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Movie Remakes (2)


"Everything comes in circles," Sherlock Holmes once observed. "The old wheel turns and the same spoke comes up. It has all been done' before and will be done again." The fictional detective should know-he lived the adage himself by appearing in no less than ten versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles between 1917 and 1978. In Hollywood, as elsewhere, nothing succeeds like excess, and for as long as there have been movies there have been remakes. From The Fly and Little Shop of Horrors to Down and Out in Beverly Hills and VictorlVictoria, the remake is a cinematic staple.

"Doing a remake is easier and cheaper than writing an original," notes Wilbur Stark, a film producer who was involved in the remakes of The Thing and Cat People, two B-movies redone in the early '80s. "You have the story. You have the characters. All you have to do is contemporize them."

But time frame is hardly the only area ripe for revision: music can be added, special effects improved, point of view changed. Paul Mazursky used Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) as the basis for Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). Both movies tell the story of a tramp who tries to kill himself and the family that takes him in. But where Renoir focuses on the hypocrisy of middle-class life and the spontaneity of the common man, Mazursky considers the lure of wealth and its effect on different people. The French hobo ultimately rejects the bourgeoise and their values; the Beverly Hills bum accepts them.

Similarly, Akira Kurosawa's threehour epic, The Seven Samurai (1954), provided the uncredited basis for The MagnificentSeven (1960) and 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars. (Oddly, Robert Vaughn plays essentially the same role-a burned-out gunfighter-in both remakes.) Kurosawa's film about seven penniless samurai who defend a peasant town against brigands is at times lyrical, humorous and exciting as it looks at friendship, fear, love and death. The later movies variously change the setting to Mexico and a distant planet and use the form but little of the original's heart or wit. In one telling scene, the seven samurai arrive in the village and discover that everyone is hiding. "They are afraid," eXplains an old man. The irony of the farmers fearing their rescuers underlines one of Kurosawa's points: the loneliness of the samurai life. The same scene appears in both remakes, but without any poignancy; Battle Beyond the Stars undercuts the impact by showing the friendliness of the oppressed people.

Some remakes lose the original point entirely. Consider, for example, Against All.Odds (1984), a radical reinterpretation of Out of the Past (1947). Both films contain certain specific elements: A man searches for the girlfriend of a gangster he knows. He finds her and they fall in love. They flee together. The man's best friend, working for the gangster, tracks them down. She kills the friend and escapes. He, stays behind and buries the body. She returns to the gangster and tells all. The gangster tries to frame the hero. The hero eludes the frame.

Yet, for all that, the movies are dramatically dissimilar-in tone, style and sensibility. The earlier tale is classic film noir, laced with tough-talking, chain-smoking characters and a cynical, world-wise hero (Robert Mitchum) in love' with a bad, bad I; woman (lane Greer), who gets more wicked as the movie progresses. In Against All Odds, the protagonist (leff Bridges) is an idealistic innocent in love with a confused beauty (Rachel Ward) who is frightened into treachery. The darkest qualities of Out of the Past were sanitized in Against All Odds. Instead of climaxing with the hero's death, the movie ends with the hope of reconciliation for the separated lovers. The plot is the same; only the content has been changed to protect the innocence.


Changing mores frequently have an effect on how a movie is redone. VictorlVictoria (1980), for instance, is an update of a German play and film from the '30s. "The subject matter in 1933 would be called promiscuous," observes Allan Buckhantz, who obtained and sold the right to remake the original production. "The new movie is awfully close to the first version, but what couldn't be done then we do now-but better. Robert Preston plays a gay man who is delighted with himself. We're not shocked by him. We're not laughing at him. We're laughing with him."


By the same token, Paul Schrader's Cat People, the 1982 retread of a 1942 film, employed sensational special effects to portray a woman who turns into a murderous panther. The earlier film, directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, only implied the changes; the new version shows them in gruesome, frightening detail. Although the effects are extraordinary, there is something to be said for subtlety, as Tourneur and 'Lewton did in the' 40s. "Audiences will people any patch of prepared darkness with more horror, suspense and frightfulness than the most imaginative writer could dream up."

More can be more. The special effects improvements on remakes of The Fly, The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, three classic B-movies, were not gratuitous. In fact, they were essential. With The Thing (1982), for example, the producers went back to the 1951 Howard Hawks movie's source material, a short story called "Who Goes There,” which is about is a an alien invader in an Arctic outpost. As Stuart Cohen, the producer, noted when the movie was released, "Why revmake the Hawks film? That film was good fun, very well made, and very much of its time. But Hawks must have felt the original story was too complicated, or the effects beyond the film technology of the time, because he never utilized the central concept of the novella. The creature has the ability to assume the exact likeness and behavior of any life form it has consumed. Nor did Hawks use the psychological aspects of Campbell's novel. As, much as we like the first film, this film – apart from the Antarctic setting – ears very little resemblance to it."

