Six Damn Fine Degrees #47: Cinematic cover versions

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I think that most remakes and reboots are uninteresting at best and creatively bankrupt at worst. They bring little to the table other than the desperate appeal to name recognition: remember when you liked this ten, twenty years ago, or when it had subtitles?

But here’s a confession: no, I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with remakes – and, more importantly, I don’t think that they’re more of a symptom of the lack of originality of present-day cinema than, well, so many other films that don’t have the same name as an earlier film or TV series. And I think that many of the people who decry this lack of originality have a fundamentally naive understanding of what originality is. More than that, I think there’s a frequent misunderstanding of what a remake at its best is. Or, to put it in controversial terms (I should be doing this on Twitter!): I think there’s more of a point in remaking a good film than a bad one.

Hear me out: I think there’s most potential in a remake if the material is proven to be good, because my understanding of remakes isn’t that they’re a second chance at getting something right. They can be, but that’s not what interests me most. Perhaps it’s because I used to be much more of a theatre guy – and there, it’s normal that works aren’t just staged once and then they’re done. Plays are restaged. Not always for creative reasons: name recognition is part of the game here too, and a new production of Hamlet starring this hot young star who was in The Crown or on some Disney+ show is usually done for the revenue first and foremost. But a good play that stands the test of time is made to be interpreted differently by different directors and casts. There isn’t just one Macbeth, just one Waiting for Godot, Amadeus or Angels in America, and there shouldn’t be. Stage plays are malleable, as is all art and storytelling, and two different storytellers can tell the same story in completely different ways. And the earlier takes on the material are always there, just underneath the surface, enriching the material and the new interpretation. Later productions of the same material aren’t mere copies, they’re not evidence of some fundamental lack of originality (or at least not by definition – there are obviously creatively uninteresting restagings). Originality is about so much more than plots and titles. Much like a cover version, a new production, or indeed a remake, can make the material come to life in new and surprising ways. (As Alan argued last week: Ringo Starr singing about boys as bundles of joy is a very different proposition from The Shirelles doing the same.)

The thing is: there are plenty of films that are thinly veiled ripoffs of other films, but they don’t share the title of the movies they are ‘inspired’ by. There are films that very consciously echo other existing stories in any medium. There are very few films – or plays, books, songs, games etc. – that aren’t heavily influenced by what their makers watched, read, listened to or played beforehand. No art, no story exists in a vacuum. As the clever critic once said: “There is no new thing under the sun.” There is plenty of reason to reassess the idea of originality as ‘something other than a story that has been told before’. What makes a story new isn’t that it’s a completely new story. I’m very much with Roger Ebert who once wrote: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is how it is about it.” A remake or reboot can take an existing plot to tell a very different story. It can comment on the original, or it can use the original as a foil to talk about something else. The 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica took motifs, character types and the premise to talk about 9/11, terrorism and religion – not always equally successfully, but using the cheesy ’78 original – which, in many ways, was an attempt to ape the big success that was Star Wars in a TV format and through a Mormon lens – to worthwhile effect. Arguably, it was a more original piece of storytelling than many shows or films that in terms of copyright law would be considered original IPs.

Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys was a remake, albeit a very loose one – and it carries the DNA of other predecessors in the genre. Nonetheless, it is a highly original film. We have several versions of A Star is Born, and each brings out different facets and says different things about the times they’re set in and the characters they portray. Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is not Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. There are many, many versions of Dracula – are they unoriginal remakes or different interpretations of an original that bring their own things to the table? I was no fan of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, but none of my problems had anything to do with it being a remake.

Certainly, not every remake is David Cronenberg’s The Fly, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers – or Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars for that matter. But stories are instruments, and a good story can be used to do wildly different things. It is often exactly the doubling effect, the echoes of an original, that allow such films to bring the differences into sharp relief. Even if, as with Leone’s film, the story remains practically identical, right down to individual scenes, the differences in the mise-en-scène already make Leone’s Western remake of a samurai classic more than worthwhile. And I am certain that Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth will be a very different film from Polanski’s version or from Justin Kurzel’s adaptation.

So, go ahead and criticise the 2012 remakes of Total Recall or Red Dawn or the 2015 version of Point Break. Say mean things about Spike Lee’s Oldboy or Jon Favreau’s live-action The Lion King. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that these are bad films because they are remakes and therefore unoriginal. I mean, Disney’s original The Lion King was hardly the most original film in the world, seeing how it cribbed from Japanese anime as well as from Shakespeare, who in turn stole from others as well. You don’t have to be overly literal and say that there are only seven basic plots to understand that a story doesn’t have to follow a previously unheard-of plot – if there even is such a thing – in order to be original. The originality lies in the telling.

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