In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock made the decision to remake his own 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock’s motivation for the 1956 remake was due to his desire to self-correct his 1934 original film with a better cast, denser script, and applying motifs into the film he was known for that he hadn’t established yet in 1934. Hitchcock had felt embarrassed of the 1934 version and felt, given his extensive resume by 1956, that he wanted to rectify what he thought could have been a better film. Yet despite Hitchcock’s determination to modernize his 1934 film, he was sure to leave the film’s plotline intact and almost unchanged, sometimes relying on shot-for-shot sequences that were direct remakes of the original. There was a sense of respect left for the original film.
In contrast to contemporary remakes, this sense of respect for the original usually is absent with modern remakes. Instead, they are more focused upon being grander and typically ignore the conventions of the original that allowed for it to become popular. There is a level of arrogance in today’s remakes with producers believing that audiences will immediately adopt a new version of the original film without question. Many times this is because producers have possessed the ‘we must modernize this’ attitude, which they believe would incite renewed interested for a film or franchise. It is not about perfecting the original art form, but rather is a financial investment, which makes this mentality deeply flawed. The evidence for this claim can be seen with remakes in the last five years, such as: Arthur (2011), Carrie (2013), Total Recall (2012), and Robocop (2014), all of which failed in theaters. This poses the question of why; What are they falling victim to?
It ought to mentioned that contemporary remakes with bigger budgets aren’t automatically flops. What discredits many remakes is their avoidance of the original; the determination to be their own entity. There is an adverse effect to this approach of making remakes in such a manner, as described by Thomas Leitch in his article Twice Told Tales, “…a successful remake supersedes its original for all but a marginal audience watching it for its historical values, remakes typically threaten the economic viability of their originals.” Leitch goes onto saying that a remake usually does not cater to fans of the original, but rather is made for an influx of newer fans who are intrigued by the special effects or by something as simple as wanting to see their favorite actor in a ‘classic role.’
The fundamental flaw with this mentality is that producers have downplayed the effectiveness of the original film and assume more audience members have not seen the original film, opposed to those who are going in the hopes of seeing a modernized version of a film they love. Leitch summarizes this issue with the passage, “…instead of advertising the original films, they are competing with them, and so cannot risk invoking memories of the earlier film too fervently even though they are limited in the kinds of novelty they can introduce, since they are telling the same story again.” Thereby, most remakes adopt the framework of its original, but grossly ignore its content in an effort to be its own film.
The concept of remake versus original competition can be explained with the example of the 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Director Gus Van Sant chose to recreate the original horror film by filming a shot-for-shot replica of the original form, even opting for actors and actresses who closely resembled the original 1960’s cast. While the 1998 remake functions as a direct homage to the original, it was directly put in competition with the original film. This was because Psycho is regarded as Hitchcock’s most famous film, let alone one of the most famous films of all time.
The moment the production of the remake was announced, the film was immediately put in competition with its original. This was entirely due to the film’s title, Psycho, which evoked a certain expectation with audiences. Leitch further describes this remake flaw with the passage, “…its title invokes the memory of the earlier film, a memory the producers assume to have positive associations even for audiences who have never seen the original.” For many people, old and contemporary, Psycho represents film excellence. It represents suspense and a dread of the unknown. It also can be argued that Psycho introduced the “slasher killer” motif that many horror films have adopted now. All of this is mostly due to Psycho’s pivotal scene: the Shower Scene.
It is the shower scene that is the fundamental difference between the original and remake versions of Psycho. The impact is not the same when comparing the two films. Why? It is because the aura and experience when watching the original is significantly different than the remake. The “shower scene” in the 1960 version was a surprise, unexpected, “came out of nowhere.” What made the film so famous was that audiences did not expect the film’s heroine, who the film followed for half the film, to be suddenly and viciously murdered while taking a shower. Alfred Hitchcock famously bought as many of the source material, Psycho, written by Robert Bloch, before the film was released in a direct effort for audiences to be surprised.
The remake didn’t have this luxury. Instead, it capitalized on the “shower scene,” making it the primary motivation to see the film. All the film’s posters focused upon obscure imagery of Anne Heche (doing the Janet Leigh role) taking a shower with blood splattered on the shower curtain. Even the text on the film’s poster, “Check in. Relax. Take a shower.,” emphasized and placed expectation on the shower scene. The experience of the scene was changed, thereby the remake’s “shower scene” came off as a cheap gimmick instead of a genuine scare. Without proper application of “the shower scene,” the rest of the Psycho film was doomed to failure, and it bombed horribly with both critics and audiences, who all agreed with the commentary that almost became universal: “What was the point of this remake?”
What Gus Van Sant didn’t understand when making the Psycho remake was that a shot-for-shot remake of a famous film provides nothing to any audience member. It not only marginalized its audience by favoring fans of the original, but it also denied those very fans something grander or with more clarity. That doesn’t go to say a deviation from the original film means it will be a triumph, such as Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory strived to be. The 2005 remake desperately wanted to break away from the shackles of the 1971 version, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
However, Tim Burton’s production crew opted for a different strategy for their remake: they ignored the original film. In fact, most of the 2005 cast and crew had never seen the original film. Instead, the adaptation was entirely based on the Ronald Dahl novel, which ironically the original film grossly ignored. In fact, Ronald Dahl was reportedly infuriated with the treatment of his novel after viewing the 1971 film version. Tim Burton merely wanted to provide a remake that Dahl would have appreciated, but this was a deeply flawed motivation.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory used content that was within Ronald Dahl’s novel and, of course, incorporated the usual Tim Burton macabre twist to it. Leitch describes this tactic to a remake as, “…adding a twist to their exposition, teasing knowing audiences as they bring new audiences up to their level of background knowledge.” While this may have had the best of intentions of creating something new, it contradicted the aura established by the first film.
