← Back to Essays

The Eminent Domain of Movie Remakes

We are all familiar with the complaints about Hollywood's purported lack of originality. News about a remake of Footloose or an adaptation of The Smurfs comes out and everyone hits Ctrl + V and produces the same statement: "Hollywood has run out of ideas." This deluge of stock responses is as inevitable and predictable as its cause.

But to think of these things as "remakes" is to fundamentally misunderstand them. Genuine remakes are exasperating and generally disposable, but largely harmless; Jaden Smith is not capable of retroactively dismantling your memory of Ralph Macchio. But in many cases the purported "remakes" are remaking the original films in purely superficial ways, changing not just the actors, the time period, or most of the details, but changing the original film's very reason for existing. Some of them completely change the message of the original. They are not so much remaking stories as they are reappropriating them.

There are numerous modern examples of this phenomenon:

  • The Manchurian Candidate

    In the original 1962 version of the film (based on a 1959 novel), a man is brainwashed by Communists to assassinate a presidential candidate to spark a chain of events that will result in the election of a Senator who is secretly a Communist agent. It's a deservedly beloved film and a reminder of a) the height of the threat of Communism, and b) how scary Angela Lansbury can be when she isn't pretending to be a teapot. In the 2004 remake the same character is brainwashed, but it is not by Communists, but by a corporate entity that manufactures weapons and has a vested interest in keeping the nation at war. In other words, businessmen: the exact opposite of Communists. The bad guys go from Stalinists to suits, from Reds to white collars.

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still

    In the original 1951 version of the film, an alien ship lands and its inhabitant warns humanity that it must curb its self-destructive tendencies and join the interstellar community in peace. It offers this simple warning, and then leaves us to decide how to respond. In short: "Stuff gonna 'splode, people. Think about it." In the 2008 remake the aliens do not merely warn humanity, but begin actively threatening them. And it does so not because it is concerned for our well-being, but for the planet's. It explicitly regards our planet's ability to sustain life as more valuable than the life it's already sustaining. In short: "Planets are people, too!" A warning about preserving human life becomes a warning about preserving the environment.

  • Adjustment Team/The Adjustment Bureau

    In the original sci-fi short story Adjustment Team (by Phillip K. Dick, who seems to have written about a billion of these things), there are a group of people behind the world who dictate events to ensure that certain things happen. A mistake is made and the metaphysical undulation that results alerts a man to their existence. The man resists their attempts to brainwash him at first, but is eventually brought before the "Old Man" (who is clearly God, given that one character claims that everyone meets him, eventually). The Old Man explains how the ostensibly small error will ripple throughout history and lead to an increase in tension between the Western world and the Soviets. This convinces the man of the validity of the plan, and he submits to it.

    In the 2011 film adaptation retitled The Adjustment Bureau (which swaps the postive-sounding "Team" for an ominous-sounding "Bureau"), the mistake leads to an unplanned romance. The man involved discovers their existence and spends the majority of his time fleeing and flaunting the mysterious forces compelling him to fall in. Eventually, his stubbornness wins out and the "Chairman" (again, God) rewrites the divine plan to allow for them to be together. Romantic, but a complete 180 from the moral of the first story, which implies that such forces know what's good for us better than we do. Though it's amusing to imagine an epilogue where they divorce a few years later, rendering the whole story absurd in retrospect.

  • The Time Machine

    In the original 1960 film adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel, a man invents a time machine and travels far into the future to discover a society of people ("Eloi") being both supported and terrorized by the monstrous Morlocks. After helping the Eloi rid themselves of this problem, he returns to his own time and retrieves several books, which another character suggests he's done so as to help the Eloi rebuild civilization. In the 2002 remake the man destroys the machine in the process of saving the Eloi and must live a simple life with them, without the benefits of civilization. He appears pleased with this result. The goal of reestablishing civilization is completely inverted, and becomes a tale about the necessity of letting it go.

    As a bonus, the meaning of the film shifted in-between these two, as well, as a 1978 made-for-TV adaptation turned the time machine from a personal technological venture to part of a corporate project. Naturally, the corporate types (other than our hero) wanted to use the machine as a weapon. This is a type of villain so trite and prepackaged that it must have been the result of spinning some brightly-colored wheel.

  • The Wicker Man

    In the original 1973 film, the protagonist is a devout Christian, and celibate to boot. He is sacrificed by pagans to appease their god, and he dies defiantly reciting Psalm 23. In the unintentionally hysterical 2006 remake starring Nicholas Cage, the protagonist is not particularly religious. He doesn't appear to be celibate, either, though one expects his dating life suffers from the fact that he appears to really enjoy kicking and punching women, which he does constantly throughout the film. Thus, a story about Pagans persecuting a Christian becomes a story about religious people persecuting the non-religious, as well as a story about Nicholas Cage hitting ladies.

