What Remakes Say

A near-constant area of commentary in anything related to movies recently is how many remakes have been coming out. Their prevalence makes sense from a studio perspective, as the film will have name recognition even before it’s released, and a certain portion of the audience will be interested in seeing it regardless of how it turns out. Once it’s released, it can be amusing to compare the original to the remake, seeing what it chose to keep, what it chose to discard, and how its focus changed or did not change. After viewing quite a few remakes of movies I was familiar with, I began to see patterns in ways that the films were reimagined, what was changed or left out entirely, and those patterns can be interesting to study with an eye to what they say about the ways movie audiences—and by extension, society in general—has changed since the original was made. In order to more accurately examine what these films say about Hollywood’s perception of the current state of American society, I have limited the films discussed here to mainstream films produced by Hollywood, and those released post-2001.

Ideas are not invited
The most noticeable direction in remakes is a shift away from overarching ideas. For example, the original Poseidon Adventure set up a debate between two views of God that would be played out through the action of the story. A few minutes into the film, Gene Hackman’s young priest has a debate with an older priest about the relationship of man to God. The older priest argues for a passive attitude of worship; pray to God and he will help you. Hackman believes that God helps those who work to help themselves, without waiting for divine intervention from above. This debate gets played out through the action of the movie, when what can be considered an “act of God” places all of its characters in a situation in which they must either take action or wait to be saved. The filmmakers seal a major portion of the debate when all of those passively awaiting assistance are killed, but the fact is that the film floats an idea that provides a context and resonance to the action of the film. The recent remake, Poseidon, jettisons this idea entirely and makes no gesture toward trying to supply a greater framework for the action of the film. It is just a survival story where some people live and some people die, with no larger idea uniting it all.

Similarly, the original Amityville Horror, not exactly an intellectual masterpiece, still contained an interesting subtext about the husband’s conversion from Judaism to Catholicism and played with the tensions of that throughout the movie. In the remake, none of that remains. The family has average, mundane concerns and irritations that are magnified by the haunted house they live in, but any kind of wider idea has been completely removed.

Kindly refrain from social criticism
A related but even more prevalent trend is away from films that provide social criticism. The original Japanese horror film Pulse [Kairo] imagined a world in which the social isolation and loneliness created by the technological modes of connection-at-a-distance—cell phones, email, IMs—literally transform people into ghosts and leads to the breakdown of society. In the recent American remake, this idea has been watered down to the point of being negated: in this version the problem is not the technology itself, but merely that humans tapped into “a frequency we were never meant to find.” Where the original criticizes the current state of society using fanciful means, the remake has no problem with the way the world is, so long as we don’t find that freaky frequency—which everyone in the audience knows doesn’t exist anyway. Whew, so we're safe!

A similar example arises from comparing the original and remake versions of the sci-fi sports film Rollerball. In the 1975 original, the fictional game serves as a form of social control by “teaching the futility of individual effort.” The remake jettisons this in favor of a facile statement about how using violence to boost TV ratings is, like, so wrong. In a similar vein, the abundant social commentary of George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead invited viewers to compare American consumerism as exemplified by mall shoppers with mindless zombies who act only on instinct. Like Poseidon, the 2004 remake throws any larger social commentary out in favor of a ideology-free focus on action and gore. It’s no longer about anything except who lives and who dies.

No character development, if you please
Another trend in most recent movies that is only revealed in higher contrast by remakes is the lack of patience audiences can muster for character development. The remake of Poseidon is the most obvious example, if only because we know that there was a fair amount of character-building material shot that was excised from the released film in order to get to the action faster. This approach may have backfired in the tepid response to the movie at the box office, and the large amount of negative Internet comments along the lines of “why should I care about these people if I have no idea who they are?” The original devoted almost 40 minutes to setting up the individual characters, their histories and hopes, before the disaster happened, under the idea that the audience will be more involved with their stories if they have some personal knowledge about them.

Another example of the move away from interest in character development can be seen in the two versions of Dawn of the Dead. The original features an interesting and explosive dynamic between the four principal characters that changes, deepens and evolves as the film wears on. The remake increases the number of principal characters, accompanied by a corollary decrease in their character traits and flattening of their interactions with each other. One character cries for about five seconds over her recently killed husband, then it’s back to the exploding heads!

But enough about everyone else, let’s get back to me
With what character development is left, the trend clearly seems to be toward the concerns of the individual as opposed to that of society or the group. Again, Poseidon provides an example, as our group of heroes is focused their own survival, rather than concentrating on how they can help the greatest amount of people. Note that in the original, two characters sacrifice themselves so that the others may live, while in the remake, only one character sacrifices himself, while another actually kicks someone else to his death to save himself [and this is one of the heroes]! Even the theme songs reflect the focus away from society and onto the individual. In the original song, note the amount of times that “we” is used to indicate the struggle of a group of survivors… “There’s got to be a morning after, if we can make it through the might. We have a chance to find the sunshine, let’s keep on looking for the light.” In the remake, the focus of the song is on two people, and there’s no more larger struggle, it’s all about, what else—love: “I’ll never let you go, I’ll be the journey and you’ll be the road… together we’ll be hanging on, because all we have is love.”

This tendency toward shrinking a movie’s purview to concentrate only on the love of one couple is also seen in Solaris. In the original, the main character dealt with his feelings about his dead wife, but also his commitment to his parents and his place in the larger society. The remake is all about love, cutting his parents out of the equation entirely. A similar [although pre-2002] example of this trend would also be Titanic. Although it is not trying to be a remake, one can’t help but note that A Night to Remember is about the nobility and generosity of a the human spirit as our characters bravely face certain death, while Titanic concentrates on two characters, and the only interest is in whether they—and their love—will survive.

But what does it all mean?
So do these trends reflect actual shifts in society, or merely Hollywood’s perception of what audiences will respond most strongly to? The answer is probably a bit of both. Americans seem not to want to listen to any ideas or arguments coming from Hollywood—witness the bile reserved for entertainers who dare to utter a political opinion. Furthermore, in light of the ever-decreasing levels of education in this country, ideas can alienate an audience who both don’t see any merit in considering them, and feel insulted if a movie demands thought they are not prepared to put into a film. Better to concentrate on something that everyone, of any educational level, can understand: love.

Additionally, in our polarized social and political environment, ANY ideas—and certainly statements of all but the most tame of social criticism [racism is wrong!]—run the risk of alienating at least part of the audience. So to maximize profits, as well as make the material more palatable to the increasingly important international audience, it’s important to minimize anything that might be in any way controversial.

A trend away from character development and toward decisive physical action. Away from overarching ideas, and certainly from ideas that offer social criticism, toward events that happen for superficial reasons—or for no reason. These trends can be seen in most mainstream movies, but remakes provide a direct A / B comparison that bring these trends most clearly to light.

The Amityville Horror, 1979, Stuart Rosenberg
The Amityville Horror, 2005, Andrew Douglas
Dawn of the Dead, 1978, George Romero
Dawn of the Dead, 2004, Zack Snyder
The Poseidon Adventure, 1972, Romald Neame
Poseidon, 2006, Wolfgang Peterson
Pulse, 2001, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Pulse, 2006, Jim Sonzero
Rollerball, 1975, Norman Jewison
Rollerball, 2002, John McTiernan
Solaris, 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky
Solaris, 2002, Stephen Soderbergh
A Night to Remember, 1958, Roy Ward Baker
Titanic, 1997, James Cameron