Successful Film Remakes: How Did They Achieve Success?

This is part two of a dual feature on film remakes. Part 1 can be read here

In 2010 it was announced that the Coen Brothers intended to remake the famous John Wayne film True Grit. While this was an exciting prospect to many, it was also daunting to many fans of the original film. True Grit was the film that had finally won John Wayne his leading actor Academy Award and it was considered by many the pinnacle of western films because it emulated both old-fashioned masculinity while also expressing determination and strength that transcended beyond gender roles. It was also initially feared that the remake would be a typical big-budget Hollywood remake that showcased special effects instead of narrative content. While the Coen Brothers were high profile writer/directors and the film was indeed big-budget, the final film product with the remake remarkably surprised both critics and fans. The True Grit remake took the framework of the original, but embellished upon its storyline to appeal to a contemporary audience. It didn’t necessarily deviate from the original’s plot, but rather updated the content.

True Grit

Then, to make the remake its own entity, it provided greater connection between the characters and film viewer by further emphasizing each character’s motivations. This created a better association between character and audience, as opposed to the original film that provided a simple plot with the expectation that viewers would be interested in what transpires. This was primarily because the original True Grit film was a John Wayne vehicle that aimed to showcase the actor’s talents. The remake, while giving Jeff Bridges enough space to make the character his own, is more of an ensemble piece, giving all actors within a chance to shine and be rooted for by audiences. This is primarily why the remake was well-received and also able to grab ten Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

True Grit is a prime example that remakes can equal, sometimes even surpass the original. This leads to the question of how can that be achieved. In the example of True Grit, the first step towards such a goal is elaborating on the plot, but not deviating too far from the original’s content. This is what Martin Scorsese did with his 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Like its 1962 original, it followed the same plot: Max Cady, a vicious convict who has recently been released from jail, seeks revenge against Sam Bowden, his former attorney who Cady feels had wronged him during his trial, which triggers a vengeful spree of threats that soon escalates into murder. The first thing Scorsese did differently was reinventing Max Cady, not in motivation but in physical experience. Rather than the ordinary individual that Robert Mitchum is in the 1962 original, Robert DeNiro is muscle-clad, thick Southern accented, cigar-chomping and completely covered in tattoos. The goal was to make Max Cady seemingly super-human, making him intimidating upon sight. This required a level of commitment from DeNiro, who had actual tattoos (made of vegetable dyes) applied to his body and even paid a dentist to realign his teeth. This enhanced the diabolical nature of Max Cady, indicating to audiences that his appearance contradicted his character’s coy claims to many that he was minding his own business, though much of that ought to be accredited to DeNiro’s stellar acting in the film.

Mitchum Cape Fear

What also made the Cape Fear remake its own entity was embellishing upon the subplot of the daughter in the film. The original film shows Max Cady having an infatuation with Sam Bowden’s daughter and leaving it to the viewer to understand the implications. This was a plot device that was elaborated on in the remake, providing more detail and tension within the film. By indicating Max Cady was a sexual predator who targeted underage girls, this added a deeper resentment towards Max Cady, while also creating incentive to sympathize with Bowden and his family. In many regards, the Cape Fear remake uses the role of the daughter as the beacon of innocence in the film, opposed to the original film being a mere right versus wrong narrative between Max Cady and Sam Bowden.

Cape Fear DeNrio Lewis

The remake’s choice of elaborating upon the daughter functioned as new material for the film, while also being an homage towards its original by recycling a plot device. This leads into the next component that aids a remake: acknowledging the original film through homages. This can be done in a variety of different ways. For instance, 1951’s The Thing versus its 1982 remake are practically different films with the exception of two plot points: its setting in a scientific outpost in the Antarctic and they both feature the discovery of an alien that threatens to kill everyone, to which they have no choice but to use fire to destroy it. The Thing Original

With the exception of these two components, the original and remake of The Thing are almost incomparable. The remake reinvented the original’s concept by having the alien being an organism, a sort of virus, that contaminates the entire outpost instead of the original’s concept of it being a physical alien that terrorizes the outpost. There are also embellishments between the two films, such as the original having a “battle” between the outpost’s dogs and the alien in contrast to the infamous “kennel scene,” better known as the dog massacre scene, that is almost too mortifying and heartbreaking to watch (for obvious reasons). Yet the one homage that links the film together is its opening credits with the shared film title essentially tearing through a black backdrop, revealing a sort of dread to the viewer before the film ever starts. This shared homage links the films together beautifully without ever being in competition with each other.

