Friday, November 5, 2010

How To Remake A Movie/TV Series

Hollywood loves remakes. On the surface, they appear intellectually easy because all the work of creating characters and situations has already been done, and done in such a way that it proved to be a success. Indeed, these movies/TV shows tend to come with ready-made audiences because they have long-term fanbases. Toss in a few new things to add to that audience and you have guaranteed success, right? Not quite. If it was that easy, then remakes would never fail, and most of them do fail. I think the reason is a lack of love for the subject matter.

What Doesn’t Work

Hollywood has tried all kinds of things for remakes and most of them have failed. The types that have failed generally fall into three categories:

(1) Frame for Frame Remakes: These films basically remake the prior movie almost exactly or with slight differences. The idea behind this type of remake is to sell the movie to an entirely new generation by including new actors. The classic example of this was the scene for scene remake of Psycho starring Vince Vaughn. Other examples include things like the remake of Final Destination, which uses different ways to kill characters but follows the same plot point by point.

The problem with this type of remake is that it’s pointless and it risks killing what made the original so interesting. If the film offers nothing new other than new actors, what is the point in seeing it? Moreover, movies are more than the combination of their plots. They are defined by their camera work, the chemistry of the actors, and the quirks of their time. When you start removing any of these elements, the quality of the film suffers. Thus, these types of remakes are rarely as good as the original and their appeal tends to be limited to fans of the new actors.

(2) Remakes In Name Only: These films are not really remakes, though they claim to be. The classic example of this type is Starsky and Hutch, which had nothing to do with the original series. Instead, this was just a generic modern cop-buddy comedy with the names from the original series laid over the characters. In fact, if you removed the character names, no one would have been able to tell what was being remade. The problem with these films is that they insult the fans’ intelligence, because it’s easy to see that Hollywood is trying to exploit them. Further, these films often turn off non-fans who fear that they would need to know the original material to enjoy the remake.

(3) Provocative/Angry Remakes: This is the type of remake where the person who has gotten their hands on the rights to the original, apparently has no love for the original work. A classic example of this would be the remake of Battlestar Gallactica. It was clear to fans of the original series that Ronald Moore hated the original series; you could see this in all of his interviews where he was condescending to every aspect of the original material, from the storylines to the characters to the production values. And this came across in the first season of the series, where he made needless changes to the characters that insulted fans, and seemed to revel in attacking the original work at every turn. Another example of this was the first year of Star Trek The Next Generation, where the show seemed more interested in repudiating the universe created in the original series than it did in creating a watchable television show. In both instances, it wasn’t until they moved beyond this anger that these shows really found audiences. In films, a good example of this was The Stepford Wives which added an intense amount of anger at the original material, which made the movie unpleasant rather than morally provocative, as the original had been.

The problem with this type of remake is that it has no good will. It turns off fans of the original almost before they’ve seen it, and it keeps non-fans away, just as strangers tend to avoid sitting between squabbling family members. Moreover, it wastes its creative energy attacking the original rather than creating an entertaining new product.

What Does Work

So what does make a good remake? In truth, it’s probably just the avoidance of the three problems above. First, if you’re going to remake material, don’t ever do just a frame for frame or plot-point by plot-point remake. You need to find some new spin on the material and present a full story that stands on its own. Secondly, don’t try to pass off a regular film as a remake just because you include the character names or some references to the original story, you need to capture the essence of what the fans liked about the original.

But the third point is the most critical: not only should you not despise the original material, but the best remakes are made by people who clearly loved the original material. Consider for example The Brady Bunch Movie or The Addams Family films, these were excellent films that struck a chord with the public and continue to get play today. What made these films so special was that the producers clearly loved the original material and intended to keep the essence of the original alive in the remake. They didn’t try to change the characters and they didn’t set out to punish them or to settle scores. And when they did poke fun at the original material, they did it in good humor (not nasty), and the jokes tended be the sorts of things fans might sit around joking about when the original shows were on the air. It’s the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them.

The remake of Ocean’s Eleven is another good example where they took the overall premise of the original film, kept the hip spirit of the movie and characters, and then set about making a good film that stood on its own, but which simultaneously honored the original material. Indeed, it was clear that whoever remade Ocean’s Eleven understood what made the original so loved, and worked hard to keep that essence in the remake even as they were offering something new to the audience. To give you a sense of what could have gone wrong, the writer could have tried to make the characters edgy, rather than hip, or they could have tried to insert the standard liberal criticisms of the 1950s being a time of racism, wife beating and alcoholism. . . but they didn’t. They stayed true to the spirit of the original.

The problem with this, of course, is that it takes a lot more brain power to understand something and then to expand upon it, than it takes to just steal some character names, make a few references to the original and otherwise just write a generic modern film. Apparently, it’s also hard to find people in Hollywood who don’t hold grudges against older material. But this is something Hollywood should think about asking the next time someone suggests a remake: do the people involved really love the original material or do they just see it as easy material to exploit?

