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COLUMN: In Defense Of The Remake

Arts & Review Editor

Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 21:10

The British writer Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch famously said that there are only seven stories in the world. The implication was that every single novel, play or short story—and in our modern era, every movie or TV show—was simply a variation on an age-old conflict that had already been dramatized endlessly.

These days, it seems that Quiller-Couch is right. At the very least, Hollywood seems to think so. With the ever-increasing supply of remakes, sequels, re-boots, and adaptations coming to our movie screens—including a new version of the blood-soaked Steven King classic Carrie arriving this weekend—it often seems that our pop culture is severely lacking in original stories.

But you know what? I think I’m okay with that.

This is not to say that I am content to spend the rest of my life watching horror movie remakes, or that I have a particular wish to see Carrie. I value originality and creativity in film as much as anyone, and I would rather buy a ticket for something that looks unusual—say, Don Jon or Gravity—than an existing property where I already know what to expect. In spite of all this, though, I think the bias against remakes tends to exaggerate their damage and ignore their virtues.

The funny thing about people who decry remakes on principle is that they conveniently ignore the ones that are good. I wonder what Brian DePalma, the director of the 1976 Carrie, would think about the fans that are complaining about the very existence of a new version. I suspect he would be rather bemused. DePalma, after all, built his directorial career upon re-fashioning old properties. His 1983 Scarface was a remake of a 1932 film, Blow-Out was a re-imagining of the Italian film Blow-Up, and Obsession blatantly stole from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And believe it or not, all of these movies are now acknowledged as classics, despite their status as remakes.

You can go back much further than DePalma’s career, too, for examples of remakes that are worth their salt. The Humphrey Bogart film noir The Maltese Falcon, the Clint Eastwood Western A Fistful of Dollars, even the 1939 The Wizard of Oz—all these classics came from earlier cinematic sources.

So how do you explain this animosity toward remakes—the angry cries of “why” that are heard across message boards as soon as it’s announced that Hollywood is digging up an older property, as if the new version will somehow erase the old?
Well, partly it’s because many remakes haven’t turned out so well. I grant that, and I grant that Carrie might very well be one of them. I think there’s a larger reason, though: audiences tend to privilege story over style, assuming that a new movie with an old plot can’t offer anything new.

I think this gets it precisely wrong. One of my favorite quotes about movies comes from Roger Ebert, who argued that when judging a movie’s quality, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.” The “how” of movies is their style, their tone, their message, that indescribable something that is bigger than the realm of the story.

Two movies can be “about” the same thing in terms of plot and not really be about it the same way at all. The original 1969 version of True Grit—the movie that finally got John Wayne his Oscar—was more about Wayne’s career, as reflected through the character of Rooster Cogburn, than anything else. It was a role clearly written for Wayne, calling back to earlier roles and functioning as a swan song for a long and prolific career. The 2010 True Grit, which featured Jeff Bridges in Wayne’s role, focused more on the character of Mattie Ross, the stubborn 14-year-old played by Hailee Steinfeld. Bridges may have got first billing, but the 2010 True Grit was decidedly her story, framing the movie’s plot points and its wider historical context through the eyes of a young girl. And the result was a much richer, more emotionally satisfying film than the stale and jokey original.

Who knows whether the same will be true of the new Carrie? It very well could be. What will likely happen, though, is what always happens with remakes: some will love it, some will hate it, some will argue it’s better than the original, others will bemoan the fact that it was ever made in the first place. And at the end of the day, the 1976 version of Carrie will still be there for those that want it. No harm, no foul.

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