For now, back to remakes. We often regard them skeptically, partly because there are so many of them: Apparently, 2017 will bring us remakes of everything from The Mummy to Disney's Beauty and the Beast (live action this time) to Death Wish. "Why," we ask, "can't Hollywood come up with something new, instead of recycling the same old plots?" Writers have special reasons for feeling that way. If Kenneth Branagh wants to make a mystery movie, why crank out yet another version of Murder on the Orient Express, when he's more than welcome to the screen rights for our stories and novels?
I wondered the same thing when I saw the 2010 remake of 1984's The Karate Kid. (My husband is a fifth-degree black belt, so I have seen every martial arts movie ever made.) The remake takes place in Beijing rather than Los Angeles, and the protagonist is five or six years younger. Other than that, it's almost the same movie. (The director even kept the romantic subplot, so we're treated to the slightly creepy experience of watching two twelve-year-olds kiss. Some additional tweaking of the old script might have been nice.) I'll admit I skipped the remakes of Arthur and The Pink Panther. In each case, I think, the original movie's appeal rests primarily on one actor's remarkable performance, and I doubted the replacement actor could equal it; reviews I've read and comments I've heard confirmed my doubts. I did see the remakes of The Wicker Man and The Haunting, and I wish I hadn't. Remakes that awful feel like insults to the original movies. In general, I think remakes are unlikely to succeed if they feel like no more than attempts to reach a younger audience, promote a promising actor, amp up the special effects, or cash in on a popular movie's name.
But we've probably all seen remakes we enjoyed, too. I liked the 1995 remake of Sabrina and the 1978 Heaven Can Wait (a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan). With both, it may have helped that I hadn't seen the original movies first and wasn't tempted to make comparisons--I could simply enjoy the new versions as clever, well-acted movies. After watching the remakes, I made a point of watching the original movies and enjoyed those, too. So maybe that's one thing to be said for remakes: The good ones may attract some new viewers for classic movies.
All three of these movies, as you may know, are adaptations of Jack Finney's 1954 science fiction novel, The Body Snatchers. So should the two later versions be seen as remakes of the original movie, or as reinterpretations of Finney's novel? I can't answer that question--I don't know if the people who made the later movies even read the novel--but I do think some movies often called remakes might more aptly be called reinterpretations. For example, there's the 2010 True Grit. Like its 1969 predecessor, the 2010 movie is based on a 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name. I haven't read True Grit, but all the reviews and articles I've seen agree the second movie follows the novel more closely than the first one with regard to plot, characters, tone, and other elements. And Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote, directed, and produced the 2010 movie, have said they decided to make it because they were intrigued by the book and particularly by the voice of its narrator, Mattie. In this case, then, "reinterpretation" may be more accurate than "remake."
That may also be the term to use when talking about the many movie versions of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, of other novels and stories, of plays by Shakespeare and others, of legends such as the story of Robin Hood, and so on. It's probably helpful to see most of these as reinterpretations of the original source, more than as remakes of earlier movies. That's what I hope Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express will be--a fresh interpretation of Agatha Christie's novel, not just an attempt to duplicate the success of the 1974 movie. After all, there have been several film versions of Ten Little Indians / And Then There Were None. When a story's so gripping, it's no wonder many moviemakers want to take a turn at telling it.
Then there's Liberal Arts. I don't have proof--I've spent several hours looking around online but could never find confirmation--but I think Josh Radnor's 2012 Liberal Arts is a reply to Woody Allen's 1979 Manhattan. This has been a pet theory of mine for some time, and I'd love to know what you think. (I'd also love it if you'd give Liberal Arts a try--and I'm not saying that only because writer, director, and star Josh Radnor and I are both Kenyon College alumni, and most of the movie is filmed on Kenyon's exquisite campus. I've never met Mr. Radnor, and I don't own stock in the movie. Wish I did.)
I'll stop the plot summary there, both for fear of spoiling the movie for you and in hopes of enticing you to see it. Instead, I'll mention a few similarities and differences between Liberal Arts and Manhattan--I assume you've all seen Manhattan, so I won't worry about spoiling that. Manhattan is set entirely in--well, Manhattan; Liberal Arts balances New York scenes against scenes set in the nearly pastoral village of Gambier, Ohio. In both movies, the age difference between the man and the woman is considerable, but Manhattan's Isaac is forty-two, and Tracy is seventeen--a significantly larger difference, especially since Tracy's still in high school and below the legal age of consent. Isaac's fiercely solipsistic, almost exclusively focused on his own problems and needs. He cites concern for Tracy's welfare as his reason for breaking up with her, but is his attraction to another woman his real motive? When his relationship with the other woman ends, and a depressed Isaac realizes "Tracy's face" is one of the things that makes his life worth living, he tries to persuade her to come back to him, even though she's about to embark on a journey that could enrich her life.
Jesse, like Isaac, spends time fretting about his needs and disappointments. But he clearly cares about other people, too, including Dean, a brilliant but troubled student Jesse meets during his first trip back to Kenyon. When Dean's life comes to a crisis, Jesse rushes to the college again to help him through. And when eminently desirable Zibby invites Jesse into her bed, he responds with sentiments seldom expressed in movies these days. "I believe in consequences," he says. "No, you believe in guilt," she counters. "Maybe," he admits. "But guilt before we act is called morality."
Well, that's probably a spoiler. But it's one of my primary reasons for thinking Liberal Arts is a reply to Manhattan. Both movies are well-written, well-acted, visually stunning, deliciously witty. Both center on similar situations. But the protagonist in Manhattan is ruled by his desires, and the protagonist in Liberal Arts can put his desires aside and make careful moral choices--again, something we seldom encounter in movies these days. Does Josh Radnor see Liberal Arts as a reply to Manhattan? Did he ever even see Woody Allen's movie? I don't know. If he didn't, it's a remarkable coincidence--the kind of coincidence any good mystery writer rejects as unbelievable.
When I was a freshman at Kenyon College, taking a year-long survey course in the history of British literature, I was often struck by the way the writers we studied seemed to be carrying on a dialogue with each other, a dialogue stretching across centuries. Writers alluded to their predecessors, imitated them, rebelled against them, borrowed from them, reshaped what they borrowed. It's natural for writers to influence each other and try to outdo each other. Moviemakers seem to be engaged in a dialogue with their predecessors, too. At this point, the dialogue often takes the form of remakes. As time goes on, the dialogue may become more varied, as writers and directors discover new ways to respond to movies that inspire or provoke them. In the meantime, we viewers wade through many remakes, avoiding or enduring the mediocre ones, surprised by joy when an old favorite gets transformed into a new delight.
Are there movie remakes or reinterpretations you especially like or dislike? Are there movies you see as replies to earlier ones? If I've maligned a movie you love or praised one you despise, please don't hesitate to say so. People get passionate about movies--that's one thing that makes talking about them so much fun. And I'm sure we'll all be nice to each other.
As others have already noted, three SleuthSayers have been nominated for the Best Short Story Agatha this year--Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, and me. Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell have been nominated, too. I'm thrilled and honored to be named along with these fine writers. You can read all the nominated stories here.