ideas were original? In theory, sure–if such a time ever existed. Ever since the time of silent films, movie ideas have been recycled in Hollywood, and the results were sometimes outstanding. Take A Fistful of Dollars, released in 1964, considered a major Western, and often credited with boosting Clint Eastwood to stardom. This movie is nearly a scene-for-scene remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, simply substituting feudal Japan for the Old West. Or perhaps Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1978, not to be confused with Don Siegel’s 1956 version – both films are well-known, but the remake is the one more often considered one of the great science fiction films. Speaking of science fiction, what about Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film Twelve Monkeys, a truly unique and original film? Based on Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée from 1962, albeit with quite a few changes. In spite of their inspiration from other films, all of these remakes have become classics in their own right, standing separately from their originals.
There’s a quote by director Jim Jarmusch: “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.” While Jarmusch himself has never directed a remake, he is no stranger to taking inspiration directly from other works and creating something new. People are sometimes nostalgic for when movies were “original,” but there’s very little original about most movies from any point in time. After all, as the saying goes, “all the good stories have already been told.” What matters isn’t telling a story no one’s heard before, but rather telling it in a way that’s interesting, or taking different parts from other places to create a new whole. Remakes are in this vein. They take familiar stories and, if done right, put a new twist on them, make them fresh again. Of course, there are some awful remakes out there; boring, lazy films that do nothing more than flaunt a name to seem better than they are. But these films are not boring and lazy because they are remakes, they are boring and lazy because they do nothing with the material given to them. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “It is not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”