Seven Great Remakes
by Peter Clines
CS Weekly takes a look at that most common (and often most reviled) of Hollywood traditions -- the remake -- and discovers they're not all as bad as some people like to think.
The remake has become one of the staples of Hollywood in recent years. Any film with name recognition is dragged out of the vaults to be rewritten and reshot (frame by frame, in some notorious cases), some from as far back as the early 1950s and some from less than 20 years ago. More often than not, audiences are left wondering who greenlit the idea of turning an Oscar-winning classic into an Ashton Kutcher vehicle.
Yet, with all the failed (and sometimes completely unnecessary) remakes, people often forget that this is neither a new trend nor an entirely unsuccessful one. Hollywood has offered up more than their fair share of bad remakes, but there have also been several films over the years that not only came through the process unscathed, but honestly improved.
The Thing (1982)
Previously Seen As -- The Thing From Another World (1951)
The members of an Antarctic research station find a sled dog being hunted by the maniacal members of another camp. When chopper pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and a few others go to investigate, they discover a crashed spaceship buried in the ice, and evidence that the other researchers may have found an alien body. Amazement quickly turns to fear as MacReady and the rest come to realize not only is the deadly creature alive, but they've already brought the shapechanger into their camp…disguised as a sled dog. As the temperature drops and suspicions flare, the researchers have to figure out which of them are still human before they're all replaced by the Thing.
Why it Works
While the original film is a classic of terror-through-isolation at the North Pole, the remake script by Bill Lancaster (The Bad News Bears) was far more loyal to "Who Goes There," the 1938 novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. The story was moved back to its original South Pole setting and the "obligatory" love interest was removed. The real strength, though, was that the remake focused on the sense of paranoia that dominated the novella. The Thing strikes at the primal fear that the people around you may not be what they seem. It even offers the possibility you yourself may not be what you seem, and you don't even know it yet.
Casino Royale (2006)
Previously Seen As -- Casino Royale (1967)
Newly promoted "Double-O" agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) is sent to Africa to locate a small-time bomb maker and finds a series of clues that eventually lead him to the United States and a massive attempt at industrial sabotage. The man behind it all, LeChiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), is an international financier and "terrorist banker," now deep in the hole because 007 has foiled his attempt to manipulate the stock market. When LeChiffre decides to win enough money to cover his angry clients' investments in a high stakes poker match, MI6 drops Bond into the game to force the banker's hand.
Why it Works
When the Bond movie franchise skipped over the first novel in Ian Fleming's series (after all, how exciting can you make a poker match?) it was fair game for a montage-like spy movie spoof that unofficially credited 10 writers -- Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, and Billy Wilder among them. When producers decided to reboot the series, Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (Crash) worked with the screenwriting team of Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (Die Another Day) to change Bond from a smooth, aristocratic spy into a coarse, brutal, and believable secret agent. Modern audiences were well-aware of what it took for a man to survive in the field, and a gadget-loaded playboy couldn't cut it in a realistic story. The seeds of charm and sophistication are still there, but at its heart this remake was about convincing us all that snake pits, huge construction sites, and national embassies didn't mean a damned thing if James Bond was chasing you.
The Fly (1986)
Previously Seen As -- The Fly (1958)
Brilliant and reclusive engineer Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) develops a working teleportation system. When he decides to make himself the first human test subject, though, disaster strikes in the form of a housefly that slips into the teleport pod and is mixed into his body on a genetic level. At first Brundle and his girlfriend (Geena Davis) think the teleporter may have "purified" him, as he begins to demonstrate the proportional strength and agility of an insect. But as time passes and his corrupted DNA changes him physically, the twisted creature calling himself Brundlefly comes up with a brutally simple and inhuman plan to save his humanity.
Why it works
When the original was penned by rookie screenwriter James Clavell (who would later go on to fame with Shogun) from a George Langelaan short story, a rubbery-looking fly mask was enough for a good scare. In the 1980s, though, cancer was the boogeyman that lurked behind every symptom, and so the average moviegoer was far more terrified at the thought of what could be lurking in their own cells. The screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue (D.O.A.) and filmmaker David Cronenberg embraced that real-world anxiety while also drawing on the primal fear of change. In the classic film, Andre Delambre (David Hedison) emerges from his teleporter with the oversized head and hand of an insect, but in the remake it's not until time passes that Brundle's mutated genetic codes rebuild his body and the real terror begins. To loosely paraphrase Hitchcock, suspense is when there are fly genes spliced into your character's DNA and he doesn't know it. Perhaps even more unnerving than the physical changes, though, is the horrible moment when Brundle realizes his mind is changing as well -- and he doesn't seem to care.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Previously Seen As -- The Maltese Falcon (1931)
When his partner is murdered on a simple case, private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself at the center of a web of lies and double-crosses. His beautiful client (Mary Astor) is lying about her name and her case, a lisping man named Cairo (Peter Lorre) is convinced he's hiding something valuable, and an overweight, aristocratic treasure hunter (Sydney Greenstreet) is willing to pay handsomely for any information Sam may have gotten from either of them. At the center of it all is the titular object, an ancient, jewel-encrusted statue hidden somewhere in the city.