Indeed, the movie's creeping claustrophobia and lurid violence is closer in spirit to Alien than its actual forebear. While the original is a straight forward actioner, the recent version is a paranoid terrorfest, reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That 1956 movie was itself remade by Phil Kaufman. His 1978 version (which features cameos by the original's star, Kevin McCarthy, and director, Don Siegel) takes many of the ideas of the first movie but broadens them, both visually (with enhanced effects) and thematically. The soulless invaders aren't just taking over a small town, they're after the world. Kaufman uses fish-eye lenses, hand-held cameras and deft editing to create a constricting sense of anguish nowhere present in the low-budget original. And unlike Siegel's film, the new movie has believable people full of individualistic quirks. When they become "possessed" by the aliens and lose those traits, the point about what it means to be alive becomes all the more telling.


The 1986 Fly took elements from its namesake, but only as a starting point for new ideas. In the 1958 original, a scientist's experiment goes awry and his head is switched with, that of a fly. Outside of one nightmarish image in the climax – the fly with a man's head trapped in a spider's web squeaking, "Help me!" – the movie is a stilted, talky bore. The new edition is significantly different: a love story about a scientist whose dangerous experiments slowly turn him into a huge fly. As Stuart Cornfeld, the producer, noted recently, "The metamorphosis concept was arguably more scientific and certainly more dramatic. It allowed us to explore the physiological and psychological changes in our hero simultaneously."

By rethinking the material, filmmakers can get more out of a picture than was originally there. Dashiell Hammett's crime  novel, The Maltese Falcon, was filmed twice, in 1931 and 1936, before the definitive 1941 version, in which a perfect cast (Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet) made the crucial difference. For His Girl Friday (1940), director Howard Hawks added a new layer of sexual tension to a 1928 play and 1931 film, The Front Page, by making one of the two male protagonists a woman. A 1981 remake switched the role back and flopped, while a 1988 version will try it Hawks's way, though changing the setting from a newspaper to a television station.

Perhaps the greatest remake is Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 version of his 1934 hit, The Man Who Knew Too Much. The director used his original movie as a blueprint for the later one, dropping scenes that didn't work, adding more subtle humor and improving on the main set piece: the assassination attempt at London's Albert Hall. As Hitchcock himself put it in 1967, "Let's say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional. "

Sometimes, however, rethinking a film proves to be a mistake. The 1976 King Kong tried to improve on the 1933 movie by, among other things, moving the climactic scene from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center. The image of Kong precariously straddling the phallic ower as he battles rickety World War I biplanes for the love of heroine Fay Wray is a classic piece of cinema; fighting super -powered jets on the top of the box-like World Trade Center just doesn't compare. And the tone of the second is jokey and hip, making fun of the ape- rather than fearing and pitying him.

Some of the most obvious and successful variants are films which became musicals. Pygmalion (1938) was transformed into My Fair Lady (1964); The Shop Around the Corner (1940) into In the Good Old Summertime (1949); and A Star Is Born (1937) into two musical versions of A Star Is Born (in 1954 and 1976). The last-named actually had its genesis as What Price Hollywood?, a 1932 tearjerker about the rise of a starlet at the expense of her actor husband. The 1937 film expanded on the material, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as the couple, but the definitive version has Judy Garland, James Mason, and an album's worth of songs. Ironically, in both versions the rising starlet was played by a fading star, while the self-destructive husband was portrayed by a dynamic newcomer. The recent revamp cast Barbra Streisand (who also produced) and Kris Kristofferson as the duo, and pointlessly changed the setting to the rock 'n' roll world.




The latest musical remake is Little Shop of Horrors, the 1986 film of a 1970s off-Broadway musical adaptation of a dreadful 1960 B-picture. Although the producers tried to disassociate themselves from the Roger Corman original, the new Little Shop is basically the same story and-with one or two exception-about as interesting.

In spite of many artistic and commercial failures, remakes will continue. In fact, the James Bond series – the most successful in history –is virtually a collection of remakes, since the producers have been retreading more or less the same story for 25 years. As Tom Mankiewicz, a screenwriter for three of the films, puts it: "The audience reacts to the repetition, the familiarity, very warmly, In Bond at least you're ripping it off from yourself. And, after all, once you've got a car that goes underwater, a car that flies, a chase on a double-decker bus, a chase in this and a chase in that, where else can you go?"

Where indeed? As Wilbur Stark observes: "There are 27 basic plots in the world. You can give the same story to five different directors and it will turn out five different ways. They could all be good. But then again, they could all be bad." 

VIDEO, November 1987