Last year, much fanfare was made over a fresh take on A Star Is Born.
Directed by Bradley Cooper and starring the actor and acclaimed recording artist Lady Gaga, the film was noted as a remake of the 1976 film featuring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Or was it a remake of 1954’s version, a classic from Hollywood’s golden years starring Judy Garland and James Mason? Technically, Cooper’s effort could also be classified as a remake of 1937’s A Star Is Born — the true original — with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March.
These four interpretations of a fairly simple (though unquestionably tragic) story together provide an excellent example of why some films continue to be fodder for a new spin. Depending on when you were born, your generation likely identifies the most strongly with one of the four versions of the film, whether it’s the original, Garland’s glorious turn as Esther, the notably troubled 1976 Streisand production or Cooper’s recent reimagining of the material.
In one sense, the quality of a remake is almost secondary to the effect it has on its intended audience.
When Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was released in 2017, those who recalled the late Robin Williams’ spirited performance in the 1995 original were likely skeptical of the need for a new take. What about younger film fans, though? To be fair, 1995’s Jumanji is not considered a triumph of film (it currently holds a 54 percent critics’ approval rating on the online movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes). Perhaps the original Jumanji holds a special place for some as a cult classic, but kids used to the quality of modern-day CGI are often unfazed by what passed for groundbreaking in the ’90s.
For them, the 2017 incarnation is an upgrade. Not only does it modernize the Jumanji concept from a board game that comes to life to a video game that ensnares its players, but it also features turns from some of today’s big stars, like Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black. As a result, popular opinion finds the new edition far superior to the somewhat forgotten original. The critical approval for the 2017 Jumanji: 76 percent.
Robin Williams would soon follow Jumanji by starring in 1997’s Flubber, another remake.
In this case, the source material was 1961’s The Absent-Minded Professor. The poster for the original bills itself as “the funniest discovery since laughter,” but the 1997 ver-sion with Williams was cinematic catnip for ’90s kids. Any who recalled the comparatively light touch of the original (starring Fred MacMurray) were possibly aghast to see Williams apply his more physical, hyperbolic style of comedy to the role. Conversely, young fans of Williams who already knew and adored him from other family-friendly fare like Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin were quite happy to see him in anything, let alone in a movie that cast him as a kooky mad scientist.
Could it be that the quality of remakes is mostly subjective? Even if so, there are a few that feel empirically superior (or inferior) to their predecessors. It’s also worth noting that remakes are not a new concept spawned by the movie industry finally running out of ideas. Studios do certainly seem to be short on compelling original content these days, but the practice of taking a popular film and recasting it with contemporary stars is as old as the business itself.
Did you know Humphrey Bogart did remakes?
When he graced the silver screen as Sam Spade in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, Bogart was actually the second actor to take on the role of Dashiell Hammett’s iconic PI. The original, a pre-code film from 1931, was released only a year after Hammett’s novel and starred Ricardo Cortez as Spade. Nowadays, when we speak of Falcon, it’s an unspoken assumption that we’re referencing the Bogart version, offering pretty definitive evidence that, at least in this case, the remake has entirely eclipsed the original.
Another interesting example is famed director Alfred Hitchcock, who also did a remake — of his own film. Mention The Man Who Knew Too Much, and many are likely to first think of Doris Day and her coded performance of “Que Será Será.” The 1956 U.S. version, which also starred Jimmy Stewart, is regarded as one of Hitchcock’s best pure suspense films. And yet by going back and watching the 1934 original — a perfectly competent British endeavor featuring Peter Lorre — one can see how Hitchcock’s skills as a director evolved in the two decades in between.
Remakes like The Maltese Falcon and The Man Who Knew Too Much also have their counterpoints, of course.
At this moment, Disney is invested in a plan to offer “live-action” remakes of many of its most beloved animated classics. When it comes to a story like 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, in which the human character of Belle can be played by a real person (in this case, Emma Watson), there’s arguably a least a reason to see how that new wrinkle might enhance or deepen the story.
Unfortunately, Disney has also moved forward with “live-action” remakes that are anything but. This summer, The Lion King arrived to much anticipation. With a voice cast that includes Beyoncé, Donald Glover and Seth Rogen, the film seemed poised to deliver the coveted fresh spin that justifies a remake’s existence. Instead, the script was almost a verbatim rehash of its 1994 predecessor. Also, given the film was entirely CGI, what exactly about it was “live”?
These are the types of remakes that give the rest of the crop a bad name — the ones that do nothing to separate themselves from the original’s formula in hopes of catching now-stale lightning in a bottle twice.
However you may feel about retreads, the most important thing to remember is that the version you love best isn’t going anywhere. Cinephiles are quick to level charges of artistic blasphemy against filmmakers when a new version of their favorite film is announced (for another example, see the response to 2016’s Ghostbusters redo) but new takes on familiar stories are pretty much all we have as a story-seeking audience at this juncture in civilization. The archetypes of narrative are well-established, meaning that whether we like it or not, most films today are, in one way or another, pseudo-remakes of something that’s been done before.
Originality should never be undervalued, but nor should the power of a story that evolves with time.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Marin Magazine.
Zack Ruskin writes on music, cannabis, and culture. His bylines include Vanity Fair, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, Merry Jane, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Danielle, and their cat, McCovey.