Audiences wanted to see a grander and more elaborate version of the original film, not a re-imagined version based upon the novel. As a result, the remake diminished its original source. What especially didn’t help the remake was the poor usage of CGI effects that further cheapened the film. It was evident the majority of financing for the film went towards the recreation of the Oompa Loompas, all played by the same actor, Deep Roy, who provided the best moments of the entire film. The rest of the financing clearly went to Johnny Depp, who was the primary reason as to why the remake flopped.
Both the original and remake of Willy Wonka rested upon the shoulders of its lead actor, more so than the actual chocolate factory, and hinged upon its lead actor’s portrayal of an eccentric yet brilliant man. Gene Wilder captured that aura magnificently in the 1971 version by portraying his character as someone who was prone to spontaneous behavior, yet it was a ruse to mask his brilliance. Additionally, it is implied in the 1971 version that Willy Wonka willfully chose to be a recluse in an effort to protect the secrets of his factory.
The remake not only reversed this premise, but seemingly perverted it with Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the factory owner. By portraying Willy Wonka as an awkward man-child with daddy-issues, audiences were turned off by the character, thereby the magic nature of the chocolate factory was lost. It even made the premise of his being a recluse seem more of a result of someone who was strange, rather than a man who wanted to protect the secrets of his factory. It is evident by Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka that the remake was catered to a new audience, yet even that audience rejected what they thought was a creepy and unrealistic representation of a chocolatier genius.
Leitch further writes that the audience mentality for remakes is “…responding to the paradoxical promise that the film will be just like the original, only better.” That is the incentive with most audiences with remakes, especially with Hollywood perpetuating the notion that bigger equals better. That was what Hollywood producers were especially attempting to achieve when they decided to remake 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure with the 2006 version, Poseidon. The 1972 version was a classic film that ignited the “disaster film” franchise of the 1970s. The film’s premise was first-rate for its time: on New Year’s Eve, a freak wave flips over a cruise ship and a handful of survivors fight to stay alive as they climb up the passageways of the ship to the hull, where they hope to be rescued.
The film was revolutionary for its time, even being awarded a Special Achievement Award for visual effects at the 1973 Academy Awards. Yet what especially made the film successful was its cast, with each member of the ensemble establishing a connection between character and film-viewer. Audiences grew to love the characters, to which the emotional toll of their journey also weighed on the audience as well as they watched the film. In order for The Poseidon Adventure to work as a survival film, there had to a be a ‘so what?’ established within the narrative before the tragedy strikes. That ‘so what?’ was entirely indicative of the film’s characters, especially from Shelley Winters, who was the heart of the film.
When contrasting the original with its remake, it was evident Poseidon placed more of its focus on its visual effects rather than its script. To that effect, the remake was successful (it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.) Yet the film, for a lack of a better word, sank everywhere else. There was no emotional connection to any of the characters, who were all mostly reduced to film character-types. It was The Poseidon Adventure’s cast who delivered the content of the film effectively, which was something the remake scarcely did. Instead, the characters were barely introduced, given no development or chemistry before the rogue wave hits the cruise liner. That was a tremendous flaw with the remake since the original was about the survival of these individuals, with the special effects assisting the narrative, not being the pinnacle of the narrative. Since there was no emotional stake between characters and film audience, the ‘so what’ element that made the first film so profound was stripped away.
By doing this, Poseidon didn’t convey a genuine story of survival, but was rather a Hollywood special effects opportunity. Poseidon is a clear example of a remake that adopted the framework of the original, but placed no concern with the content that went into that framework. Therefore, Poseidon was bigger in special effects, but ultimately not the better film. This is because the producers, writers, and director Wolfgang Peterson failed to recognize that The Poseidon Adventure enthralled filmgoers not with its special effects, but with the emotional connection the film was able to achieve between characters and audience. Without that, Poseidon was an average film with cheap thrills that had close to no association with its original.
It can be said that the proper formula to creating a successful remake is to recognize that the remake is, in fact, a remake. As ludicrous as this may sound, that is the fundamental flaw of most remakes: not adequately recognizing their source material. It is important to allow some deviation from the original content in order to make the remake uniquely its own way, but it will forever be in competition with its original no matter how hard it tries not to be. Therefore, the remake’s aura has to match, if not be better, than the original film’s aura. It doesn’t mean copying the entirety of the original’s content, as 1998’s Psycho did, but rather provide an improvement, clarification, or elaboration upon the original source.
There is a reason as to why Hitchcock fans adore the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much instead of the 1934 version: the film respected its original source and elaborated upon the storyline of the original. Most remakes could take a lesson from Alfred Hitchcock, who proved that a proper remake can be made without diminishing the original, while appeasing both new and old fans of the film at the same time.
This is part one of a dual feature on film remakes. Part 2 can be read here