23 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

I think one reason they usually fail is that fans of the original are pre-disposed to be overly critical or the re-make. Personally, I much prefer the 'homage' where different characters, plots are used, but the style and tone is recreated. Sometimes, technology can make a difference as well. As a fan of the original Star Trek, I loved the movie just because they were able to use technology not available for the tv show. Admittedly, they abused that priviledge with overly long shots of the Enterprise, but still . . . .

Just about every t.v. show has been done in the last 20 years. One that has been done multiple times is the Hulk and I think that worked pretty well. Superman was the same. Christopher Reeves was actually perfect for the part.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I thought Reeves did a great job as Superman, I didn't care for the reboot which seems dull and indifferent.

I agree that fans tend to be overly critical, but good remakes still have a way of grabbing people's attention and keeping them. Look at the Addams Family or Ocean's Eleven as examples. Those were so well done, that it was hard not to like them. They also honored the fans' expectations, while simultaneously being sufficiently different that nitpicking just didn't make any sense.

A lot of remakes fail to achieve that because they either try to copy the original too closely or they toss out the original almost completely. The first type inspire nitpicking and the second type inspire anger.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I agree with you. Your examples are perfect.

Two remakes that I like, but the critics panned are Sabrina and The Thomas Crown Affair. In my opinion, these two remakes out shine the originals. It could be I saw the remakes before seeing the originals.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Thanks! It's rare that a remake outshines the original, but I think the two you mention do just that. I'm not entirely sure why I think those remakes are better, maybe it's just that they are both similar, but the pacing is better in the remakes?

I think maybe the improvement in production values in both helped? Plus, they both maintained good chemistry.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I think it is because the remakes are a little gentler with the characters.

Spoiler alert!!!

In Org. Sabrina, Sabrina tries to commit suicide. New Sabrina just humiliates herself horribly. Both go to Paris, but Org doesn't learn anything except how to cook, New Blossoms.

Org TCA, the characters were one-dimensional and nihlistic. New TCA, the characters had feelings that provoke them to change slightly and they made fun of each other. Plus they get each other in the end.

LawHawkRFD said...

Of all the recent remakes that I depised (because they despised the originals) Starsky and Hutch (which you listed) and Miami Vice are at the top of my list. Buddy movies are fun, cop movies are fun, but buddy movies where the two characters are acting as individuals rather than as a team don't work, and cop movies where the bad guys are less repulsive than the good guys don't work either.

The two originals had a genuine goofy charm, the remakes weren't worth watching. It also proves that bad casting and worse plots transcend the TV/movie "remake" barrier. The only things the newer versions added were a lot of obscenities, and unattractive couplings.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Good points! I agree! Basically they took the original stories and improved them with subtle changes.

I'm a big Steven McQueen fan, but you're right that his character in that film was very one dimensional, whereas Brosnan had more subtlety and seemed more full as a character. Plus, in truth, I felt that he and Russo has slightly better chemistry.

I agree about Sabrina too, it wasn't as much of a downer as the original.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree -- especially about the good guys being more repulsive that the bad guys. Starsky and Hutch in particular was really bad. The whole time I kept thinking, "wow, they hate these characters" and I didn't care at all what happened to them.

Even stranger, in my mind, the original Starsky and Hutch weren't anything like the remake characters. They weren't jerks or fools or ultra selfish, so it didn't even make it as good parody. What it was, was a Ben Stiller being a jerk film that someone decided needed something more -- so they changed the character names and called it a remake. They could just as easily have called it a Lethal Weapon remake.

I agree about Miami Vice too. I was a fan of the TV show, and the movie really bore no relation to the TV show except perhaps as a rotten caricature that someone thought would pass as a remake.

There are a lot of awful remakes out there these days. There always have been, but the current formula seems to be to ignore the original material and just make whatever generic movie you were going to make to begin with. And if you're going to do that, drop the remake idea and just put out the movie.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: One of the few TV remakes of a movie that I actually thought was an improvement was The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Though Vivien Leigh was excellent in the movie, most of the rest of the cast seemed slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. If Warren Beatty was reaching for his role to be a lifeless Greco-Roman statue, he succeeded.

The TV remake came much, much closer to the original short story converted to a stage play. Helen Mirren turned the fading star part into a tour-de-force, and Olivier Martinez played the gigolo with sinister, spoiled pretty-boy zeal. Without the remaining barriers to sexual depiction that held back the 1961 movie, the underlying theme of late sexual blooming in a woman who had been nearly frigid was bittersweet. The supporting cast, including Anne Bancroft as the scheming contessa (replacing the also-excellent Lotte Lenya) and Brian Dennehy as the overweight dying husband was superb.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I am ashamed to admit that I haven't seen either version. There are gaps in my film knowledge... sadly. :-(

But the cast sounds pretty good. Ann Bancroft is pretty good and I'm a big fan of Brian Dennehy. I'll have to check it out.

