Hollywood’s release schedule is dominated by new versions of old classics. Most of the time these films are underwhelming, overcooked and generally greeted with bemusement and derision. But is there a genuine argument for pop cultural recycling? And what does our desire to retell the same story over and over say about us?
First, let’s clear up the semantics: a ‘remake’ is usually a one-off take on an existing film, and could be anything from a shot-for-shot upgrade to a radical reinterpretation; a ‘reboot’ is typically the practice of taking an existing film franchise and basically starting again - often with an origin story or prequel that studios hope will generate enough box office to kick-start a new series of movies.
There are other terms that are used by Hollywood PRs and industry journos - ‘reimagining’ is usually reserved for the most abstract or tenuous recreations - but for the purposes of this article, we’ll use them all interchangeably to avoid confusion.
Next, let’s take a look at the nature of cinematic recycling. How does it work? Well, commercial movie rehashes have been around for years; countless stories have been reinvented, revamped, repackaged and served up as tepidly bland incarnations of their former selves. These offerings are typically little more than cinematic trailers for the original film - technically brilliant rendering stripped of all charm, wit, ideas and quirks.
But it was The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) that allowed studios to declare open season on every film and franchise to which they hold the rights. After all, if you can reboot a series a mere five years after the previous instalment of the original franchise and it’s still a box office smash, well, it sort of makes everything fair game.
We’ve already had reboots like The Incredible Hulk (2008), Conan the Barbarian (2011), Dredd (2012), Total Recall (2012), Evil Dead (2013), Carrie (2013), Robocop (2014) and about a million horror movies. And in the near future, we can look forward to new versions of Godzilla, Poltergeist, Weird Science, Daredevil, Annie, Starship Troopers, Point Break, Gremlins and an entire new Terminator trilogy.
This is just the tip of the remake iceberg. Dozens more reboot projects are in the pipeline for the next few years. Why? Because studios are terrified to take risks on unknown material, so they’re desperately squeezing every last drop of commercial juice from existing assets.
That means nothing is off-limits. Nothing is sacred in cinema any more. Because if there’s already a pre-built audience for it, there are reboot dollars to be made. Lots of dollars.
It doesn’t sound like I’m making a very good argument for reboots, does it?
But stick with me. I’m getting there.
The first thing to say in favour of films conceived within this rebooting culture is that they’re not all bad. Recent releases have given us Batman Begins (2005), Casino Royale (2009) and Star Trek (2009) - three awesome films that respectfully inherited their tired source material and took it in a fresh new direction.
It’s also worth pointing out that there have been great movies that some people don’t even realise are remakes. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Insomnia (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004) and True Grit (2010) might have all felt shiny and new when they came out, but none of them were the original article.
It’s also interesting that a lot of older iconic films that many people presume are originals are also remakes. From masterpieces like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Ten Commandments (1956) to horror classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Thing (1982) and Cape Fear (1991), the history book of cinema is dog-eared with brilliant retellings of less popular first attempts.
In many cases, remakes take a great story and retell it to an audience in a context that makes more sense - usually by setting it in their own culture. This practice of translating a story from one culture to another is most obvious in J-Horror reboots like The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004) and Dark Water (2005).
But this geographical repositioning has produced classics as well as lazy retreads. The Magnificent Seven (1960), A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and even Star Wars (1977) were each based to varying extents on films by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa - specifically Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo the Bodyguard (1961) and The Hidden Fortress (1958).
So what does all of this mean? Basically, it starts to suggest that telling new versions of old stories might not just be a commercial exercise - it might be a cultural inevitability.
This theme of retelling stories can probably be better explained by looking at other artforms. Think about theatre. Think about television. Think about music. How many adaptations of Shakespeare have there been on stage? How many adaptations of Dickens novels have hit the small screen? How many covers of Dylan have reached the airwaves?
The reason for this narrative recycling clearly isn’t just commerce. It’s our desire to take older stories and make them our own. How? By putting our own spin on them. Adding our own ideas to those of the original author. Telling them in a way that makes sense for contemporary cultures and generations. To set them in a relatable context to better empathise with characters.
Let’s take Shakespeare as just one specific example. Do Tudor ruffs and tights make sense to modern audiences? No. So Baz Luhrmann pitched Romeo & Juliet as an inner city gang conflict. Do medieval kings and feudal land systems mean anything to modern audiences? No. So Edward Bond remodelled King Lear as a deluded tyrant raging against an industrial landscape.
It’s a similar story with other Shakespeare plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been presented to theatre-goers in everything from twee high fantasy to stark monochrome. No one ever complains it’s the same story every time, because they’re fascinated by how the same story can be told in an interesting, original way.
So the cinema screen isn’t the only medium used to reboot and recreate the same old story. It’s just the most publicised.
When you take all of this into account, things are pretty clear: we’ve always had a culture that recycles stories. It’s part of our nature. It’s in our DNA. We want to take tales from previous generations and retell them to modern audiences with our own ideas and interpretations.
In the case of most movie reboots, we’ve established that the motivation to trample over old ground is usually cold, hard cash; it’s studios pitching remakes in must-see 3D as the most effective way to get people in cinemas and away from binging on Netflix, TV and box sets at home.
But it doesn’t have to just be about the money. It isn’t always just about the money. And reboots don’t have to be bad.
Which is good news, because rebooting is part of who we are. It’s what we do. And it’s given us some brilliant new films using old storylines. When it’s done well, rebooting has purpose. It has a future.
So next time you hear your favourite film franchise is getting rebooted to ‘bring the magic and excitement of the original to a new audience’, don’t roll your eyes. Open your mind. Cross your fingers.
And pray you get a new vision of an old classic.