  • The Absent-Minded Professor/Flubber

    Even Flubber? Yes, even Flubber. In the 1961 original, The Absent-Minded Professor, Professor Brainard creates a substance that gains energy when it comes into contact with a hard surface. It guffaws in the face of thermodynamics by bouncing higher on the second bounce than it does on the first. Brainard actively tries to interest both business and government leaders in his discovery, and eventually hands it over to the military. In the 1997 version (retitled Flubber) the villain is the one trying to monetize the substance to collect on a loan. Because money is bad, except for the $178 million this movie somehow made.

  • The Nutty Professor

    In the original 1963 comedy, Professor Kelp (Jerry Lewis) develops a formula that turns him from a hopeless dweeb into a suave ladies man. After a number of hijinks that the French probably find irresistible, the film ends happily as Kelp elopes with his love interest (and two bottles of the formula) and his father begins furiously marketing the tonic. In the Eddie-Murphy-infused remake of 1996, he forsakes the formula at the end of the film, choosing to let people accept him for who he is. And his professional victory is not selling the formula, but in obtaining an academic grant to support his research. Capitalism is considered too crude to be the mechanism for the hero's success. Au contraire, original moral lesson.

  • Pocohontas

    Perhaps the most egregious example, because it reappropriates actual reality. In reality, Pocahontas converted to Christianity, married John Rolfe in 1614, and had a child with him. The wedding acted as a cultural peace offering that resulted in an increase in trade with the Powhatan, which the colonists had been at war with for several years beforehand. Two years after their marriage, she traveled with him to England. In the 1995 "remake" Disney presents an unbearably treacly piece of fiction wherein Pocahontas teaches John Smith (who often stands in for Rolfe in these sorts of adaptations) the ways of nature and remains in the New World, a complete reversal of almost everything that took place in reality.

  • Starship Troopers

    The original 1959 sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein posits a fictional world in which only those who enlist in the armed services are granted full citizenship, and promotes militarism and sacrifice. In the 1997 film adaptation, all of these things are depicted, but they're coated in a lacquer of ironic self-awareness. Director Paul Verhoeven (who said he found the novel "depressing" and openly admits to treating the source material as farce) satirizes the story so subtly that the film was erroneously criticized for promoting the same things as the novel. It is satire in its lowest form, adding only a wink to the original. Also, Neil Patrick Harris, before he was cool again.

Obviously, these kinds of remakes are an attempt (consciously or unconsciously) to subvert older values with newer ones, not by engaging them on the merits but by simply usurping them. They win by default, by merely superseding the original, like a forced upgrade to an inferior piece of software. Remakes are the Windows ME of popular culture.

But the problem goes deeper than simply swiping titles and ideas for their own purposes; the problem is also conceptual. By recasting the villains or dangers of each film to reflect some narrow new zeitgeist, they turn something like The Manchurian Candidate from a story into an archetype. If the message of The Manchurian Candidate can be mutated for each generation, then it is no longer a story itself but a mere delivery mechanism for each idea. It becomes a type of tale, divorcing the shape of the story from its purpose. It is the difference between calling someone "a lawyer" and calling them "Greg." It is a soulless golem, ambulated to walk and move and emote like a story, when it has actually been reduced to a method. It is not a film, but a form. Not a movie, but a mercenary.

There is, admittedly, an Andy Rooney-esque quality in complaining about cultural shifts. But these are not examples of the shifts themselves, they're examples of the things that reinforce them. It would be difficult to seriously deny that the underlying messages of films are not just a reflection of changing perceptions, but an active agent in the changes themselves. And it is the things that sidestep public cultural debates that often have the most ability to influence them. The idea that avoids the battle at the gate by coming in the side door is the most potent, because it slips in unnoticed and unquestioned. It becomes part of the set of presuppositions that frame the debate. The evil corporation. The trigger-happy military. The romantic rebellion against authority. The church of nature. These are the ideas and archetypes that are drummed into a million minds a minute. And very few of them rap on the front door and announce themselves before coming in.

The problem, then, is not that Hollywood has no new ideas, but that it's willing to allow the new ideas to eat the old ones. To use another film's reputation to sell a message antithetical to that of the original creator. If only they were as unimaginative as everyone says they are.

Chris Bowyer can be found on Twitter (@chrisabowyer), or on his website.

Discuss this Essay (78 comments)

Sorry to clarify....subverting the original message is unimportant as long as the sequel makes money. ... Read Comment
You're definitely not repeating stuff, but that's not really what the essay's about: it's about remaking films in a way that subverts the message of the original.... Read Comment
Remakes provide the movie industry with a guaranteed income. That income is critical if the industry is to take the risks required to fund new innovative projects. Those remakes are the movie industr... Read Comment

Leave a Comment

Like this Essay? Share it!