Have we witnessed the death of the Hollywood remake?
Meagre turnout for West Side Story shows that these days, the way to cash in on intellectual property is via sequels and reboots
Last modified on Mon 20 Dec 2021 09.57 EST
So far, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story hasn’t had audiences pirouetting and finger-clicking their way to cinemas. There are plenty of reasons why; the main one relating to a certain global pandemic. But one explanation that keeps being proffered is that viewers are simply sick of remakes – and it’s not entirely wrong. Hollywood still has no qualms about bringing back its vintage franchises, of course. But as the imminent returns of The Matrix, Scream, Top Gun, Indiana Jones, Hocus Pocus and Legally Blonde demonstrate, the fashionable way to cash in on a venerable intellectual property is to hire as many of the original cast members as you can and to pick up where you left off. Sequels are in; remakes are out.
Remakes, lest we forget, were once central to the cinematic landscape – hardly more remarkable or disreputable than a new theatrical production of an old play. When The Maltese Falcon came out in 1940, it was the third adaptation of the same book within a decade. Some Like It Hot? Pinched from a 1951 German farce, which was in turn pinched from a 1935 French one. Hitchcock’s 1956 classic The Man Who Knew Too Much? A total rip-off of Hitchcock’s 1934 classic, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Still, it’s easy to see why remakes got such a bad reputation, especially if we jump forward to the early 2000s, AKA the Time Just Before Every Mainstream Film Was a Superhero Blockbuster. This was a period when studios seemed to be greenlighting a remake every week. Freaky Friday, The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, The Ladykillers, King Kong … these are all titles that evoke previous decades. Total Recall and Clash of the Titans also came out as remakes in the early 21st century. Anyone grumbling about Hollywood’s lack of ideas didn’t have to look far for examples.
The trend was particularly visible in the world of horror. In the 00s, studios milked their big-name scary-movie franchises by retelling the stories from the beginning. And so, one after another, we got reboots of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Fog, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street – and that’s not to mention the English-language remakes of such J-horror hits as The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water.
Something has changed since then. Despite its back-to-basics title, the Halloween released in 2018 was a sequel rather than a remake: the film-makers made a point of assuring viewers that they were seeing the same Michael Myers and Laurie Strode as the ones who attacked each other 40 years earlier. A similar principle applies to Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, which came out this year, and David Blue Garcia’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is coming out next year. Meanwhile the director of the 2018 Halloween, David Gordon Green, is reportedly working on a new version of The Exorcist. Initially announced as a remake, it is now being trumpeted as a “direct sequel”.
Technology may be significant here: it’s tricky to sell a remake when the original, often superior, rendering of the same plot can be streamed at the touch of a button. What’s more important, though, is the industry’s realisation that it’s not intellectual property that counts, but emotional property. Today’s fiercely possessive fans resent any suggestion that their favourite films might be obsolete, so if you want to win their hearts and minds, you have to pay due deference to the films in question. Consider how warmly Ghostbusters: Afterlife was received compared to Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters in 2016. True, the social-media bile poured on Feig’s all-female version was spiked with misogyny, but Feig didn’t help matters by writing the characters from the 1980s films out of his own. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is less true to the spirit of Ivan Reitman’s anarchic original than the 2016 Ghostbusters was, but because it features Venkman and the gang, fans didn’t take against it.
The influence of Marvel and Star Wars can be detected in all of this, too. Both these Disney-owned franchises have shown that it is foolish to try to reset a fictional universe. Fans are paying for the connections between films as much as for the films themselves. Even Home Sweet Home Alone includes a character from 1990’s Home Alone, so it is officially a sequel and not a remake.
Not that remakes have vanished altogether. But at the moment a remake is less likely to be a studio potboiler than a prestigious auteur’s artistic statement: Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Spielberg’s West Side Story and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley are all cases in which the new director’s personal vision is a major selling point.
Otherwise, the remake has moved from the big screen to the small. There are television series of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and David Nicholls’ One Day on their way – and no one is complaining that they might tarnish their memories of the respective film versions. Perhaps a Netflix mini-series of West Side Story would have been the way to go.
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