Rules for Remakes

When Abel Ferrara, director of the original Bad Lieutenant, heard that Werner Herzog was directing a remake, his reaction wasn’t exactly positive: “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” In fact, Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant bears little resemblance to the original and is one of the best films of the year so far (see it from May 21st), yet it is nonetheless symptomatic of Hollywood’s incurable obsession with remakes.
Whether it’s due to a shortage of original ideas or to cash in on brand recognition, remakes keep coming. They may adopt the deceptive guises of ‘reimagining’ or , most recently, ‘reboot’, but remakes they remain. Yet while most are vacuous, moronic, unnecessary, repetitious and thunderously dull, some have been shown to work if they follow a few simple rules:

1.) Remake a bad film.

Directors have a worrying tendency to see a film they love, then rush to do their own version. Gus Van Sant remade Psycho shot-for-shot in 1998 to universally derisive reviews, with similar critical reactions to The Ladykillers, Get Carter, Alfie and The Wicker Man, to name just a few. Matt Reeves is currently filming an American remake of Let the Right One In, a damn-near perfect Swedish vampire film that was the best movie of 2009. Reeves himself said “It’s a terrific movie”. So why touch it? It’s no defense to claim to be making the film more accessible to a wider audience – if Reeves really loved it, he would promote the original rather than deposit a pungent cinematic turd on the face of an ungrateful public. Not that I’m prejudging his remake or anything.

2.) Don’t remake your own film.

Michael Haneke made Funny Games in Austria in 1997, a film that depicted horrifically violent acts before shouting at its audience for not walking out in disgust. Clearly Haneke didn’t think enough people had been told off, so remade his own film shot-for-shot eleven years later, only in English. Similarly, when directing The Ring Two and The Grudge 2, the original directors also failed to improve on their original work. Worryingly, David Cronenberg is currently preparing a remake to his 1986 classic The Fly, though he could conceivably follow in the footsteps of Hitchcock, who remade – and improved upon – his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956. But then again, Hitchcock could just be the exception that proves the rule.

3.) Ignore the original.

If you must remake a film, it’s best not to watch the original at all. It’s what Herzog has done with Bad Lieutenant, and he’s produced something completely original. Stephen Soderbergh also did this with Ocean’s Eleven, a remake that obeys all three cardinal rules and was very good. Coincidence? I think not.

These rules are by no means comprehensive, but if adhered to, they can be cinematic Rennie’s, slightly easing the pain of the fat, overpaid Hollywood snake eating its own artistically bankrupt tail.

[Originally published by Cherwell, in print and online, on 20/05/2010:]

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