As a denizen of Tumblr (see here for reblogs and nerdery and feminism and stuff), one thing I’ve come across that’s pleased me mightily is the resurgence of the Questions Meme. I remember in the halcyon days of my teenage youth, when the internet was just finding its feet as a mainstream communication tool, sending and receiving email after email full of questions. “What’s your age?” “School : Love it/hate it?” “What’s your favourite ice cream flavour?”. You’d receive them with someone else’s answers and carefully cut out their words, replacing them with your own thoughts and opinions and wants and needs.
I devoured these memes, challenging myself to find more interesting ways of answering the usual dull suspects that popped up, sharing my thoughts and desires on things no one would ask in person, getting a little thrill out of it and learning about my friends. I discovered Livejournal and found the self-same lists were a fixture there, preserved on posts for all to see. When Facebook came around, this form of meme had a bit of resurgence in the Notes feature and once again I whittled away time telling people what my ideal pet was instead of writing my coursework. And also poking people and throwing sheep at them.
Then I joined Tumblr and came across the Ask Meme in its current incarnation. You post the questions, someone gives you a number, you answer the relevant question. I’m not asked as much as I’d like to be (because I’m an attention hog sometimes, look at me, look at me) but I always try to answer honestly.
Today I was asked a question by the lovely jan49, the question being a request for my opinion on remakes/sequels/adaptations. Specifically:
“All the sequels/remakes/adaptations/rip-offs in movies nowadays, good or bad?”
I gave a bit of a rambly answer, and then I thought about it some more. I thought I’d quite like to expand on the idea a little more, maybe go a little deeper. So this is my attempt to do so. It’ll be no less rambly as you can tell by the fact it’s taken 5 paragraphs to get to the topic designated by the title of the post, but THIS IS MY BLOG AND I’LL RAMBLE IF I WANT TO, NOW GOOD DAY TO YOU.
So. Remakes/Adaptations/Franchises/Cash Grabs. Are they the signal of the death of creativity that many movie fans herald them to be?
Short answer : no.
Ok, now you can go back to your life and not bother with the rest of the blog post if you wish. I’m sure you’ve got some important stuff to do. Don’t let me get in your way!
Long answer : No. Or, er, yes, but only a bit. Well, it depends on the property, the people involved, the motivation behind their desire to create it.
The adaptation has a long and noble history in movies. You take a pre-existing property (be it book, comic, TV-show or whatever) and re-imagine it for the big screen. The same story, the same characters, only different. It’s well-known that works in one medium won’t work in another – in a novel the main character’s innermost thoughts and demons are on display, laid bare for the reader to poke and prod at in delight. In film, you can’t do that. As a visual medium, it has to be expressed through action, through subtext. “John felt angry, pent-up violence rising within him” becomes “John clenches his jaw and grips his newspaper tightly.” (That, of course, is an amateurish example – I’m no big screenplay bigshot, not yet).
The risk with an adaptation over an original concept is that people have pre-conceived ideas when they go into a movie that’s an adaptation. They know the story, they know the plot beats, they just want to see how it plays out in a new medium while they stuff popcorn into their faces. And if you hit a bum note, you’ve lost them. They toss the popcorn at the screen and flee the room in disgust, howling ‘fake!’ or ‘blasphemy!’ or ‘Where the fuck is Tom Bombadil?!’. Or, more likely, they sit and seethe and their enjoyment of the rest of the film is tainted.
In many cases, that’s on them. The character in the book could be a big burly man with a great big bushy beard, but if for the film it makes more sense to cast a person of slighter build and drop the beard, then so be it. There are factors at play – the setting of the adaptation, the limitations of casting and the limitations of the medium. Tom Bombadil was dropped from LotR because if he’d been kept in it would have made for a jarring tonal shift and an even longer movie. You can’t have stuff that drags out so long before your movie’s even hit the midway point, especially not if it’s never going to turn up again. In a novel, no problem. In a movie, you’ll kill the audience.
A good adaptation has to hit the right notes, balancing loyalty to the source material with loyalty to the medium. Sometimes you get something that bears almost no relation to the original (Super Mario Bros, anyone?), sometimes you get something that’s far removed but retains exactly enough of the feel and original plot to feel fresh and exciting (The Prestige – the same story, but almost entirely different). And, when done well, both are fine.
There’s a lot of adaptations that come from a place of love (The LotR saga, for example, is a love letter to the source material, for all its tweaks), and there’s a host of adaptations that you can’t help but feel are riding on the coattails of successful franchises (the swell of paranormal YA adaptations following Twilight) or surfing the ever-present wave of nostalgia (did we really need a 3D/live action hybrid Smurfs movie?). There’s an audience for them, though, and as long as that audience persists then the movies will persist.
With regard to remakes, there’s nothing wrong with revisiting stories and settings and characters that have already had their big screen outings when you feel you have a new angle, a new take on it that could send the whole thing spinning in a new direction. I for one am highly enthused about the new Ghostbusters remake, with an all-female cast. There’s a story to be told there. It’s an excellent idea because it’s a fresh take on it with a new spin – comedies driven by women aren’t given as much of a chance as comedies driven by men (how many Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Rebel Wilson ensemble cast films do you see? Compare and contrast with the Seth Rogan/James Franco/Paul Rudd/Jonah Hill/Steve Carrell/Will Ferrell/I Could Go On Forever glut).
A remake is a great idea when you can update something to give it modern relevance, better diversity, a new spin. It’s like The Fly or The Thing – both took the concepts of their original B-movies and ran in exciting new directions with them, pushing the limits of special effects and telling interesting stories with them. You barely feel that they’re remakes at all, even after watching the original films. The 70’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the same, it was very 70s compared to the original 50s flick which had dated a bit by then. Fast forward to the 00s and The Invasion which was … nothing. It brought nothing new, didn’t have anything to say. It was just there.
