Our Love Affair With Movie Remakes

Film studios are flooding cinema and TV screens with remakes, reboots and film to TV adaptations. Why is this more preferential than fresh, original material?

Apart from inbuilt audience awareness, basing your screenplay on another property has many advantages other than marketing. Firstly, the world, concept, theme and characters of the story have already been set. Screenwriters don’t need to bother with as many rewrites to “find their stories”.

It has been argued my development and studio executives that writers should be a fan of the original movie before embarking on a remake. The general consensus is to pay homage to the original film, but adapt it to make it your own. The current euphemism for this screenwriting process is “re-imagining”.

They key to a good remake is to decide what worked in the original and what didn’t. This gives the writer ample opportunity to add a fresh, modern, signature take on the material so that the film feels new, vibrant, yet familiar. A carbon copy of the original 1960 Hitchcock version of “Psycho” was made in 1998. To me this was a pointless exercise in cinema as there were no apparent Gus Van Sant moments.

Obviously there are some scenes that can’t be deleted in remakes. Using our “Psycho” example, the shower scene is seminal to the entire film and can’t be altered. That would be sacrilege.

A movie remake should normally use the original story and characters as a solid basis for a the remake. If the plot is manipulated, the emotional core must remain. There have been some instances where only the film’s title and character names were preserved in a remake.

Classic films are a product of their time, despite their timelessness. Consider concepts such The Vietnam War, racism and the Cold War which resonated differently with audiences during that time because they lived it. Think about ways to contemporize the context without changing the underlying theme. Consider the original version of “Hairspray” with John Travolta when inter-racial relationships were less accepted than they are today. Despite the “period piece” nature of it, there are still racism issues relevant today.

Try to recreate the original film’s intention. What inspired it to get made at the time? Why do you want to remake it now? Is it relevant to modern movie goers?

Answering these questions will help you distill the best elements of the story.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anthony says:

    I totally agree with you about taking what does and does not work, and applying relevant modern structures and themes to the existing canon of the original film. Your example of “Psycho” brings up two points of interest to me.

    First, the film is remade 38 years after the original, but how does one come to the determination that a significant amount of time has passed to where a remake is feasible? In other words, are there any relatively subversive ways to collect potential audience polls without giving the idea of what you’re doing away? I know there isn’t some magic formula for “the right time”, but just as an example, I doubt anyone is going to be remaking Iron Man any time soon, simply because it is relatively fresh in popular movie culture. But how to determine how fresh is more or less the point I’m getting at.

    Second, I know there is a specific legal process in purchasing the rights to the intellectual property of the films. Does this legal process generally allow for provisions of creative license to be fairly liberal? If “Psycho” was a copy, its seemingly opposite extreme would be the most recent “Star Trek” film, which essentially set up a scenario in which existing canonical films can remain, but also future productions can effectively replace them in any way the writers see fit, including addition of completely new material that conflicts with the plot of the original canon. If you buy the rights to a film, are you generally entitled to the full extent of your creative intents? Or is it a case by case basis?

  2. But there comes a time when you have to say “ENOUGH Already!!” Sometimes I think remakes are cowardly on Hollywood’s part. They’ll draw in fans of the orignal and count on that fan base that will go out of curiousity so they can do a compare and contrast. But there is not that much original – only a reworking of someone’s elses work. Seriously, Sam Rami didn’t do a good enough job on Spider-Man, and it has to be remade????

    After decades of watching remakes hit the cinemas, I’m finding myself growing very weary of derivative works and remakes. And I’m not talking sequels in a franchise – because I do consider those original provided they don’t become formulaic, but say something fresh about the evolution of the characters.

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