By Nathanael Griffis
In what is simply horrifying news, and a disturbing continuation of a frightening trend in Hollywood, Tony Scott recently announced a remake of The Wild Bunch. Meanwhile, his more talented brother Ridley announced in past weeks a return to the Blade Runner universe for a pseudo-remake. One seen as an awful idea, the other an exciting idea. Why is it that two respected classics, neither of which need a remake, can be greeted with differing opinions? I agree with the opinions, mind you, but the reason for incessant remakes bothers me. One reason is that Sam Peckinpah should be avoided for remakes. (I’m looking at you, Rod Lurie.) Films like Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch are complex, disturbing, and hard to understand with Peckinpah behind the camera. Remakes are nothing new, of course, and remaking movies is essentially what an adaptation is in the long run, but because a movie, unlike a live play, can exist in it’s original form for a longer time, it often seems unnecessary to remake it. And still we’re getting a new Footloose. Last year we were subjected to The A-Team. Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs have returned, but then again we’re also getting The Muppets coming up. With such a mixed bag it’s hard to filter through it all, so I will attempt to by giving you a good example and then the prime unholy grail of all examples. (Warning: I may geek out a little.)
Cape Fear (1962 & 1991)
Cape Fear is a unique remake, but I think the perfect example of a successful one. The 1962 version starring Gregory Peck as a lawyer driven to the brink by Robert Mitchum’s psychotic rapist is a frightening film that was heavily censored in the 60’s. What survived on screen is still pretty surprising. Max Cady (Mitchum) was imprisoned for rape and when released moves into the same town as Sam Bowden (Peck), the lawyer who poorly defended him years before. Cady then proceeds to manipulate, stalk, torture, and eventually attempt to rape and kill Sam Bowden and his family. Cady, as a man fueled by hate and some primal psychotic desire to sexually overpower women, including the 14-year-old daughter of Sam Bowden, is scary, really scary. It’s a terrifying performance by Mitchum, which is stunningly counterbalanced by Gregory Peck’s fascinating turn as Sam Bowden, who turns to breaking the law to protect his family. It is an interesting deviation from Atticus Finch in many ways.
When Martin Scorsese directed the remake in 1991 it seemed almost unnecessary considering the status of the first one, but the finished product proves that theory wrong. Scorsese, as he did often in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, turned to Robert De Niro to play Max Cady. He brought in Nick Nolte for Sam Bowden, and Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis play his wife and daughter. There are wonderful supporting performances by Robert Mitchum as the town sheriff and Gregory Peck, in his last big screen role, as Cady’s oily religious fanatic defense lawyer. The first thing Scorsese’s remake is able to do is kick the censors out the door. The original Cape Fear, while challenging, clearly feels hampered by its 60’s mentality. Issues are never fully discussed. It’s frustrating in a lot of ways to see Robert Mitchum beat and rape a women, and then listen as the characters dance around the subject, because it’s not appropriate to talk about. In an interview with the director of the original, J. Lee Thompson mentioned his frustration and noted that several scenes of dialogue were cut because of the nature of the discussion. The censors were frequently asking for the film to be rewritten, going over the film scene by scene to control the artistic expression.
Scorsese has no such problem, and he’s able to flesh the characters out a lot more. Sam Bowden is given more depth; he’s not a perfect or pristine symbol of honor like Gregory Peck, which fits with Scorsese themes. Everyone in this film is guilty of something; crime and violence inhabit our world, and it’s how we respond to it that matters. Max Cady is let off of his leash, and De Niro delivers what is, in my opinion, his most frightening performance. He’s manipulative, unforgiving, and driven by some demonic sense of hatred to hurt anything the Bowdens get near. The final scene, which I won’t spoil, is as terrifying a death as any in cinema. The reason this remake works is because Scorsese is not simply trying to cash in. He’s taking these characters and this well-respected film and building upon it, reinterpreting it for a new generation, and improving the technical aspects of the filmmaking. The film simply looks better, the art direction is better, and it feels more realistic and less set-piece-driven. Visually, it’s a cleaner and more clearly shot film with better camera work.
