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The curse of the Hollywood remake Is imitation ever a substitute for innovation?

Just not quite the same, is it. (Credit: Psycho/Universal)

Just not quite the same, is it. (Credit: Psycho/Universal)


June 12, 2023   5 mins

When it comes to the Hollywood remake, far too many travesties have been foisted upon us over the years, either in the service of Mammon or in emulation of Icarus. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001) was a tedious affair which could not be rescued by an imaginative ending that further twisted the original’s famous twist. Paul Verhoevan’s exhilarating satire Robocop (1987) was resurrected in 2014 but, like the character itself, was a hodgepodge that barely resembled the original. The remake of Child’s Play (2019) erased the most interesting feature of the story by turning Chucky, the doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer, into a malfunctioning robotic toy. It’s like recasting Jaws with a disgruntled salmon.

And so it is with some trepidation that I learn of an imminent remake of Clue (1985), the hilarious whodunnit written and directed by Yes Minister’s Jonathan Lynn. Like all the best cult films, this one was a commercial failure on its release and was rescued only by the loyal fanbase that developed thanks to the advent of VHS. Fans have been tantalised with the possibility of a remake for years now, but with Ryan Reynolds apparently confirmed to star, it looks like it’s soon to become a reality.

As an adaptation of the board game Cluedo, Clue really should have been awful. It succeeded because Lynn followed the lead of Murder by Death (1976), in which screenwriter Neil Simon observed the conventions of the murder-mystery genre while simultaneously sending them up. Where we might have expected a perfunctory script with two-dimensional recreations of the game’s characters, Clue offers a series of farcical set pieces interspersed with snappy dialogue from an ensemble cast whose quality would surely be impossible to replicate today. Are there any young actors currently working in Hollywood who could possibly rival the comedic dexterity of Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd or Tim Curry?

And yet, I wonder whether my fears are rooted in pure nostalgia, a sentimental need to protect the memories of my childhood from desecration. As a boy, I would marvel at Tim Curry’s shapeshifting virtuosity. I remember my utter astonishment on learning that the villain Rooster from Annie, the killer clown from the mini-series It, and the impossibly muscular 10-foot-tall demon from Legend were all played by the same actor.

Clue was a particular favourite. Curry’s performance is the beating heart of this improbable farce, in which his capacity for razor-sharp comic timing and physical buffoonery is showcased to perfection. Rewatching the movies of our youth always carries a degree of risk; more often than not, we are confronted with the realisation that our favourites were utter dross, only bearable when seen through callow eyes. But revisiting Clue as an adult has been a pleasure. It’s completely daft, of course, but it has no pretensions to high art and is executed with clockwork precision, building gradually to its three frenzied climaxes.

And so it seems unfeasible that another actor could improve upon Curry’s star turn as the butler Wadsworth. We have already seen the experiment carried out in the case of one of Curry’s other best-known roles: the transvestite alien Dr Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Laverne Cox was impressive in the 2016 television version, but one could not quite shake the feeling that there was an imposter in those fishnet tights. Richard O’Brien, the show’s creator, once remarked to me that Curry’s interpretation of Frank N. Furter was “definitive”. So why bother attempting to improve on the unimprovable?

Creatives in Hollywood are often accused of laziness in rehashing tried and tested formulae. Yet the attempt to recreate an already popular film takes a certain chutzpah that I can’t help but admire. Has there ever been a remake that has satisfied fans in every respect, or that hasn’t been damned from the moment of its inception? The task is Sisyphean. The filmmaker is trying to win over an audience that is bound to be hostile.

One solution is the “requel”, a combination of a sequel and a reboot that follows on from previous storylines but introduces new characters to supplement the original cast. This technique is engineered, one might say cynically, to satiate the nostalgic appetites of older fans while cultivating new ones. Jurassic World: Dominion (2022) allowed moviegoers the opportunity to be reacquainted with the key figures from 1993’s Jurassic Park (played by Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum), alongside some new younger cast members to take care of the more physically demanding action sequences.

But requels are invariably a mess. The Han Solo of The Force Awakens (2015) feels like a dioramic approximation of his former self, and the Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi (2017) is a veritable changeling. When Prince Akeem returned to our screens in 2021 for a requel of Coming to America (1988), the traits that made him so compelling had been mercilessly sanitised. The effect of all such character revivals is akin to our frustration at the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, a strange doppelganger with none of the flair or caustic genius of the fat knight of the Henry IV plays.

