The Remake, The Revival, and The Cover
Since we're currently living in the decade of never-ending reboots and sequels, I've been thinking a lot about what actually makes for a successful movie remake. When it comes to cinema there seem to be so many ifs, buts and particulars–from which films should even be potential remake candidates, down to if the title should be changed so as not to call attention to its remake status. Certain remakes are even being met with fierce aversion, which isn't terribly shocking considering how the pop culture community upholds Generation X movie classics with a type of reverence previously reserved for the Bible. Yet it occurred to me that theater and music don’t typically have the same problems that movies do when it comes to remakes. In fact, theatrical revivals and cover songs are not only mainstream but also lucrative and typically celebrated.
First off, let’s take a quick look at theater and opera. Live theater is more of an ephemeral art; an experience that up until the last couple of decades was only ever partially recorded, either as photographs or only audio. Unlike movies, you can’t obsessively rewatch the original performances and memorize every quirk; even with opera recordings you only get half the experience. It’s not surprising then that theatrical revivals tend to be thought of as more of a treat. Either because of this, or in spite of this, revivals tend to be bolder about making changes.
It’s pretty much the same deal with musical covers. While definitely more abundant than theatrical revivals, covers can also help to reveal another side of a classic or breathe new life into a lesser known song. Similarly, anybody covering a song needs to maintain some trace of the original source material. Heck, some of our biggest pop stars built their entire careers around covers–think Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Judy Collins, Tony Bennett, et al.
It’s interesting to me how revivals and covers can quite literally repeat their source material word-for-word and still have the outcome feel fresh, yet movies rarely follow the same formula. Why don’t films, like theater, opera and cover songs, just keep the script and change the setting, time, tone, and style instead? Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? It’s common practice at this point for plays to be transposed into different places or decades, main characters’ genders swapped or changed, the set reimagined as abstract, or even standard plays turned into musicals and operas. When these changes are successful, they bring out different aspects and sides of the original source material that either compliment, juxtapose, or bolster the original performance. These revivals, instead of being trapped by ‘canon,' use the guidelines of the original script to their benefit; it’s not a limitation as much as it’s a jumping-off point.
Funny enough, Disney seems to be coming the closest to this so far, though they (predictably) stop short of actually making bold decisions on screen. Nevermind that half of their animated movies are already movie remakes, their current decision to do “live action” (though still 80% CGI) versions of their cartoons is clearly building off the continuing success of their Broadway shows. And guess what–all of their current “live action” reboots have been commercially successful. They’re not perfect remakes, however. The new Beauty and the Beast (2017) is only good because the original script is great. The new visuals alone are nothing to write home about and none of the new material added anything that their original animation lacked. Personally, I think they’d have been even more successful if they stretched themselves the way their Broadway shows do. Part of why The Lion King Broadway show has lasted so long is largely do to Julie Taymor’s unique art direction.
I’d love to see some theatrical revivals straight-up get revived in cinema. After recently watching On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)–which, aside from the plot itself being about reincarnation, is an adaption of a stage play–I found myself looking up all of the theatrical productions that had existed and was shocked at how good some of them sounded. A 2011 revival at the St. James Theatre cast Barbra Streisand's starring role as a gay man, the hypnosis patient of a straight male psychiatrist who finds himself falling in love with, not the male patient, but his patient’s previous life as a female jazz singer. How brilliant is that? It both throws the entire dynamic on its head while also heightening the unrequited love story between the doctor and the patient.
Like revivals, covers are also a great way to see another side of the original song. I love hearing a sad song sung in a fast tempo, or hearing a cover done in a seemingly unrelated genre. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is a great example of a movie remake that figured out how to ‘cover’ an original film. In fact, it did it so well he was sued by Akira Kurosawa’s producers for it being too similar to Yojimbo (1961). But I think this direct influence should be celebrated, it's exactly why Leone's movie was so good! The original story is so strong that it can be told in either feudal Japan or the wild west and it’s still just as affecting.
Theater, by its nature, has to stretch itself in order to keep you in the moment and sell tickets. Covers need to go bold or else you’ll just go back to listening to the original song. So why is it that movies are rarely allowed to showcase the versatility of their material without nervously making massive script changes? The biggest disappointment about Ghostbusters (2016) wasn’t that it cast women (that was the most interesting part!), but that it tried too hard to distance itself from its source material. At that point, just call it something different and make another “influenced by” film.
Movies should take a page out of the innovations in its parallel arts. I’d love to see a really straight forward drama script remade with a stripped down abstract set, more remakes that swap to parallel genres, or even just more swapping out men, women, or different races in order to highlight social inequality. Why the hell not? If the story was great one way, why wouldn’t we want to highlight just how versatile and flexible it can be? It doesn’t erase the story’s original greatness, it helps prove it.