When Remakes Can’t Escape the Original

By  · Published on September 16th, 2016

If the movie can’t stand on its own, then should it bother?

There are many remakes that stand on their own. There are the classics you may not even know are remakes, like The Maltese Falcon and True Lies, and there are the reworked masterpieces you barely consider to be copies, like The Thing and 12 Monkeys. For the most part, even the lesser-than-the-original remakes – the RoboCops and Total Recalls – are their own entities with only our memory tying them to the earlier counterparts. But there are also those remakes that don’t or maybe can’t escape their ties and exist as something separate, albeit still derivative, for a fresh new audience.

This year’s Ghostbusters is one kind of remake that doesn’t let go of the original. It doesn’t have trust in itself to avoid catering to the audience of the first movie and instead develop its own potentially iconic imagery. But that was the choice made by the studio and producers. Others don’t have the chance to choose. The biopic Snowden, for instance, can’t exist without on-screen acknowledgment of the 2014 documentary Citizenfour. The Oscar-winning film is such an integral component of Edward Snowden’s story, and even if it wasn’t, its production had presence as the plot was thickening.

Technically, Snowden isn’t a remake of Citizenfour, but it’s categorized in the group of both official and unofficial documentary remakes, many of which have a similar lack of independence. The framework of Snowden is like that of HBO’s Grey Gardens redo, both of them only remaking some of what’s seen in their respective docs and then flashing back to dramatized events that occurred many years earlier. Each features a portrayal of the originals’ filmmakers (Melissa Leo as Citizenfour’s Laura Poitras, Arye Gross and Louis Ferreira as Grey Gardens’ Albert and David Maysles) working on their films.

Although there would be no interest in the Grey Gardens remake or a biopic of Big Edie and Little Edie Beales were it not for the doc’s existence, the second movie doesn’t have quite the obligation Snowden has. The same is true of Devil’s Knot, which dramatizes the story documented in the nonfiction Paradise Lost trilogy and additional film West of Memphis. Featuring portrayals of Paradise Lost’s Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky isn’t essential, even if it was worth recognizing them for making the West Memphis Three story famous, so that was a choice to make the connection.

Even if we consider the link between Snowden and Citizenfour, or the link between the two Grey Gardens films, as adaptation, how often do we see the original creator in the derived work? There’s Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean in Adaptation, but that’s a very unique animal. And let’s exclude works of autobiography and memoir, too. Even then it’s not often we see the person working on the very thing now being adapted. However, there are examples, like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and American Splendor, which like Snowden features a cameo from the real life subject as himself.

So are all remakes of documentaries similarly fastened to the originals? No, just look at those where the doc is archive-based rather than something that observed the story as it was happening. Milk, Lords of Dogtown, and Rescue Dawn are a few of the more direct cases where each stands on its own for people who haven’t seen the original and doesn’t even offer hint that the doc exists and is worth checking out for more of the story. The other recent documentary remake starring Snowden’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk, is also quite independent of its doc version, Man on Wire.

Unlike the case of a fiction-to-fiction remake such as Ghostbusters, the undetachable bond between Snowden and Citizenfour isn’t a bad thing for the new version, and it’s actually favorable to the old. Fans of Snowden may be more likely to seek out the documentary to see its full depiction of the hotel room scenes, because they see them being shot, than they would with a more detached work. There’s a feeling the two films are complimentary rather than is the case with remakes that seem set on substitution. You don’t need to be told Citizenfour exists. Snowden can’t help but make it be known.

No remake should ever be thought of as replacing the original or as causing it to be obsolete in any way. Not even when the second version is faithful yet much better than the first, arguably like with True Grit and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But even if it’s nice to support film history, the way the new Ghostbusters might be doing in referencing the original’s iconography and more, it’s typically best for someone to be able to go see a remake without having seen the original and with no need or intention of seeing the original if they so choose. Otherwise, what’s the point of remaking it?

Maybe it can be done with Snowden. Maybe Poitras can be viewed as a journalist, same as Glenn Greenwald (portrayed by Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), instead of as the maker of another movie on the same subject, and her doc can be seen as something closer to their work in print than to Oliver Stone’s picture. Citizenfour is never named on screen. There’s no eventual note that it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. If someone is ignorant of those facts going in, then they can see Snowden in a vacuum. For anyone else, they’re stuck with something extra.

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.