But perhaps we ought to resist our natural cynicism. Yes, remakes are about milking cash cows — usually ageing ones with desiccated udders — but there’s nothing new in the reworking of popular stories. With the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, Shakespeare always borrowed his major plotlines. As You Like It was written barely a decade after the publication of Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, the text upon which it is based.

Of course we forgive Shakespeare because he always surpasses his sources, but there is an ideal here that writers might wish to emulate. Poets of the Elizabethan era were informed by the imitation theory of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian. That is to say, great art could be produced through a combination of both imitation and invention. We might apply this concept to cover versions of pop songs. These can often amount to little more than karaoke but, in some cases, can surprise us with the audacity of their reinterpretation.

The same can be said of movie remakes. Those that succeed only do so because they are able to blend imitation with invention. One thinks of John Sturges’s transposition of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) to the American wild west in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Then there is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), Franz Oz’s remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story. Steve Martin and Michael Caine are able to generate more explosive comedic chemistry than David Niven and Marlon Brando in the original, and the added feminist twist at the end is masterfully done.

Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was mauled by critics who resented the very concept of a shot-for-shot remake, one that copied the camera tracking and editing of the original. To put this criticism in the terms of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, our auteur had committed the sin of pigritia (indolence) by failing to invent in the act of imitation. This criticism was seemingly universal, but it was based on a false premise. There are significant differences in Van Sant’s version — which I will not spoil here — and these are all the more potent due to their infrequency. To my mind, the remake is a success, precisely because it is able to modify our perspective of the original in surprising and sinister ways.

So perhaps we ought to embrace the inevitability of the remake. The retelling of existing stories is the oldest story of them all, and some of our greatest artists have produced their best work by drawing on the collective imaginations of their predecessors. The miserable quality of current Hollywood remakes isn’t so much proof that the concept is flawed, but rather that the leading practitioners of the cinema seem to lack the ingenuity to reignite our interest.

As such, I am keeping an open mind when it comes to the remake of Clue. Madeline Kahn is, of course, irreplaceable, and whoever assumes the role of Mrs White may as well steel themselves for the unflattering comparisons. Yet if the filmmakers can avoid pandering to modish identity politics, and find some inspiration in that febrile no-man’s- land between the expectations of a devoted fanbase and the need to innovate, it is possible that our inevitable disappointment can be assuaged.


Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath

andrewdoyle_com

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AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

Good article with some real gems such as: “It’s like recasting Jaws with a disgruntled salmon”.
Part of the underlying sag in remakes could be that truly great movies–make your own list and test this unresearched claim–don’t usually get re-made or turned into “re-quels”, do they? So far we’ve been spared “Citizen Kane: The Sledding Years” or “O Brother Where Art Thou Now?” (drawing upon the earlier film, which drew upon the Odyssey) or “Cool Hand Luke Jr.”, etc. The remakes tend to go for pretty good movies that were a financial success, though Doyle has cited some cultish, commercial-flop films that were re-made, usually to an across-the-board failure.
Nowadays, these long-unhappy remakes emerge from a moviemaking culture more averse to real risk than ever, especially in Hollywood. How many of the superhero, horror, rom-com, action-spectacle, or sci-fi/dystopian-world films of recent vintage are formulaic and derivative, in effect like contemporaneous remakes or trivially-altered versions of each other?
ï»żDoyle gets it right while writing it well: replication (like adaptation) only succeeds alongside re-invention. The movie version of Double Indemnity achieves something the book doesn’t (the film has a main character with a measure of decency and some snappy original lines; good to have Raymond Chandler do your screenplay), and vice versa.
I think it’s essentially true that there’s no new thing under the sun–to quote Ecclesiastes, from over 2,000 years ago–but you still need ought to do better than a superficial reboot with newer clothes and updated slang or “Ghostbusters: Now With Women!”.

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
Angela N
Angela N
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

You know some remakes are great and some are crap. And if I ever see another version of great expectations or pride and prejudice or jeez, Batman, kill me jow.

Big but. Ghostbusters “Now With Women” got vilified purely because, you know, misogyny.

As anyone who has seen Ghostbusters 2015 knows, it’s brilliant and hilarious and unique to itself, and in no way diminishes the brilliant, hilarious original.

