My movie reviews reflect not only my opinions, but also my beliefs about how movies should and should not be approached. I’ve repeatedly made arguments on narrative, visual, characteristic, and even moral grounds. But if there’s one argument I’ve made ad nauseam, it would be that movies adapted from previous sources – novels, short stories, plays, musicals, and even other films – should be judged on their own merits and not held to the standards set by the original works. I realize I’m at the absolute bottom of the film critic totem pole, but I don’t believe that’s the reason why my argument has fallen on deaf ears (not the full reason, in any event).
The general mindset is that, once a film becomes beloved by critics, audiences, or both, it ceases to be a subjective work of art and transforms into a sacrosanct emotional investment.
I return to this argument on the heels of a brief Facebook conversation I had with one of my oldest friends. So as not to create any embarrassment on anyone’s part, I will refer to her simply as “A.” She posted an internet meme that contained two movie stills, one from Paul Feig’s upcoming Ghostbusters remake, the other from Ivan Reitman’s original 1984 version of the film. Both contained the principal cast members standing side by side in front of the Ecto 1. “No matter what Hollywood says…” reads the caption over Feig’s film, “these 4 guys will always be the real Ghostbusters,” reads the caption over Reitman’s.
Feeling uncomfortable that “A” would willingly take part in this hating, I posed her the following question: “Can’t we at least see the movie before we judge it?” Her response was quick and to the point. Here it is in its entirety, with one expletive censored:
“Nope. I’ve seen all I want to from the preview, and frankly was less than impressed. I’m tired of studio execs s***ting on my childhood by doing remake after remake after remake, and rebooting a series before the body of the first one is even cold (Spider-Man). I would like to see something new and original, but I get that that would be a financial risk no one is willing to take. This is why Netflix is eating everyone’s lunch with their original series, while the big studios are stuck trying to revamp their action tent poles for the nth time.”
She’s not the only one who reacted negatively to the trailer. Since its March 3rd premiere on YouTube, it has garnered well over 860,000 dislikes, which is in stark contrast to its more than 240,000 likes. It currently ranks as the most disliked trailer the site has ever posted.
The reason for this is obvious: People are objecting to the film on general principles. They haven’t seen it yet, but that doesn’t matter – the fact that this remake is at all, that it was even thought of, is offensive to their sensibilities. Nothing elicits more vitriol in cinematic circles than the remake. The very word gets some people’s blood boiling. In their minds, all remakes are incontestable proof that Hollywood is devoid of new ideas. “A” certainly believes this to be true, as evidenced by her equal animosity towards the ads for an additional two upcoming remakes, one for The Magnificent Seven and the other for the Fox Network’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And yet, the fact that 1960’s The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai doesn’t seem to bother her, or anyone else, in the slightest.
Returning to Ghostbusters for a moment, there’s no denying that it may indeed turn out to be a bad movie. The difference between me and “A,” and those who think like her, is that I’m not going to make that determination until I actually see it. You can’t use advertising to formulate an opinion on a movie. You know the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? An apt rephrasing would be, “Don’t judge a film by its trailer.” Trailers are notorious for promising what the finished film can’t deliver.
A very recent example of this would be for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a violent arthouse film that ultimately received critical acclaim (with me being an exception) and several accolades. Its distributor was sued by Michigan native Sarah Deming, who felt the film’s promotional material misled her into believing the film would be lightweight summer action fare similar to the Fast and Furious movies.
Another apt rephrasing would be, “Don’t judge a remake by its existence alone.” A remake is like any other movie – it can be judged only after it has been viewed from start to finish, and with a clear understanding of narrative basics such as plot, character, theme, pacing, and visualization. To judge a film, or anything, before knowing everything there is to know about it is the very definition of prejudice. Many of my generation were brought up to avoid that level of thinking in terms of society, but not so much in terms of the arts, filmmaking included. It stands to reason that prejudice is wrong in any form, on any level, in any context.
