Remakes Rethink: Is Hollywood Really Out Of Ideas?

Oct 14, 2011
Originally published on October 14, 2011 6:28 pm

It's been a big year for Hollywood remakes — more than a dozen, not counting sequels. There were new versions of Conan the Barbarian and Arthur this summer. Fresh incarnations of Footloose and The Thing open today. And soon we'll see Hollywood's take on the Swedish hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Cue the standard complaint: Hollywood has run out of ideas.

Hold on, though. Let's think this through.

Otis Redding wrote and recorded a little ditty called "Respect" in 1965. Made it sound pretty good, too. A couple of years later, Aretha Franklin "remade" it in her own image. Anyone want to claim she shouldn't have? That Redding — the composer, let's note — did the definitive version?

Okay, I know, music is an interpretive art. But there are parallels in other disciplines too. How different is it when Picasso models cubist images on a 300-year-old painting by Velazquez? And does the fact that Laurence Olivier was a legendary Hamlet in the 1940s mean that Richard Burton can't be one in the '60s? What about the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and Jude Law? Dame Judith Anderson even did a one-woman Hamlet, playing all the parts, when she was in her 70s. (Curiously, the one part she wasn't convincing in was Gertrude). If you're a theater critic, watching different takes on familiar roles is part of what makes the job interesting.

Film, it turns out, is one of the few media where remakes, redos, rediscoveries and reinterpretations are regarded skeptically. Rap artists sample soul standards and no one bats an eye. Everybody loved it when John Steinbeck based parts of his novel East of Eden on the Book of Genesis. But say you're going to remake Footloose, and even if the original wasn't all that good, fans stomp their feet and say, "Leave it alone."

Film is a young medium, which may be why movie remakes strike people negatively. Shakespeare based King Lear on an ancient folk tale, but movies don't go back very far — barely 100 years — and in a lot of cases, the old versions are still around to be seen.

Since 1903, for instance, Hollywood has made 29 Three Musketeers movies, an average of one every four years. Evidently feeling that it had to do something new, the teen-oriented one that opens next week will be the first to thrust it's d'Artagnan at us in 3-D.

Now, I thought director Richard Lester's version was great fun in 1973, but I remember my elders saying then that Michael York's d'Artagnan wasn't buckling his swash nearly as thrillingly as Gene Kelly had in 1948. And I imagine their elders pooh-poohed Kelly in favor of Douglas Fairbanks in the 1921 silent Musketeers. So young Logan Lerman, the 3-D d'Artagnan, has a lot to live up to ... kind of like a composer who decides to do a variation on a theme by a famous someone else.

Maurice Ravel, for instance, got a commission in 1922 to revamp a little suite for solo piano that had never really caught on with the public when Modest Mussorgsky wrote it in 1874. Ravel's arrangements for full orchestra made Pictures at an Exhibition a little more, um, technicolor, and Mussorgsky's themes finally clicked with the public.

Movie directors could sort of be considered both the composers and the arrangers of cinema, so it can be intriguing when a world-class talent decides to rethink someone else's work. Steven Soderbergh's snappy take on the crummy rat-pack comedy Ocean's 11 felt like one-upsmanship. Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho felt like homage. And when the Coen Brothers put some actual grit into True Grit, it felt like a revelation.

True Grit, I'd argue, is the real deal — a retread that had more traction than the original. Admittedly, that's easier when the first movie's sloppy. But even quality originals can be overshadowed. There was a fine Maltese Falcon a decade before the one starring Humphrey Bogart. And Some Like It Hot reworked a funny German comedy that no one remembers any more.

So keep fingers crossed. The world may not need a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in English, but audiences could do worse than having Fight Club director David Fincher making a case for it. And The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio next year? Well, he did pretty good work for director Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet (also a remake). And Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (also sort of a remake) was certainly respectable.

And Gatsby, remember, was a real believer in the redo. When he's talking about putting a shattered romance back together, and is told by a buddy that you can't repeat the past, he's thunderstruck. "Can't repeat the past?" he marvels. "Of course you can."

Hollywood proves that all the time.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Finally, this hour, the proliferation of Hollywood remakes. This year, there have been more than a dozen. "Conan the Barbarian" and "Arthur" over the summer. Opening today, new versions of "Footloose" and "The Thing" and soon, we'll see Hollywood's take on the Swedish hit, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." So with all these remakes, is there a failure of imagination in Hollywood?