I recommend anyone to watch it, particularly young girls, and laugh like a drain.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago
Reply to  Angela N

I don’t agree that the Ghostbusters remake was panned purely because of misogyny, but accept that many of those who “vilified” the remake or condemned the very idea of it had sexist motivations, maybe even misogynistic ones. I thought the anti-“lady reboot” hysteria (word chosen on purpose) was nonsense, with overreach on both sides of the dispute, and I didn’t mean to contribute to it.
As a fan of SNL and most of the cast, including McKinnon and McCarthy, I wanted to like it more. I thought it was pretty dull and lazy, neither good nor awful. But I don’t rate the original, which came out when I was a middle-schooler, as a great film either. For me, it was just a fun spectacle whose thrill was gone come reboots–including the “original” male-lead sequels–by having been done before.
Then again, I liked Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)–which isn’t really defensible as fine cinema either–I think in part because I watched it with a female friend who really enjoyed it, contagiously so. Perhaps I shouldn’t have singled out the Ghostbusters reboot. But I don’t think my reaction to it should be a litmus-test fail for how I view women in society, if that’s what you’re suggesting.

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago
Reply to  Angela N

I don’t agree that the Ghostbusters remake was panned purely because of misogyny, but accept that many of those who “vilified” the remake or condemned the very idea of it had sexist motivations, maybe even misogynistic ones. I thought the anti-“lady reboot” hysteria (word chosen on purpose) was nonsense, with overreach on both sides of the dispute, and I didn’t mean to contribute to it.
As a fan of SNL and most of the cast, including McKinnon and McCarthy, I wanted to like it more. I thought it was pretty dull and lazy, neither good nor awful. But I don’t rate the original, which came out when I was a middle-schooler, as a great film either. For me, it was just a fun spectacle whose thrill was gone come reboots–including the “original” male-lead sequels–by having been done before.
Then again, I liked Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)–which isn’t really defensible as fine cinema either–I think in part because I watched it with a female friend who really enjoyed it, contagiously so. Perhaps I shouldn’t have singled out the Ghostbusters reboot. But I don’t think my reaction to it should be a litmus-test fail for how I view women in society, if that’s what you’re suggesting.

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
Angela N
Angela N
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

You know some remakes are great and some are crap. And if I ever see another version of great expectations or pride and prejudice or jeez, Batman, kill me jow.

Big but. Ghostbusters “Now With Women” got vilified purely because, you know, misogyny.

As anyone who has seen Ghostbusters 2015 knows, it’s brilliant and hilarious and unique to itself, and in no way diminishes the brilliant, hilarious original.

I recommend anyone to watch it, particularly young girls, and laugh like a drain.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

Good article with some real gems such as: “It’s like recasting Jaws with a disgruntled salmon”.
Part of the underlying sag in remakes could be that truly great movies–make your own list and test this unresearched claim–don’t usually get re-made or turned into “re-quels”, do they? So far we’ve been spared “Citizen Kane: The Sledding Years” or “O Brother Where Art Thou Now?” (drawing upon the earlier film, which drew upon the Odyssey) or “Cool Hand Luke Jr.”, etc. The remakes tend to go for pretty good movies that were a financial success, though Doyle has cited some cultish, commercial-flop films that were re-made, usually to an across-the-board failure.
Nowadays, these long-unhappy remakes emerge from a moviemaking culture more averse to real risk than ever, especially in Hollywood. How many of the superhero, horror, rom-com, action-spectacle, or sci-fi/dystopian-world films of recent vintage are formulaic and derivative, in effect like contemporaneous remakes or trivially-altered versions of each other?
ï»żDoyle gets it right while writing it well: replication (like adaptation) only succeeds alongside re-invention. The movie version of Double Indemnity achieves something the book doesn’t (the film has a main character with a measure of decency and some snappy original lines; good to have Raymond Chandler do your screenplay), and vice versa.
I think it’s essentially true that there’s no new thing under the sun–to quote Ecclesiastes, from over 2,000 years ago–but you still need ought to do better than a superficial reboot with newer clothes and updated slang or “Ghostbusters: Now With Women!”.

