Why we need to challenge our film-makers and TV producers to ditch re-makes and be more creative
PUBLISHED: 19:00 15 August 2019
Remakes and sequels appear to be everywhere these days. Cinemas and TV are full of secondhand stories. If filmmakers really want to capture our imaginations then they are going to have to come up with something original
Spotting Dad's Army on the cover of the Radio Times this week made my heart sink. It's not that I don't like Dad's Army, on the contrary I think it's a timeless work of genius, but it was the fact that these were the faces of look-alike actors staring out at me and that these episodes were re-makes that made me 'die' a little inside.
The arts are supposed to be about originality and creativity and at the moment, in our sequel and remake-driven world, where films and books are 're-imagined' for the umteenth time, sometimes I fear that popular culture is on a quest to eat itself.
Part of the reason for having that sinking feeling when viewing the Radio Times cover was that just a day earlier Hollywood had announced that it was going to re-make Home Alone. Why? Unlike theatre where productions vanish into the ether the moment the curtain comes down, film and video is around forever.
If you want to watch classics by Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, John Ford, Gene Kelly, Hitchcock, Cary Grant, George Cukor, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe... you can. They are preserved in their prime in film cans or on digital archive masters. There is no need to update or remake classics - as anyone who has seen the dire remakes of Psycho, The Wicker Man or Some Like It Hot will confirm.
Psycho, directed by the normally reliable Gus Van Sant, was a shot for shot re-staging of the Hitchcock film but without the atmosphere or the hypnoptic performances of the original. The reason for funding this expensive turkey remains a mystery. It certainly wasn't profitable.
Even when they have a 'brilliant' twist on an original idea, as Hollywood tried to tell us it had with the recent re-make of Ghostbusters, it rarely works because what we loved about the original was its originality.
Most classic films have an aura of magic about them. It's a quixotic blend of actor chemistry and brilliant storytelling. Why would you want to tamper with something that's perfect? If you really want to produce a remake then you choose a movie or a TV show which has a good idea behind it but didn't really work first time round.
A good example of that would be Steven Soderbergh's update of Ocean's 11. The original with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack was just a flimsy excuse for him and his mates to run around Las Vegas having fun. The 2001 remake by Soderbergh, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts was a thrilling heist movie that actually had a coherent narrative, a story that engaged its audience and as a result was a big hit, both commercially and critically.
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The problem with updating something like Dad's Army is that the original was so closely tied to the actors who first inhabited the roles that any remake requires to the new cast to look and sound like the stars that made the series famous.
Without question, the new programme will be judged, not on its own merits, but on how closely it resembles the original. There's no room for doing anything new or trying a different characterisation or opting for a new set of catchphrases. Everything hinges on it being exactly the same as the original. Hardly very inspiring for either actor or audience.
This mini-series was commissioned by classic comedy channel Gold after the scripts for three lost episodes were recovered from writer David Croft's archive.
Dad's Army ran from 1968 to 1977, produced 83 episodes over nine seasons including three hour long Christmas specials. The series is still incredibly popular and has been constantly repeated ever since and still gets into the Top 10 rankings for BBC2.
In an effort to complete the archive Gold set about remaking the three missing episodes from the second series. They cast Kevin R. McNally as Captain Mainwaring, Robert Bathurst as Sergeant Wilson, Kevin Eldon as Lance Corporal Jones, Mathew Horne as Private Walker and David Hayman as Private Frazer with Timothy West as Private Godfrey.
These are all very experienced, very capable actors and yet their ability to impersonate their predecessors will be the only thing they are judged on. This need for comparison will over-ride any examination of the script, will render redundant any discussion whether the comedy still stands up 50 years on. With 80 perfect examples of this fine sit-com sitting safely in the BBC's vaults do we really need a second-hand remake of three early missing episodes? It just devalues everything that made the original series great.
As for Hollywood's ongoing quest for profits, it seems that a remake is an easier sell because it has automatic name recognition. The fact that it is not as good as the original is neither here nor there because cinema runs are so short now that by the time negative word of mouth has spread the film will be off our screens anyway. Lots of flashy marketing, star power and the original's reputation as good movie will be enough to guarantee a strong opening weekend.
Money will then continue to roll in from streaming platforms, digital movie channels and from increasingly important overseas markets where audiences, who don't speak English as a first language, are less likely to make comparisons with the original.
While movie fans consider film-making to be an art, Hollywood knows it is showbusiness - with the emphasis on business. Why risk spending money on something original, even if it can deliver huge profits, when you can more or less guarantee modest profits with a remake of something you've done before? It mimises the risk of failure.
This is what is driving Disney's self-obsessed desire to re-make their animated classics as live-action movies. The fun and the invention which characterised Walt Disney's originals is alarmingly absent when you put both versions alongside one another. The CGI and photography may be impressive but it is just technical window-dressing, these updated 'classic' films are clearly rather pedestrian, lacking in any real magic or imagination.
Both television and Hollywood need to have the courage of their convictions. All the big hits, the films and series which have lasted and captured the public imagination from Snow White to Star Wars, from Doctor Who to Game of Thrones have come from original ideas, from leaps of imagination which have been allowed to flourish and grow. No one has made history with a re-make.