Well, our movie critic Bob Mondello says, let's reserve judgment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Otis Redding wrote and recorded a tune in 1965 that he made sound pretty good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

MONDELLO: A couple of years later, Aretha Franklin remade it in her own image.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

MONDELLO: Anyone want to claim Otis Redding, the composer, let's note, did the definitive version? Was Aretha's remake a bad idea? Okay. I know music is an interpretative art, but there are parallels in other disciplines, too. How different is it when Picasso models cubist images on a 300-year-old painting by Vilasquez? And does the fact that Laurence Olivier was a legendary "Hamlet" in the 1940s...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HAMLET")

MONDELLO: ...mean that Richard Burton can't be one in the 1960s?

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HAMLET")

MONDELLO: And Daniel Day-Lewis in the '80s, followed by Kevin Kline, Jude Law. Dame Judith Anderson even did a one woman "Hamlet," playing all the parts. If you're a theater critic, watching different takes on familiar roles is part of what makes the job interesting.

Film is one of the few mediums where remakes, redos and reinterpretations are regarded skeptically. Rap artists sample soul standards and no one bats an eye. Everybody loved it when John Steinbeck based parts of his novel, "East of Eden," on the Book of Genesis.

But say you're going to remake "Footloose," and even if the original wasn't all that good, fans stomp their feet and say, leave it alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FOOTLOOSE")

MONDELLO: Film is a young medium, which may be why movie remakes strike people negatively. Shakespeare based "King Lear" on an ancient folk tale, but movies don't go back very far, barely 100 years, and in a lot of cases, the old versions are still around to be seen. Since 1903, Hollywood has made 29 "Three Musketeers" movies, an average of one every four years. What's left to do? Well, the teen-oriented one that opens next week will be the first to thrust its d'Artagnan at us in 3D.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THREE MUSKETEERS")

MONDELLO: Now, I thought Richard Lester's version was great fun in 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THREE MUSKETEERS")

MONDELLO: But I remember my elders saying then that Michael York's d'Artagnan wasn't buckling his swash nearly as thrillingly as Gene Kelly had in 1948.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE THREE MUSKETEERS")

MONDELLO: And I imagine their elders poo-pooed Kelly in favor of Douglas Fairbanks in the 1921 silent Musketeers. Okay. That doesn't really work on radio. Even so, young Logan Lerman in the 3D Musketeers has a lot to live up to, kind of like a composer who decides to reupholster a piece by a famous someone else.

Ravel, for instance, got a commission in 1922 to revamp a little suite for solo piano that had never really caught on with the public when Mussorgsky wrote it in 1874.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION")

MONDELLO: Ravel's arrangements made pictures at an exhibition a little more Technicolor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION")

MONDELLO: And Mussorgsky's themes finally clicked with the public. Movie directors could sort of be considered both the composers and the arrangers of cinema, so it can be intriguing when a world class talent decides to rethink someone else's work.

Steven Soderbergh's snappy take on the crummy rat pack comedy, "Ocean's 11," felt like one-upsmanship. Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's "Psycho" felt like homage. And the Coen brothers putting some actual grit into "True Grit" felt like a revelation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRUE GRIT")

MONDELLO: "True Grit's" the real deal, a retread that had more traction than the original, admittedly easier when the first movie is sloppy, but even quality originals can be overshadowed. There was a fine "Maltese Falcon" a decade before the one starring Humphrey Bogart. And "Some Like it Hot" reworked a funny German comedy that no one remembers anymore. So, keep fingers crossed. The world may not need a "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" in English, but audiences could do worse than having "Fight Club" director David Fincher making a case for it. And "Great Gatsby" with Leonardo DeCaprio next year? Well, he did pretty good work for director Baz Luhrmann in "Romeo and Juliet," also a remake, and Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge," also sort of a remake, was certainly respectable. And Gatsby, remember, was a real believer in the redo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREAT GATSBY")

MONDELLO: Of course you can. I'm Bob Mondello.

RAZ: And at our website, you're invited to make the case for your favorite remakes. Go to NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.