Even worse are the scene-by-scene blow-for-blow remakes that you can get. I remember being excited for the Omen remake, being a big fan of the original. And it had a great gimmick, being released on the 6th day of the 6th month of the 6th year of the new millennium – what an idea! I settled into my seat and watched and … it was nothing to me. It was awful. It was mostly a carbon copy of the original, scene for scene, shot for shot at times. Younger faces, edgier editing, unnecessary dream sequences that added nothing – and a child actor that was badly miscast because he LOOKED like the Antichrist. You see that kid, you go ‘Yup, Antichrist, chuck him off a cliff or something.”
The Omen remake wasn’t for me. It was for a new generation of horror-loving movie-goers. People put a lot of effort into it, and it found its audience and I wasn’t in that audience and it’s fine. That’s one of the good things about remakes, even the ones that don’t bring anything new to the table – they get new people hooked on classic stuff. The Wolfman and Van Helsing will have sent a bunch of young horror buffs into the dusty crypts of the classic Universal Monsters back catalogue. They’d find much that’s dated and laughable there, but much to be charmed by. And maybe they’d go on to create something of their own, something with roots in the now and its soul in the past.
It’s about passion. When someone makes a film they feel passionately about, it shows. Michael Bay feels very passionately about explosions and big dumb movie stuff, and there’s an audience for that. Wes Anderson feels very strongly for quirkiness and symmetry, and there’s an audience for that. Many filmmakers feel passionately for bringing something new to the movies of the past, and there’s an audience for that.
There’s an audience for that. Those are the key words.
Yes, there are blatant cash-grab films. There always have been. Hollywood follows trends like a private eye follows crooked henchmen down a shadowy alley. Actually, no, it follows them like a cowboy follows train, at full gallop, his steed rolling its eyes and foaming at the mouth trying to keep up. It follows them at full tilt, because trends are an indicator of what people like and what people like is what they will spend their money on and making money is the name of the game. It is, and if you think otherwise then brother I’ve got a bridge that I’d love to sell you. Movies are a business, a capitalist institution like any other, and they’re fuelled by money. Making a movie costs money, and the way to make money is to make movies that people will watch. Lather, rinse, repeat.
At the end of the day, people are always going to watch what they enjoy. It’s called the Entertainment Industry, after all. Current audiences love Marvel films, so more Marvel films will be made – and when they fall out of favour, something else will supplant them. It’s been the same throughout Hollywood’s history – Westerns, Gangsters, Noirs, Big Bug Movies, Political Thrillers, cheesy Action shoot-em-ups, Zombies : they all had their boom, their glut, their decline (arguably zombies are still going, but they’re undead so they’re hard to kill). They never went away entirely, they never will, but they have had their day. Now, in lieu of a dominant genre, the audience has fixed its eye on The Franchise. How To Train Your Dragon 6. The Hunger Games: Mokingjay Part 11. Star Trek 42: Intergalactic Boogaloo.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because there’s an audience for them. If there were no audience and the studios were losing money hand over fist to pump out shitty films no one wants to see (as opposed to shitty films many people want to see) then they’ll go broke and there will be no money to take risks. You have to make enough money to take a risk on a project that you think won’t make as much money as The Avengers IV : Rocket vs Bucky’s Arm.
The industry does make that money. The fear is that they don’t then take the risks. Ridley Scott infamously half-apologised for his white-washed palefest of a Moses movie by saying he couldn’t raise funds for a movie starring “Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such”. This is nonsense. Ridley Scott could finance a film about a small Palestinian child who does nothing but look forlornly at an olive tree for three hours. He’s Ridley Scott. He’s bankable. He made his money on Alien and Gladiator, which is what allows him to put out stinkers like Robin Hood and A Good Year. The industry doesn’t want to take the risk because it doesn’t want to move out of its comfort zone.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because amongst the franchises, original properties have to work harder to get noticed, and are all the better for it. And because, crucially, Hollywood isn’t the only place to get movies.
Thoughtful, insightful films are still being made, though they may not have the draw that they did in the 70s. The times have changed. With digital distribution the way it is, smaller films being pushed out of cinemas by the franchises isn’t the threat that it used to be in the 90s and 00s. They can still find their audience on the Netflixes and Primes of the world. Video on Demand is still a thing, and quite a successful thing too. Digital Distribution has done what Home Video did when Betamax and VHS took off – it brought the movies out of the hands of the gods and into the hands of the little folk. Don’t want to make the trek out to the cinema because the only thing there you haven’t seen is the Dumb and Dumber Sequel? Pop on Netflix. Scroll down to ‘Independent Films’ or ‘Cult Classics’. Trawl the internet, have a look at what the truly independent folk are doing, the small filmmakers of the world who aren’t part of the Hollywood machine. Fund some Kickstarters, some Indie-Go-Gos. Or hell – pick up a camera and get involved – you probably won’t make the next Blair Witch Project, but you can certainly try.
The glut of sequels and adaptations and remakes aren’t a plague on film. They’re an opportunity. An opportunity to revisit stories you love. An opportunity to bring fresh new meaning to wonderful but dated concepts. An opportunity to provide an unforeseen level of diversity and representation for women, people of colour and other marginalised groups. An opportunity to step out of the box and look elsewhere for original content that’s not Hollywood-driven.
If I ever realise my dream of making movies for a living, then I will very probably make a remake or an adaptation at some point. If I can do it well and do the original justice, then I will do it. If I get halfway through a script and realise it’s worse than Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead then I’ll burn it and spare the world the pain, but a film doesn’t have to be wholly original or uncommercial to have credit. It just has to be good. It just has to entertain.
Because if it’s entertaining?
There’s an audience for that.