The very first movie remake was released in 1904, when Siegmund Lubin decided to capitalize on the success of the previous year’s “The Great Train Robbery” by creating his own version, using the same title and an essentially identical plot. Since then, we’ve had roughly 115 years of audiences bemoaning Hollywood’s lack of originality.
The problem (if indeed you perceive it as such) has been around since the inception of the entertainment industry, but seems particularly distressing to modern film fans. And, to be fair, they may have just cause: in 2019, out of the top ten highest grossing films only one wasn’t a remake, sequel, or part of a larger franchise (Jordan Peele’s “Us”).
But are they all bad?
Remakes aren’t just made because there are (allegedly) no original ideas in Hollywood. They’re made because audiences gravitate towards familiar narratives, and often they’re willing to buy a ticket on a known property rather than taking a chance on something they may not enjoy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more profitable scheme than Disney raiding their own vault to do a live-action remake of all their greatest hits. Sometimes they’re even good!
A clever director will be able to find a way to put their own spin on the original, to tell an old story in a new way. If Gus Van Sant’s remake of “Psycho” proved anything, it’s that audiences have very little patience for a shot-for-shot remake. The best of these can make you feel like you’re watching a story for the first time, albeit with familiar, often beloved characters.
But the real litmus test comes years down the line, after a film has been given the opportunity to enter the cultural zeitgeist. If a remake’s been out for a handful of years and people don’t even remember that there was another film that came first, that’s how you know it’s really succeeded. When someone mentions “The Fly,” more often than not they’re referring to the 1986 iteration with Jeff Goldblum, not the 1958 original. To most people, “Scarface” is Al Pacino, not Paul Muni. Audiences have short memories, and if a remake can completely supplant the original in their minds, they’ve won.