The Reality of Remakes

It can often be heard these days that Hollywood rarely produces any original movies. Whether the particular complaint is with remakes of films from a decade ago, comic book movies, stories cribbed from novels or video games, formulaic sequels, or some combination of the above, these complaints seem to ring true.  A quick glance at what’s in theaters in July, for example, shows a comic book movie reboot (The Amazing Spider-Man), another sequel in an apparently endless children’s cartoon series (Ice Age: Continental Drift), and a comic book movie reboot sequel (The Dark Knight Rises). It’s no wonder that the entertainment industry can sometimes appear to be stuck in some kind of uncreative time loop. How did things get like this, and can we go back to a golden age of original content in film?


It’s important to note that periods of creativity in entertainment seem to be the exceptions, rather than the norm. In fact, the historical periods most closely associated with compelling theater were dominated by remakes. Shakespeare wrote only a handful of original works, mostly later in his career. Some of his most famous plays, including King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet, were based on either previous plays or common stories from the time. Huge amounts of his works are also, of course, dramatized versions of historical events. The example of King Lear is telling, since several tragedies had already been written by English playwrights on this very subject. Even ancient Greek theater was not immune from this remake-and-sequel phenomenon. Many of the plots for the great plays of Athens were taken straight out of the mythologies of the original Greek poets, Homer and Hesiod.


If these legendary periods of creative output were, in fact, filled with reboots and rehashes, what conclusions can we draw? Perhaps today’s critical viewing public should be less concerned about pure originality and focus more on the quality of the work. The reason that so many movies today are remakes is the same as why the Greek playwrights re-used the old stories: if the viewer already has a passing familiarity with the characters and setting, less background development is needed before jumping into the plot. Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman reboot series is a good example. One might imagine that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight would still be good movies if the characters were brand new instead of being based on the Batman license. An existing work of fiction, in other words, can be like a canvas on which a new story can be told.


Perhaps you are not convinced, and still firmly believe that originality is important in fiction. Not all hope is lost; many movies are still made with original settings and premises. What primarily drives Hollywood towards the use of established settings is not storytelling convenience, but financial security. Remember that moviemaking is a business, and the major film studios are usually not willing to gamble millions unless they are sure to make a profit. Those ancient Greeks were in a similar situation: plays were debuted at yearly festivals, where prizes were given out to the best playwrights. If you had just one chance to win the prize, why risk it all on a story that the audience is unfamiliar with? Writers are more willing to show their creative side when there is less money on the line, which is why the most creative stories come out of low-budget studios.


By Christopher Gibson