Why it Works
After the restrictive Hays Code was introduced, Warner Brothers found themselves unable to release their initial version of Dashiell Hammett's story and was forced to remake it -- twice. Filmmaker John Huston's version had to be much more tame and subdued than the earlier versions in many aspects. And yet, that restraint proved more of a strength than a hindrance, as the subtle hints and allusions throughout the script often held more power than the original film's more overt approach. Spade's blatant womanizing with both his secretary and his partner's wife. Cairo's homosexuality. Huston's remake became the classic example of "less is more," and launched several careers.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Previously Seen As -- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
During their family vacation in Morocco, Ben and Jo Mc Kenna (James Stewart and Doris Day) witness the murder of a recent acquaintance. Then their son (Christopher Olsen) is kidnapped to ensure they don't share the information the dying man told Ben -- someone else is being targeted for death. Ben and Jo must track the kidnappers on their own, and come to realize they've become entangled in a high-stakes assassination plot that reaches across Europe.
Why it Works
Alfred Hitchcock may be unique as a director who decided to do a complete remake of one of his own early films (George Lucas notwithstanding). Now established and much more experienced, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes (To Catch a Thief) had the resources and ability to expand the original film's story to almost double its length. Now the script played out on a much broader, international canvas, with a larger cast of characters. Moreso, the story became much more a product of its time, the decade of McCarthyism. The remake embodied the ongoing fear that any friend or casual acquaintance might be an "enemy agent" who could not be trusted.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Previously seen as -- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1953)
Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) discovers an unusual plant she can't identify while out walking and brings it home to study. The next morning, her slob boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Kindle) has become a new man -- efficient and emotionally distant. She confides to her coworker, Matt (Donald Sutherland), that Geoffrey seems to be an entirely different person, a stranger almost. When they meet up with psychologist David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), they discover dozens of people across the city are having the same delusion, that their friends and loved ones are somehow being "replaced." As just a few days pass, Matt, Elizabeth, and their friends come to realize how far the problem has already spread, and how far it may go.
Why it Works
Screenwriter W.D. Richter (Brubaker) realized the horror in this remake needed to shift from the simple small-town-invasion concept of the earlier version to a broader, more sophisticated canvas. Years of free love and free thinking had come to an end, and suspicion of the government and conspiracy theories were being fueled by Kennedy's assassination and Watergate. The screenplay's subtle terror was not that our consciousness would be corrupted and we'd see things in a new, alien way, but that we'd have no consciousness. These duplicates moved as one, thought as one, and had a stern finger and a harsh wail for anyone who didn't. While Richter's update rounded out most of the female characters far more, it also eliminated much doubt about Earth's final fate. Everyone joins the establishment, everyone conforms -- the ultimate horror for the children of the '60s.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Previously seen as -- Hulk (2003)
Doctor Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is trying desperately to cure himself of the blood infection General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) wants to develop as a weapon, because when Dr. Banner becomes angry, a startling metamorphosis occurs, changing him into an invulnerable, unstoppable powerhouse called the Hulk. After three years on the run, a cure may be in sight, but a new problem has arisen. Ross has used a prototype "super-soldier" formula on one of his men, an obsessive, power-hungry soldier named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who's willing to become an abomination if it lets him take on the Hulk mano a mano.
Why it Works
Zak Penn's screenplay grasped the two inherent Hulk elements that were missing from the previous version headed by artistic filmmaker Ang Lee. Penn's version was a vastly simplified storyline that stayed far closer to the comic book continuity fans knew. There were no tortured souls or complex father issues in this remake (and the absence of gamma-irradiated super-poodles helped, too). Second, while the remake has solid characters with strong motivations, at heart it's a giant monster movie where massive property damage is an integral part of the plot. It remembers that one of the key elements of such a story is that it's fun.
History moves in circles, always bringing people back to the same themes and ideas. There's no doubt Hollywood will continue to produce remakes as long as audiences go to see them, but here's hoping screenwriters will get to flex their creative muscles a bit more in the future and produce scripts like these, worthy of the names they're carrying.
Peter Clines has had a lifelong love affair with the movies. He grew up in New England, where he studied English literature and education, and now lives and writes somewhere in Southern California. If anyone knows exactly where, he would appreciate a few hints.