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
11 months ago

“ Yet if the filmmakers can avoid pandering to modish identity politics”

Fat chance !

it just has to be accepted, some things are more, and sometimes much, much, more than the sum of their parts. Dad’s Army being a MASSIVE case in point. You can have all of your ducks lined up, perfectly, throw loads of money at it, polish it to a high sheen, and still fall way, way, short of the magic that was the original.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
11 months ago

“ Yet if the filmmakers can avoid pandering to modish identity politics”

Fat chance !

it just has to be accepted, some things are more, and sometimes much, much, more than the sum of their parts. Dad’s Army being a MASSIVE case in point. You can have all of your ducks lined up, perfectly, throw loads of money at it, polish it to a high sheen, and still fall way, way, short of the magic that was the original.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
11 months ago

True enough that remakes are often putrid, for instance Get Carter or the Wicker Man or Rollerball or Point Break. On the other hand, I prefer the remake of that overrated kids movie, The Magnificent Seven. Payback, which is a remake of the brilliant Point Blank, is a terrific film in its own right. The Thing, John Carpenter’s remake of the 1950s B, is one of my all-time fave films. I’ve recently watched the first half of the latest version of Dune, which is much better than the David Lynch movie or the mini series from about 25 years ago; hopefully the second half of this Dune is as good. And heretical as it may be on an English website, I like the remake of The Italian Job, although I still prefer the original.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
11 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

“ I like the remake of The Italian Job,”
Philistine 🙂

Last edited 11 months ago by Tom Lewis
Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
11 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Yes, The Thing is the one movie that sprang to mind, such a superior version of the original.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
11 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

“ I like the remake of The Italian Job,”
Philistine 🙂

Last edited 11 months ago by Tom Lewis
Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
11 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Yes, The Thing is the one movie that sprang to mind, such a superior version of the original.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
11 months ago

True enough that remakes are often putrid, for instance Get Carter or the Wicker Man or Rollerball or Point Break. On the other hand, I prefer the remake of that overrated kids movie, The Magnificent Seven. Payback, which is a remake of the brilliant Point Blank, is a terrific film in its own right. The Thing, John Carpenter’s remake of the 1950s B, is one of my all-time fave films. I’ve recently watched the first half of the latest version of Dune, which is much better than the David Lynch movie or the mini series from about 25 years ago; hopefully the second half of this Dune is as good. And heretical as it may be on an English website, I like the remake of The Italian Job, although I still prefer the original.

Margaret F
Margaret F
11 months ago

This article sidesteps the most obvious problem with modern remakes: diversity casting. It really does seem that the worst modern remakes were produced with the primary goal of providing a vehicle for black or female leads. The quality and popularity of these projects could not be lower. It’s to the point where rating sites have had to adjust their algorithms to conceal public disgust. It’s sad because film-making is one of the few American industries that hasn’t been run completely into the ground in the past 50 years.

Margaret F
Margaret F
11 months ago

This article sidesteps the most obvious problem with modern remakes: diversity casting. It really does seem that the worst modern remakes were produced with the primary goal of providing a vehicle for black or female leads. The quality and popularity of these projects could not be lower. It’s to the point where rating sites have had to adjust their algorithms to conceal public disgust. It’s sad because film-making is one of the few American industries that hasn’t been run completely into the ground in the past 50 years.

N Satori
N Satori
11 months ago

Neither the Hollywood remake of Solaris or Tarkovky’s Russian original manage to capture the essence of Stanilav Lem’s very strange SciFi novel depicting human attemps to communicate with a planet which is essentially a living, intelligent entity.
Anyway, never mind remakes – I just wish someone would try making a movie of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

N Satori
N Satori
11 months ago

Neither the Hollywood remake of Solaris or Tarkovky’s Russian original manage to capture the essence of Stanilav Lem’s very strange SciFi novel depicting human attemps to communicate with a planet which is essentially a living, intelligent entity.
Anyway, never mind remakes – I just wish someone would try making a movie of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

Ali W
Ali W
11 months ago

Another example of the improved remake, in my opinion at least, is Ocean’s Eleven.

Ali W
Ali W
11 months ago

Another example of the improved remake, in my opinion at least, is Ocean’s Eleven.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

I for one am one looking forward to the remake of ‘The Dambusters’, and am wondering how they will refer to the Black Labrador* owned by the late Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO.

(* Whose grave was recently desecrated by the Royal Air Force at RAF Scampton, Lincs.)