CrispyRice said...

Love love LOVE the Brady Bunch remakes! They are truly extensions of the show.

In the same vain, I must say that I enjoyed the remake series of Fantasy Island, short-lived as it was. It had the right sense of quirk, coupled with mystery and good old-fashioned lesson learning.

I'll see if I can think of more examples in the morning. ;)

Anonymous said...

The second Addams Family movie was on HBO last week and I had forgotten how good it was, especially the great Joan Cusack: "Who would marry you? You're a big, dumb, weird thing!"

You pretty much hit the nail on the head, though The Final Destination was not a remake, just a (poorly-titled) sequel. And yes, they're doing another one! I actually saw the Starsky and Hutch film in the theater and, in retrospect, all I can do is ask myself, "Why?!?"

Now I should stress that remakes are nothing new - I just think we're going through a period in which the studios want (read: need) to play it safe so they choose pre-existing brands with built-in awareness.

And recently, I read some rumors about more remakes, which may or may not happen: I'm talking about everything from Short Circuit (really?) to An American Werewolf in London (I dare them to top Rick Baker's make-up FX). :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I remember the series, but I don't have much or an opinion of it either way. I thought his had potential, but I don't think it ran long enough to see what they did with it -- the scourge of television programming!

I was reluctant to see the Brady Bunch Movie because I was expecting something much more "straight," but they did a tremendous job with those films -- especially the first. Not only do they stand alone, even if you never saw the Brady Bunch, but they are packed with things straight out of the series!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think remakes have always been popular in Hollywood. They tend to be a very safe way to make a film, and safe means profitable. The early 1990s was a time with a lot of remakes as well -- some failed miserably, some succeeded brilliantly.

I watched both Addams Family films recently, and I too had forgotten how good they were -- brilliant writing, excellent acting. I was a big Raul Julia fan too. His death was one of those Hollywood deaths you don't expect. One my favorite lines is when the one woman tells Gomez, "my you are a lady killer..." and he says, "Acquitted!!" LOL!

I've heard about a remake of Short Circuit, which seems kind of pointless -- it was a fun film, but not worth repeating. I have not heard about an American Werewolf but I could see a remake of that one appealing to the modern teens. The one I'm surprised they haven't redone yet (not asking for it, just surprised) is Police Academy.... or an attempt to create a Blues Brothers franchise. Yuck.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Re: Police Academy, every six months, I read a new rumor from someone, either the producer of the original films or someone like Steve Guttenberg: "Yeah, it'll be a bunch of new recruits...!" (and so on and so forth) I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet either. :-)

Re: The Blues Brothers, it's my favorite film of all time but Blues Brothers 2000 makes a better soundtrack than a film. In interviews today, John Landis said he basically made the sequel for Dan Aykroyd and his love of the music, and so they bent over backwards for the studio and did everything they asked for (a low budget, a PG-13 rating, a kid, etc.).

As for a franchise, there was a Blues Brothers 2000 videogame for the Nintendo 64 (believe it or not!) and I recall seeing some images for a proposed animated series which obviously never happened. I'm sure if Dan Aykroyd had his say, we'd be getting new Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters films every other year!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I was talking more about jamming a couple of modern actors into the roll and doing a "Blues Brothers Reboot." While the public might view those roles as sacred, I seriously doubt Hollywood does -- just a great property to exploit.

I understand they are making a new Ghostbusters film using a new generation of people.

I really am surprised they haven't done a new Police Academy movie, because it was a fun movie (huge hit) and it's relatively timeless, so you could redo it every generation or so and people would probably keep coming back.

Ed said...

Good analysis. I think most well written stories require a lot of love for the characters. You can tell when an author or writer doesn't like what they are doing.

Ed said...

I think that's true. If you don't like your character to some degree, how can you make them into real people? In other words, if you have nothing but disdain for a character, then that will come across and make them less than whole.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I agree. If you don't love the characters, then how are you supposed to sympathize with them, which the key to understanding them.

CrispyRice said...

Just thought I'd update you to let you know we happened upon the original Ocean's Eleven over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Much more so than I was expecting to. Without any spoilers, I have to say that I loved the ending, too. It was somehow really fitting.

I'll look into the remakes this week. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Cool -- let us know how they compare to you! :-)

Jake said...

In your critique of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and other so-called "angry" remakes, you did not concede the overall creative and capital success of the attempt. As a fan of both old and new, I appreciate the satire and condescension in the remake as much as I enjoy the nostalgic cliche in the old. A good show is a good show, and to call the new BSG a "bad" remake because it didn't pay courteous homage to its predecessor strikes me as very narrow minded.

AndrewPrice said...

Jake, You've missed the point of what I said. As I noted, these shows rarely succeed until they lose the desire to trash the original and move into new areas where they begin to stand on their own. BSG was no exception. BSG did not gain a following until well after it abandoned its attempt to leverage fans of the old BSG.

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