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The Practice of Movie Remakes

April 4, 2011

By John C.

Over the weekend, I found myself revisiting the original Arthur, in anticipation of the remake set to open this coming Friday.  The 1981 film starred Dudley Moore in a brilliant Oscar-nominated turn as a drunken playboy falling in love for the first time, and John Gielgud deservedly won an Oscar for his supporting role as Arthur’s butler, Hobson.

After exactly 30 years, Arthur is clearly dated both in its look and seeming glorification of drinking and driving under the influence.  But it remains a sharply written and expertly acted comedy, that still delivers on the level of big laughs and a lot of heart.  Burt Bacharach’s wonderful theme song alone makes the film worth seeing.  The film was followed by an inferior sequel in 1988.

The remake, set to open on April 8th, stars the generally reliable British comedian Russell Brand in the title role and Helen Mirren as his nanny, Hobson.  I’ll be seeing it later this week, so I can’t yet comment on the quality of the new film, but the whole thing’s got me thinking about the often pointless art of remakes in general.

Hollywood has an obsession with trying to repeat greatness, but lightning has rarely struck twice.  There are films that should never be remade.  Films that have left their mark on the world of cinema, and ones that simply can not be repeated.  For me, the original Arthur does not rank as one of these untouchable films, but it does have a lasting legacy to uphold.

To be sure, there are remakes that do work.  Like recent Best Picture nominee, True Grit.  But the Coen Brothers brilliant western wasn’t as much a remake of the 1969 film that won John Wayne a career Oscar, rather a new take on a classic novel by Charles Portis.  Some works of literature deserve more than one screen rendering, and sometimes several tries are needed before they get it right.

Some foreign films have also been the subject of effective and successful remakes, like last year’s Let Me In which was closely based on Sweden’s 2008 vampire thriller Let The Right One In.  Even Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed was adapted from a Chinese film titled Internal Affairs.  But these are exceptions to the general rule.

I was in somewhat of a minority on last year’s needless remake of the 1984 teenage classic, The Karate Kid.  Maybe it was due to the fact that the original remains a sentimental favourite for me, but the biggest fault of the Jaden Smith-Jackie Chan reboot was the somewhat disturbing choice to make the lead characters be pre-teens.  There were a lot of great ‘coming of age’ films in the 1980’s, and the majority of them should not be remade.

Horror films are the most notorious genre for remakes, with villains being resurrected and many seeming derivative of each other.  When Gus Van Sant infamously copied nearly every shot to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho in 1998, the results were thoroughly pointless.  The only thing that the experiment managed to prove was something we already knew – greatness can not be repeated by merely copying it.

If we should be remaking films at all, it should be ones that had potential in terms of story, but weren’t particularly great in the first place.  There are some movies that aren’t executed as well as they could have been, and a retelling of the same story could serve them well.  But redoing a film merely because it was succesful should never be your only reason.  For a remake to work it should either enhance our appreciation or improve on the original, and time will only tell if Arthur can be added to this list.

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