Remakes can be incredibly tricky. Is there a good reason to retell the story? How faithful should you be to the original? Are there cultural lines you should watch while adapting? Is anyone going to see your new version when a perfectly good original already exists? It doesn’t always go as intended, but here are ten remakes that got it (mostly) right!
“Freaky Friday” (2003)
dir: Mark Waters
Mix Jamie Lee Curtis and peak Lindsay Lohan in a whacky, but familiar setup and it is an automatic recipe for success. This body-swap comedy is a remake of a 1976 film starring Jodie Foster, and it offers a modern and decidedly sharper spin on the premise. It showed that maybe the gap between teens and their parents is not as big as we like to think.
“The Manchurian Candidate” (2004)
dir: Jonathan Demme
Smart political dramas are a dime a dozen. But it is not often they get to rely on the combined powers of Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. Based on a 1960s film by the same name, it is a sleeker and darker take that manages to never feel like a rehash despite not having anything entirely new to say.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005)
dir: Tim Burton
Of everything on this list, “Charlie and the Factory” might have had the highest hurdle to clear. It is based on the absolutely beloved “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” And while Johnny Depp’s 2005 version did not reach the heights of the original, this psychedelic re-imagining managed to justify its own existence. That is more than most movies that try to tackle such hallowed ground.
dir: Christopher Nolan
Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank could probably make just about any material work, but Hillary Seitz’s script is not just any material. Her screenplay adheres fairly closely to that of the original but deepens and darkens relationships between key characters in crucial ways. Mix all of those ingredients with the consistently brilliant direction of Christopher Nolan and you have a worthy remake.
“The Departed” (2006)
dir: Martin Scorsese
Many laments that of all of Martin Scorsese’s brilliant works, this is the one most recognized by the Academy. But while it makes not be peak Scorsese, it is a pinball machine of crisscrossing action and testosterone-driven characters. The cast is a murderer’s row with Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson all lending their considerable talents to the effort. The result is a rapid-fire gauntlet of twists and turns through a story that is part Boston mob, part vintage Scorsese.
“Ocean’s Eleven” (2018)
dir: Gary Ross
A lot of the films on this list relied on star power to gin up interest in familiar stories. Nowhere is this more true than in the “Oceans” franchise. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts. That is basically as famous as four actors can be and all that wattage brought a level of sophistication and cool to what could have just been another rehash. Instead, it became the modern standard for heist movies and launched a franchise that just saw its fourth entry with the release of 2018’s “Oceans 8.”
“Let Me In” (2010)
dir: Matt Reeves
There is nothing Americans love more than adapting a story that is already perfectly fine. Luckily, in the case of “Let Me In,” the adaptation works on every level. Based on a Swedish film called “Let the Right One In,” this is a romantic horror that hits all the right notes. It is disturbing, personal, nuanced and memorable. It is far from flawless, but it breathes just enough new life into the story to make it feel like a worthwhile effort.
“A Fistful of Dollars” (1964)
dir: Sergio Leone
Of everything on this list, this is the only film that essentially created a genre. This is widely viewed as the first Spaghetti Western and helped make Clint Eastwood into the icon he is today. Loosely adapted from an Akira Kurosawa film called “Yojimbo,” this is the first film in what is known as the “Dollars” trilogy. It gave us the “Man with No Name,” a new brand of machismo in Westerns and a visual language all its own.
“Imitation of Life” (1959)
dir: Douglas Sirk
Smart takes on race in the United States are few and far between in Hollywood. But “Imitation of Life” was well ahead of its time. It offered an acute look at self-identify and the role race plays in American life. This 1959 version goes beyond its predecessor in ways that that still feel progressive. Its melodrama definitely has a soap opera feel, but the overall effect is an undeniably substantive.
“True Grit” (2010)
dir: Joel and Ethan Coen
How do you match John Wayne in one of his more iconic roles? By inserting the grizzled visage of Jeff Bridges and letting him loose with spitfire dialogue and unbridled machismo. This Coen Brothers reimagining stands on its own as a faithful but fresh adaptation of the classic Western. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Hailee Steinfeld all turn in solid work, but it is Roger Deakins‘ cinematography that puts this one over the top.
“A Star Is Born” (1954)
dir: George Cukor
No, not that version. This is the “original” remake starring Judy Garland in the role that has since been inhabited by Barbra Streisand and Lady Gaga. The story itself is such a classic that there have been four versions, but this one, in particular, captures something special. The autobiographical heft is delivered with such high production values that it is equal parts gloss and heartbreak. Of all the remakes and all the remakes to come, Garland’s may be the one to seek out.