Why We Should Give Remakes a Chance

By  · Published on June 20th, 2011

The recent revelation that Chris Columbus will be producing a US-based, English-language remake of Troll Hunter was met with everything from mild irritation to outright derision. A typical report of the news included 1) a statement that the original is great/awesome 2) a question of whether this really needed a remake 3) a comment that Hollywood was craven and unoriginal and, for a select few pieces, 4) swear words.

My own take was fairly neutral (much like my reaction to Andre Ovredal’s film), which prompted at least half an email asking me why I was giving this one a pass after years of making up clever insults at the expense of anyone attempting a remake.

After some soul-searching, it was clear that I had either made peace with the recent glut of remakes or been beaten into submission by it. Either way, I’m tired of complaining about remakes, and here’s why.

As early as Spring of 2010, the major studios had at least 75 television and film remakes in development. Some have come to pass, some haven’t, some still might survive. It’s a large number considering that there’s just north of 300 movies made every year. There’s no doubt that a trend is crushing audiences, but not all of those remakes will get made despite being reported. The bad news is that it feels like there are more remakes than there are. The good news is that there are fewer remakes than it feels.

Because, after all, remakes are a bad thing, right?

Remakes Aren’t The End of the World

Amongst the perceived rubble of bad remakes, there are also a solid number of good ones and a shocking handful of brilliant must-sees. Some, like Troll Hunter, are stolen from their ancestral homes (with fans kicking and screaming) to the United States. The Departed, The Ring, The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars come to mind immediately. The Man Who Knew Too Much makes the list if we’re counting directors remaking their own previously British material. Are we counting those? Let’s do it. Why not.

Truly good domestic remakes are easy to spot, too. The Thing, A Star is Born, Scarface, The Fly, Ocean’s 11, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Father of the Bride. The problem seems to be that we don’t always readily recognize movies we love as remakes while decrying an apparent mountain of them currently. There’s no need to cite numbers here, because you can see for yourself by scoping a list of movies released last year and counting the comparatively small number of remakes. There just aren’t as many as it seems.

Even though there are a healthy amount of good remakes (maybe even nearing the amount of bad ones), it wasn’t until Let Me In (another horror hybrid taken from a European country) that my eyes were open to the new trend’s potential. Unlike The Ring, which seemed to come out of nowhere, Let Me In was a remake of a critically acclaimed film that had found a happy home amongst cinephiles. The cries of outrage were incredibly loud, and Matt Reeves silenced almost all of them with an insanely capable movie. The lesson? It’s easy to defecate all over the idea of a foreign remake, but we might just be better served asking whether (and how) it might actually be good.

Plus, there’s the case that…

Complaining is Old and Easy

We started the “Unnecessary Remakes” tag over two years ago, and it was hardly when the trend was beginning to rear its head. We’re at least three years into the new remake phase, and yet most reactions seem to be the same old song sung over and over. It seems silly. At this point, the studios are steadily on track with the remakes they plan on putting into production, and the same Greek chorus of film bloggers and fans repeating the knee-jerk mantra that all remakes are bad just doesn’t resonate.

Plus, it’s making us mean. Over at Bad Ass Digest, Devin Faraci went as far as to call the producers of the (possibly) forthcoming Troll Hunter remake “assholes” and “douchebags.” It’s that kind of uninspired, seething ad hominem attack that appears like a sharp shout into thin air (or into an echo chamber). Is Chris Columbus really an “asshole” for wanting to remake a foreign movie? Maybe for making I Love You, Beth Cooper, but for wanting to direct an adventure featuring giant trolls? For remaking a foreign film? Does that mean the directors of the great remakes listed above are all assholes?

Even the director, Andre Ovredal, said it would be fun to see a US remake of his movie. But why! Doesn’t he know his artistic labor will be bent over a spinning globe and raped repeatedly by money-grubbing assholes?

Maybe it’s because he’ll get money out of the deal, more name recognition inside the offices that matter to his career, more attention will be drawn to the movie he made, and, gasp, an entertaining film could be the result. It raises an eyebrow and a question: if the director doesn’t care, why should we?

A few remakes even improved upon their progenitors, but instead of hoping for greatness, some can’t see anything but a pile of feces spitting more feces at them. That cynical nature has worn thin.

If Chris Columbus was burning every copy of the original Troll Hunter and going door to door to erase it off hard drives and confiscate regional DVDs, then he’d be an asshole. He’d also have a ton of free time and resources. As it stands, he’s just a producer who sees something in a story that he wants to retell.

But isn’t he helping to destroy creativity?

Remakes Aren’t Destroying Creativity

There’s a misconception that remaking movies at a grand scale is somehow killing creativity. There’s nothing in the rule book that says a remake can’t be creative, just like there’s no rule stating that an original film has to be good (or all that creative). Studio executives forcing remakes on the world shouldn’t be mutually exclusive with quality or ingenuity, and several recent films have proven that.

This may sound like defeatism after fighting the good fight, but even highly talented directors are accepting a reheated fate – especially one that focuses on foreign films. David Fincher is remaking an insanely popular film in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and that promises to be not one, but three remakes). Ben Affleck (a man with a solid directing resume so far) has just signed on to remake the French film Tell No One. Good people are signing on for remakes. Why are we still blindly protesting them?

More so than that, we often think about originality and creativity within the context of what we know or believe is widely known. We’re pretty much forced to by our brains (the same thing that forces us to eat just one more piece of fried chicken on just one more waffle). Within the world of movie writing, Troll Hunter is a well-known, well-respected foreign flick. To the greater movie-going populace, Troll Hunter is nothing because they’ve never heard the phrase. Is it that new, incredibly narrow collector’s show on A&E that follows people trying to find neon-haired dolls? Is it Dog the Bounty Hunter tracking down cynical shit-stirrers on the internet? No, but both sound like quality programming.

In that sense, anyone remaking any lesser-known foreign film will be bringing something new to an audience that doesn’t know about it. There aren’t many movies about giant trolls in American cinema, so there’s plenty of room for creativity to flourish there. While it’s easy to denounce a remake in order to flaunt knowledge of the obscure, that sort of elitism is boring and doesn’t take into account the potential that remakes have.

One reason we ignore that potential is that there are genuine issues beyond the emotionalism of seeing a movie we like or love redone. That emotion can be strong, especially since a remake stinks of the implication that the original wasn’t done well enough, but sometimes there are practical reasons to fear a work of art being redone. A remake of Big Man Japan was recently announced, and it seems completely moronic to create it in our own American image. Like anything else, there is a limit to reasonable expectations, and when that line is crossed, alarms should go off. Sometimes a foreign film is too embedded in its local culture to be of any use to an American filmmaker.

On that front, I had a great conversation with Brad McHargue (whose last name is made for this stuff) about whether Troll Hunter could be culturally relevant if remade here. After all, there are huge differences between troll culture in Norway and the lack of troll culture here. We ultimately disagreed (he thinks all magic is lost in a remake), but his response is one that sees a genuine problem in adapting foreign material, a hurdle for the producers to clear. When those types of obstacles face a production, it’s creativity that will be their savior or a lack of it that will be their downfall.

Each individual case may create reasons to be skeptical or dismissive – like if Uwe Boll announced that he was remaking The Godfather – but decrying remakes as a whole seems about as wrong as making someone imagine a world where Uwe Boll was remaking The Godfather. It’s time for film fans to collectively get over their fear of remakes, recognize that the sky isn’t falling down, and know that if it does, someone will be along shortly to repaint it.

What say you?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.