A lot of times the main argument for remaking a film is that the original was good in concept but poor in execution (e.g., Tron). I want to point out that this is not the case. A good remake is more about how you tell the story, who’s involved, and the theme you’re trying to convey. You must have a reason to remake a film, and the good concept- bad execution is a good reason, but not the only one. Don’t get up in arms simply because Fright Night was remade (turns out it was good) or that Aronofsky wants to do Robocop (it could be good). Cross your fingers and calm down, it’s not the end of the world–unless George Lucas is involved, in which case it just might be.
Star Wars (1977, 1997, 2008)
Leaving aside his prequels and his astounding ability to ruin childhoods, George Lucas created the greatest sci-fi franchise ever and then proceeded to stomp all over it. Initially a “special edition” that is remastered and cleaned up sounds like a great idea, and watching the documentaries of the process to clean up the negative of the original trilogy fascinated me as child. I saw all three special editions in theaters, being as I was too young to see the original films in theaters, and truthfully enjoyed them. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become more and more bothered by the changes Lucas keeps making. He’s not merely adding a deleted scene, extending a song montage, giving us a more lively Mos Eisley, or simply a better picture quality–the story is shifting and changing. A New Hope has plot holes, physics problems, and technical issues, but with the 2008 DVD release, none of those issues are fixed, they’re simply compounded with new problems.
Let’s try and let our nerd problems go and forgive Lucas for the 1997 remakes, because for the most part it is simply a remake that technically needed to happen. The original negative was degrading and it had to be remastered. It looks better and some of the improvements, like adding more character to Mos Eisley and Cloud City bring out the worlds more. The sarlacc’s beak and tentacles do look better than just the pit of sand with spikes in the original. The extended Max Rebo Band sequence is fine, sometimes annoying, but it doesn’t detract from the character or story. Yes, Greedo shoots first, but let’s calm down–if there weren’t T-shirts and websites dedicated to complaining about this fact, we might not have noticed.
What is truly appaling is the 2008 DVD release version that tries to connect the original trilogy to the prequels. Hayden Christensen’s visage has replaced Sebastian Shaw, which just creates an inconsistency, because why doesn’t Ewan McGregor then replace Alec Guinness? It’s as if Lucas was afraid to do this (perhaps the thought of Alec Guinness’ ghost haunting him with those judgemental hazel eyes makes him think twice), leaving us wondering, why is Obi-Wan old, but not Anakin? Gungans make an appearance in the final celebration, though thankfully no Jar-Jar. Voice actors are changed to fit with the prequels–Boba Fett is now voiced Temuera Morrison, the voice of Jango Fett in the prequels, which seems like nothing short of an insult to Jason Wingreen from the original and again an added inconsistency, because shouldn’t the son sound different from the father? New scenes of Ewan McGregor talking with Uncle Owen just seem out of place, and the lighting and scenery don’t coalesce with the later shots of Tatooine. Overall, though, what is most disturbing is that the digital remastering is severely botched. At one point Luke’s lightsaber has been color-corrected to be green. Vader’s lightsaber has lost its deep red hue and turned to a rosy pink, and there is a strong blue wash over the film, similar to the wash that is found commonly in modern sci-fi.
It’s infuriating, but what is happening is that an author has not been made to stop. As a writer, if I don’t put my work out there, I will never finish it. I am never content with what I write, and I always feel like there is something worth changing, so I constantly change things, but what we have here is an artist who’s in the midst of revision and gives us his drafts every couple of years and claims each draft as the true masterpiece instead of just leaving them alone. I suspect Lucas will in a few years (I’m afraid of the Blu-ray) correct some of these problems, but he’s created so many more with his changes that there’s little room for trust in his ability any more. He’s not fixing inconsistencies, like why Obi-Wan disappears from his cloak but Qui-Gon doesn’t; he’s simply tweaking and adding inconsistencies that loosely tie all six films together.
Remakes need to be just that, remade entirely. You have to start anew. Treat it as an old concept with a new spin and go from there. We can’t have one bearded madman destroy everything we know and love about science fiction in film. The good thing is that even though they may try to remake classics like Akira, we can always go back and watch the original.
Next, I’ll finish up my long and drawn out series on adaptations with some of the oddballs, like adapting a song, a theme park ride, or a painting.