Remake a Remake: What exactly is a remake, and why are some films considered remakes and others aren

When we talk about remakes, we often like to look at the two extremes of the spectrum. The best and the worst. And everyone does this, me included. It’s as if somehow, we can judge a remake on the one that did great and the one that did terrible, and yet we very rarely discuss the ones in between, those that were neither entirely successful in their attempts to offer up a new take on existing material nor simply retread the same ground.

But I think this refusal to discuss such films is, in part at least, down to a general uncertainty on what a remake actually is. I mean, think about it, we talk about slews and slews of remakes constantly, be it John Carpenter’s The Thing or Gus Van Sant’s pointless Psycho, and yet… what actually is a remake?

Those two films I mentioned are wildly different in their approach to the material. Carpenter’s film bears, in truth, very little resemblance to Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, to the point where they could almost not be connected at all. Likewise it takes only small details from the original novella, Who Goes There?, upon which both movies are based. Meanwhile, Van Sant’s Psycho is shot-for-shot, beat-for-beat a retread of Hitchcock’s frightening and suspenseful masterpiece. It brings so little new content to the table that it essentially renders itself wholly unnecessary before we’ve even sat down to watch it.

And yet, both films are, as far as most people are concerned anyway, a remake.

Just what actually makes a remake is a question I’ve been asking people recently, and there are a lot of different interpretations. Some say that it is simply the idea, and that no matter how it is then used it would constitute being a remake. But then I question whether that definition actually holds up. Is Maleficent a remake a Sleeping Beauty, for example? To which most people would say no, it’s a “retelling” of sorts. So, what’s the difference?

If a “retelling” is, like Maleficent, when an existing story is reworked then does the same logic not apply to Carpenter’s The Thing? Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead? Cronenberg’s The Fly? And if not, and a remake is genuinely just the idea, then is every iteration of Dracula ever committed to screen a remake of some sort?

See, I’m willing to bet that most people wouldn’t considered Coppola’s Dracula a remake of Terrance Fisher’s Hammer classic, and, going even further than that, I’m willing to bet most people wouldn’t consider the Hammer film a remake of Lugosi starring Universal Monster movie. And yet, by that particular definition, they all are, right?

When this question was put to a few people I know the response was that it’s because they’re different interpretations of a book, and not of the film adaptations. I get this logic, and by using that particular definition we are certainly able to explain how Maleficent, a film that uses aesthetic and iconography from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, skirts closer to remake territory than something like Dracula.

But, a lot of what we know about Dracula, and recognise from film adaptations, doesn’t actually come from the book. Nosferatu was the film that introduced sunlight into the Dracula canon, for example. In the book the sunlight merely weakens the Count. And yet… every single interpretation of Stoker’s creation, bar Coppola’s as far as I’m aware, includes this detail.

And what about the cape, and the accent and so on? All of these things are creations of Legosi and Browning, not of Stoker either. So, does Hammer’s Dracula, which in actuality bears very little resemblance to the book, skirt closer to remake than not? And if so, why don’t we consider it a remake? But if not, why not?

I’m sure very few people would argue that Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a remake of the Gene Wilder starring Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and they’d undoubtedly be right. Neither film shares very much in common outside of their source material. One is a fun, brightly coloured, sweet-natured musical, and the other is Tim Burton’s total mess. They even have different names. But when Burton applied the same approach to Planet of the Apes (bar changing the name, of course), it was a remake.

I mean, Burton’s Planet of the Apes shares almost nothing with the Charlton Heston starring original. Even the most iconic moment of the film is swapped out. The makers of the remake would argue the tried to keep more focus on the book, and yet no one would call Planet of the Apes a retelling or a new adaptation of the book.

Oddly, the exact opposite is often said about the Coen Brother’s True Grit, which adapts the book far closer than the John Wayne original but does borrow certain concepts from it. Why is True Grit not a remake when Planet of the Apes is?

Is a film automatically a remake when a previous film exists? Even if there is a shared source? And what of films that share a source but are not remotely interested in existing films? What about Disturbia, which was marketed and recognised as an update of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Truthfully the films share very little in common beyond the surface levels of the plot, analysing different themes and ideas and having very different settings and characters. Even the situations are different, for the most part, but the central concept remains. Is this a remake?

I’m not sure I have an answer to these question beyond the obvious, and what we regard as a remake or not often seems to have more to do with the quality of the picture itself than the definition of what a remake truly is. If the original film is more famous, we’ll often regard something as a remake, when truthfully it is anything but a simple remaking of the work.

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© Alex Secker 2018