There’s nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old story.
Shakespeare did it all the time — even in famous plays like Hamlet and King Lear — and he rarely gets dismissed for a lack of originality. Sure, it might be tempting to call the Bard an exception to the rule, but the truth is that remakes are an essential part of our culture. Never doubt that wherever media is produced, it will soon be reproduced.
If it seems like Hollywood is especially egregious in this regard, it helps to remember exactly how far back the practice goes. How long was it, one might wonder, before remakes of early films hit theaters? The answer, it turns out, is pretty much immediately.
The first motion picture to actually tell a coherent story was The Great Train Robbery (1903), and it only took a year for another version to get pumped out. So though it’s tempting to condemn Hollywood for their tendency to remake old masterpieces, the practice is hardly new or unusual.
That’s not to say, however, the current industry’s attitude toward remaking intellectual properties doesn’t need some serious re-evaluation. Though remakes are not despicable in and of themselves, there’s no denying that the way the studios are handling them right now is frustrating at best and mind-numbingly inane at worst. And the issue isn’t that most of these projects are critical failures — although when they are it comes as no surprise. There are, after all, entertaining and even well-made remakes(21 Jump Street comes to mind). No, the concern is the nearly unprecedented quantity of reused and recycled material getting churned out by the studio machine.
In the past few years, big ’80s flicks like Clash of the Titans, The Thing, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Conan the Barbarian and A Nightmare on Elm Street have been repackaged for the silver screen. And that’s not even counting the involvement of television, with ’80s shows like The A-Team getting modern movie adaptations, or the ridiculous Michael J. Fox film Teen Wolf moving to MTV.
Then there’s toy company Hasbro partnering with Paramount to try and make franchises out of all their old playthings, with movies based on GI Joe, the board game Battleship and the notoriously awful yet hugely successful Transformers series from Michael Bay.
So why are all these ’80s properties coming to theaters now?
The phenomenon traces back to the blockbuster market. Major studios no longer produce smaller films for a few million dollars apiece. Every picture now seemingly revolves around high profits during its opening weekend at the box office.
Very few executives, then, are willing to back new ideas, because there’s no surefire way to predict what will draw audiences. If they choose to remake an old movie, there are two perceived advantages. First, the film has a greater chance to be successful because of an already existing fanbase. And, second, if the film isn’t successful, the filmmakers can try to dodge some of the blame by pointing out that the same idea worked before. The ’80s in particular are getting plundered to such an extent simply because Hollywood’s modern decision makers were consuming that media during their formative years.
Far from abating, it looks like the trend is only going to increase for the foreseeable future. Remakes of Robocop, The Evil Dead, Carrie, Mad Max and plenty more are in the works.
Still, these movies don’t reflect the most baffling projects still to come.
Until very recently, a long-delayed update on Red Dawn might have been the biggest offender when it came to clearly unnecessary remakes. The original concerns a group of high school students fighting off an invading force of Russians, a concept so clearly rooted in Cold War paranoia that no one outside of its time of release could even begin to take it seriously. (The new version has North Koreans in place of the Soviets.)
Then came the news that Sony is planning a film based on the television series Manimal, which revolves around a doctor who turns into various animals in order to fight crime. Critics and audiences both rejected it, and the series was cancelled after eight episodes. Now it’s only remembered as a joke, but because that technically counts as being remembered, apparently it merits a cinematic reboot.
Here we have the behavior of the current entertainment industry at its zenith: Whether the property had a fan following or not no longer matters — the very fact that it existed is enough to justify bringing it back, instead of pursuing an original idea.
If there’s a line in the sand, this is it. Remakes are always going to happen. Sometimes, they’re even worth getting excited about. But if audiences don’t have a legitimate interest in something, don’t bring it back over a more deserving, original idea out of fear that something genuinely new might not succeed.
Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.