The Thing Remake

Shifting back to the 1991 remake of Cape Fear, the remake provided two homages that worked perfectly to the film’s advantage. The first was recycling the famous score conducted by the ever-so-talented Bernard Herrmann that was iconic for the original film. Martin Scorsese didn’t feel the need to have a new score composed for the remake, but instead wanted to idolize the original film music. The Cape Fear remake also provided one of the most unique homages to a film remake: it recycled the original cast into the remake. Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Martin Balsam, all of whom starred in the original film, have small supporting roles in the remake. Additionally, Scorsese used a twist of irony with the casting of these characters by casting them in opposite character-type roles: Mitchum starred as a lieutenant assisting Bowden in contrast to originally being Max Cady and Peck starred as a crooked lawyer representing Cady in contrast to the noble Sam Bowden. This achieved a sort of respect and for the original and approval of the remake by having the original cast contributing to its conception and filming. It was a master stroke on the part of Martin Scorsese to do this and it paid off flawlessly without ever being a distraction to the narration.

Cape Fear 1991

When thought about more closely, homages are important to a remake, but they shouldn’t ever be blatantly obvious. They must be done in a minimal yet visually astounding way for both new and old fans to appreciate. The 1983 remake of Scarface achieved this with the “The World is Yours” motif that was also utilized in the original 1932 film. While the original and remake versions of Scarface are vastly different, they share the theme of greed and its capacity to blind reality to those who feed off of it. What the Scarface films also achieved was utilizing its theme of greed in the midst of social commentary. For the 1932 film, the commentary was on gangsters and prohibition, even referencing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre at one point in its narrative. For the 1983 remake, it used the infamous 1980 Mariel boatlift to introduce the influx of crime in Miami. This was an excellent method to incorporate a contemporary backdrop to the remake, formulating on-screen relevance for film viewers.

Scarface 1931

Scarface maintained the original’s gangster presence but unapologetically elaborated on the violence, which made the film controversial in 1983 when it was first released. The remake aimed for shock value, which made it its own entity by providing a visual of a bleak and unforgiving subculture of crime concerning the drug cartels. What especially frames this concept with the remake is its conclusion with the iconic and now tremendously famous final shoot-out scene of the film. The fundamental difference between the remake and the original is their conclusions. The 1932 film strives to show a form of redemption and guilt with the film’s lead character by having him in a shootout with the police while the remake is entirely built upon adrenaline and vengeance with the lead character in-fighting with his own drug cartel. Therefore while both films conclude in the same manner, their sentiment is vastly different. The 1932 film functions more of a cautionary tale while the remake concludes with the viewer being left feeling disgusted by what has transpired. Yet both films tie in together the defeat of the lead character with the backdrop of a sign reading “The World is Yours,” feeding into the irony of defeat, thereby a perfect homage the remake keeps intact with its original.

Scarface 1983

What can be deduced when analyzing these popular remakes is that they do not necessarily need to be replicas of their original source in order to be successful. As indicated from the above examples, remakes need to adopt the framework of the original but elaborate upon its content to appeal to a contemporary audience. However, while it is important for these remakes to be their own entities, they still need to provide a little credence to their predecessor in the form of homages. Whether it is utilizing the same opening titles or score, or crafting a replica of an iconic scene or sequence, it is integral that they do not distract from the new narrative. They should have the dual role of assisting the new narrative while also being a beacon of significance to older fans. It is a mixture of ambition and respect from the director, writer, and cast that allows for a remake to truly be something extraordinary. It is when these tools and sentiments are adequately utilized that a remake has the capacity to be successful.

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