Part of the problem is the perception that remakes are a recent trend, started as the result of studios and filmmakers running out of original ideas. Anyone who has studied literature and narrative tradition already know that there really is no such thing as an original idea, as French writer Georges Polti demonstrated in 1895 with the publication of his The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, but that’s beside the point; as long as filmmaking has existed, so too have films that repeatedly tell the same story. I’ve already mentioned The Magnificent Seven. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was adapted three times before James Whale’s famous 1931 film with Boris Karloff. 1956’s The Ten Commandments was adapted by Cecil B. DeMille from his own 1923 silent film. Leo McCarey did the same thing with 1957’s An Affair to Remember, released in 1939 as Love Affair.
Brian De Palma’s 1983 crime drama Scarface originated as a 1932 film co-directed by Howard Hawks. William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, released in 1959, was first brought to the screen in a 1925 film directed by Fred Niblo. Alfred Hitchcock made The Man Who Knew Too Much twice, first in 1934 and again in 1956. 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad was based a version released in 1924. Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was adapted for film four times before the 1923 silent starring Lon Chaney was released, and it has been readapted several times since then, including in 1939 with Charles Laughton. Another Hugo novel, Les Misérables, has been similarly adapted more than once, and I mean well before it became a hit musical play; between 1897 and 1935 alone, there were no less than seventeen shorts and features released.
This is just a sampling. I could go on for pages. The interesting thing is that several of the remakes mentioned above have gone on to be regarded as classics, with seemingly no thought given to the fact that they had each already been made. The Thief of Bagdad is renowned for making mainstream the use of bluescreens. An Affair to Remember is considered by the American Film Institute (AFI) to be the fifth most romantic movie ever made, and was famously referenced in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle. Ben-Hur won a then unprecedented eleven Oscars, including Best Picture. It too has been lauded by the AFI, being named the seventy-second best American film ever made in 1998. The AFI has also recognized Frankenstein, The Ten Commandments, Scarface, and The Magnificent Seven, and it’s worth noting that many of the films have been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.
There’s certainly no way of knowing how history will regard any of the upcoming remakes, Ghostbusters included. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that, if audiences refuse to give them a fair chance, if they write them off before actually seeing them, they will perpetuate an unfortunate legacy of cinematic intolerance. This is not the way movies should be approached. They have to be watched at least once in order to be judged. Had this practice been applied to the 2011 version of Arthur, had it been allowed to stand on its own and not be endlessly compared to the original 1981 film, it might not have flopped at the box office.
Turning my attention back to “A,” let me address her perception that remakes are a studio’s way of … ahem … “defecating” on her childhood. If she truly feels that way, it’s only because she’s allowing herself to. Why she would give a movie studio that kind of power is beyond me. The truth is, it simply isn’t possible for a remake, or any film, to negate any good childhood memories. They will always be there, regardless of what gets released, and when, and why. Furthermore, it’s not as if the release of a remake in any way threatens the existence of an original. Not Ghostbusters nor The Magnificent Seven nor The Rocky Horror Picture Show nor Ben-Hur are going to be pulled from circulation the instant their remakes open in theaters or air on television. Did you prefer Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man over Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man? That’s okay – Raimi’s film is readily available. So why get yourself upset over Webb’s film? Simply ignore it.
I admit that my views aren’t very popular. Some have labeled me a cinematic apologist, or even a traitor, because God forbid I should sometimes believe a remake can actually be better than its source. For whatever it’s worth, I prefer to think of myself as someone capable of judging a movie fairly, without letting myself be blindsided by preconceptions or nostalgia. If you knew that I not only grew up with the original Ghostbusters but also was deeply entrenched in the franchise it created, not the least of which included the series of action figures and playsets released in the 1980s and ‘90s, you’d think I’d be among the first to condemn Paul Feig’s upcoming remake. The same can be said for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which, along with Little Shop of Horrors (itself a remake, incidentally), heavily influenced my cinematic tastes. I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal. I’m just trying to say that there are healthier attitudes towards film that we all should adopt.