Columns / Discourse / April 4, 2012

Check the Reel: The beauty of a good remake

A while back I discussed adaptations of real-life stories into film, and why filmmakers should feel free to alter the source material for the cinematic form. This advice also applies to literary adaptations: “The Hunger Games” would have benefitted from looser fidelity to the original books, for example. It even applies to that most abhorred of movie traditions: the remake.

“Remakes are a sign of fading creativity!” people yell, and today that tends to be true. But in the past remakes disguised themselves as ordinary, “original” films, some of them now classics. “The Magnificent Seven” and “A Fistful of Dollars” reformatted Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo,” respectfully, to a Western context. “Star Wars” applied “Flash Gordon” and “Hidden Fortress” in equal doses to Campbell’s outline of the Hero’s Journey. Even Hitchcock remade himself when he transformed the British spy thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” into its more well known American counterpart. Remakes came and went without much public attention, which allowed them to blend in without comment.

But these remakes succeeded for other reasons. They rarely sought to ride the success of the previous film. In each case, the filmmaker saw a kernel of an idea in another work they wanted to elaborate upon and combine with their own interests. The result can be surprising, sometimes genius. The remake occasionally surpasses its predecessor.

John Carpenter’s “Thing” and David Cronenberg’s “Fly” are perfect examples of remakes handled deftly with an eye for new, exciting results, especially in a genre prone to pointless rehashes. Both are ‘80s “body horror” remakes of 1950s camp classics. They borrow only enough of the original story to serve their purposes, creating very different interpretations of the same concept.

In “The Thing” and its 1951 double, “The Thing From Another World,” a menacing alien attacks researchers stationed in a cold, arctic environment. Beyond this overlap, Carpenter’s “Thing” immediately diverges. “The Thing From Another World” paints an optimistic picture of the sciences, turning them into highly industrious motor mouths, as quick on their feet as with their mouths. They are able to subdue the one “bad” scientist, who wants to keep the alien alive for research, through debate rather than brute strength. The alien, meanwhile, is made distinctly inhuman. It is a vegetable, bright green and unintelligent. Through the power of logic and teamwork the researchers are able to destroy it, leaving us on a cautionary but optimistic note.

Carpenter populates his film with a much more unseemly bunch: grumpy, bristly researchers shelled up in an Arctic wasteland. They feud to the point of bloodshed. When the alien arrives, it refuses easy distinctions. The “Thing” takes the form of the researchers, raising questions about who is human and who is an imposter. The film ends on a bleak note. An offshoot of the Thing has been destroyed, but the two survivors are stranded helpless in Antarctica, cut off from civilization — and possibly infected by the Thing. Carpenter loves films about grizzled, working class men thrown into dangerous scenarios (see “Assault on Precinct 13; Escape from New York”), and “The Thing” provides an outlet for his interest.

Science fiction and horror films in the 1950s tried to reconcile the destructive powers of new nuclear weaponry with the essentially humanist role of the scientist in expanding human knowledge. “The Thing From Another World” and “The Fly” represented the Yang of science — the soulless alien and the scientist obsessed with studying it, no matter the cost; the scientist whose world-changing invention goes awry and destroys him in the process — crossed with the Yin, the redeeming knowledge that science can be used correctly, when paired with caution and higher motives.

Both remakes remove the optimistic coda and strip the scientists down to their flaws — a fitting change for the more cynical, late-Cold War ‘80s. Cronenberg’s “Fly” goes even further by emphasizing themes that vaguely existed in the original but were never taken advantage of. It starts from the basic premise — scientist tests transport device and ends up genetically fused with a fly — and removes the scientific allegory. We’re left with a more human story of an offbeat, lonely man who uses the device not for the good of humanity (as in the original) but to find intimacy with a possible girlfriend. The character takes precedent over the message. Cronenberg also delights in the scenario’s psychosexual undertones, equating the transformation into the fly with a descent into primal lust and posturing.

A new perspective and historical context can breathe fresh air into a remake, as these films indicate, and the first step to achieving this synthesis is to ask yourself, “How can I use this old idea to say something new and relevant?”

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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