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
N Satori
N Satori
11 months ago

Be careful what you wish for. Judging by the inclusiveness mania afflicting movie production in the last couple of years we may find that historical truth is whatever the activist ‘creatives’ want it to be and Guy Gibson was actually a Person Of Colour, a closet homosexual, a covert cross-dresser or even a woman. As for his pet dog – it may turn out to have been a light coloured Labrador called Whitey. As for Barnes Wallis: the true source of his alleged inventiveness must surely have been pilfered from some unsung marginalised genius (with socialist sympathies).

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
11 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

You forgot ‘German’.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
11 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

You forgot ‘German’.

N Satori
N Satori
11 months ago

Be careful what you wish for. Judging by the inclusiveness mania afflicting movie production in the last couple of years we may find that historical truth is whatever the activist ‘creatives’ want it to be and Guy Gibson was actually a Person Of Colour, a closet homosexual, a covert cross-dresser or even a woman. As for his pet dog – it may turn out to have been a light coloured Labrador called Whitey. As for Barnes Wallis: the true source of his alleged inventiveness must surely have been pilfered from some unsung marginalised genius (with socialist sympathies).

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

I for one am one looking forward to the remake of ‘The Dambusters’, and am wondering how they will refer to the Black Labrador* owned by the late Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO.

(* Whose grave was recently desecrated by the Royal Air Force at RAF Scampton, Lincs.)

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

One remake that i was fully expecting to be terrible but turned out not too bad was Whisky Galore (1949 / 2016). I can’t normally abide watching Eddie Izzard but his reprieve of the slightly over-the-top army captain just seemed to work, if very different from the original.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Personally I’m rather glad the WG remake is nothing than a half forgotten disturbing footnote to British film, it was truly awful, with Izzard badly miscast.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

I thought it at least captured the “spirit” of the original…

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

I thought it at least captured the “spirit” of the original…

Grace Note
Grace Note
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I watched some of it on Saturday when it was on BBC2 expecting to absolutely hate it. I didn’t but it was very mediocre. I didn’t watch it to the end because life’s too short for too much mediocre. The original is such a delight that any sensible person would have left well enough alone.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Personally I’m rather glad the WG remake is nothing than a half forgotten disturbing footnote to British film, it was truly awful, with Izzard badly miscast.

Grace Note
Grace Note
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I watched some of it on Saturday when it was on BBC2 expecting to absolutely hate it. I didn’t but it was very mediocre. I didn’t watch it to the end because life’s too short for too much mediocre. The original is such a delight that any sensible person would have left well enough alone.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

One remake that i was fully expecting to be terrible but turned out not too bad was Whisky Galore (1949 / 2016). I can’t normally abide watching Eddie Izzard but his reprieve of the slightly over-the-top army captain just seemed to work, if very different from the original.

Quentin Puckridge
Quentin Puckridge
11 months ago

Clooney and Soderbergh‘s Ocean’s Eleven was much better than the original Rat Pack version. Obviously they rather ruined that by making Twelve, Thirteen and Eight, but still…

Mr Tyler
Mr Tyler
11 months ago

Yes, Psycho (1998) is good. I like it. Correct call.

Mr Tyler
Mr Tyler
11 months ago

Yes, Psycho (1998) is good. I like it. Correct call.

T Bone
T Bone
11 months ago

I for one would like the Cultural Appropriation of Hollywood remakes to be MORE diverse and inclusive by viewing each story through an “Earth Lens.” To utilize other properties of storytelling like silent films that showcase the Earth’s core as She/They cope with the Capitalist transformation of the planet. Otherwise moviemaking simply isn’t sustainable. This change alone would cut down film costs immensely and be better for the planet.

At this rate, there is simply no chance that Hollywood can hit all of the 2030 Goals by 2030. It’s going to require a radical transformation. A reimagining of how we think about the way that we think about inclusivity and what it means to be Earth-centered.

T Bone
T Bone
11 months ago

I for one would like the Cultural Appropriation of Hollywood remakes to be MORE diverse and inclusive by viewing each story through an “Earth Lens.” To utilize other properties of storytelling like silent films that showcase the Earth’s core as She/They cope with the Capitalist transformation of the planet. Otherwise moviemaking simply isn’t sustainable. This change alone would cut down film costs immensely and be better for the planet.

At this rate, there is simply no chance that Hollywood can hit all of the 2030 Goals by 2030. It’s going to require a radical transformation. A reimagining of how we think about the way that we think about inclusivity and what it means to be Earth-centered.