A Theory of Remakes

Posted: May 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

© 2013 G.N. Jacobs

Are remakes good for movies and the screenwriting art? I suppose it depends on the movies we choose to see. Considering that I am in progress on at least two novels that are essentially remakes of two of my favorite movies of all time, Ben-Hur and Casablanca, I can’t be too negative about remakes. Okay, in strict point of fact, I’m going in more for wholesale element borrowing than direct remakes, but…

In looking at how I approach remakes and other similar adapted and semi-adapted work, one very personal rule rises to the surface: a remake will not be worth the ink and paper needed to write it if the author doesn’t use the remake vehicle as a way to explore decisions not taken in the original that may substantially change the outcome of the story.

I frequently cite the Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool” as my touchstone for the most awesome pairing of original and remake that follows my rule, nay, it helped define it. A pool player shoots a frame in a pool hall as it’s closing for the night and he gets a visit from a very special player: a deceased champion that no one had ever beaten with money on the table in anyone’s living memory. The players rack ‘em and play for huge stakes: the living player’s life!

In both the original version and the remake for the revival of the show in the 1980s, the champion talks about his life both as a champion and a man. A lot of emphasis is put on the man having had an awesome wife and doing things that had nothing to do with pool. The challenger clearly hasn’t seen the outside of a pool hall in ten years or more. Finally, it comes down to the last shot where the challenger must sink the last ball to win a game of Straight Pool. The champion warns the challenger that he may get more than he bargained for if he wins…

Jack Klugman (1961 version) sinks the shot to the great relief of Jonathan Winters who had also explained that the divine champion exists to inspire and encourage those who follow to be better at their field of endeavor. The champion namedrops Mozart, Bach and Babe Ruth as inspiring people long after their deaths. The zinger (it’s the Twilight Zone, the zinger is union mandated) is that the Jack Klugman as a miserable man will become the champion when he dies naturally and spend his eternity preparing to play all future challengers until he is, in turn, beaten. The audience connects to the tragedy that the challenger couldn’t enjoy being the champion while he lived because he had nothing else going for him.

Esai Morales (1989 version) blows the shot. The champion explains that the challenger is a loser who will never be good enough to be anything more than what he is now, a broken down waste of a man with nothing good in his life. The implication in the hyper-competitive 80s is that it is worth the years of struggle even after dying to be champion. The challenger doesn’t get the veiled hint that the Universe is telling him to get out of pool and racks the balls again. He wants a rematch not realizing that the champion’s face tells the tale that this type of game only occurs one to a customer.

It’s amazing to me that one simple choice changes the whole tone of the story. In the 60s which were seemingly more about cooperation, the New Frontier and progress, of course the moral of the story is be careful what you wish for. In the 80s, the moral is clearly win or die! According to Wikipedia, writer George Clayton Johnson (Logan’s Run, Ocean’s Eleven) originally wrote the 80s ending which was changed in development. The right choice being made both times.

Now let’s talk about remakes that went bad or should never have been funded. When I heard that Gus Van-Sant intended to remake Psycho by going shot for shot to the Hitchcock original I vowed to stay away. I have yet to see the movie because nothing about color film will make an otherwise shot for shot remake rise above the millions of other highly average or even absolutely blowful examples of filmmaking. Really, Mr. Van-Sant you couldn’t add your own artistic vision that made your other work worth watching? Apparently, the audience agreed with me though some pundits suggested that the concept just didn’t play with the modern audience.

I walked away from the theater after watching Star Trek: Into Darkness angry as Hell, because I had seen the movie before…Wrath of Khan. I could have avoided the whole mess because I was informed ahead of time, but it was the Star Trek movie and I had gone out on a limb with the purists liking the 2009 reboot. I had to see for myself. I was warned.

Both movies feature Khan Noonian Singh as the villain, a genetically engineered superman from the past. In Wrath and Into Darkness Captain Kirk fights a superior being and nearly loses his ship. A key character makes a fateful decision to enter a radioactive chamber in the engine room to fix the broken engines and save the ship. The first time around, Spock dies bringing down the house with tears. By the time, that Captain Kirk temporarily dies in the remake saying much the same dialog – “Ship out of danger?” – and so on I was left asking V’ger’s question – is this all there is?

Really? Did you think I couldn’t watch the first movie on Netflix? Obviously, it fails my Explore Significant New Choices test. It didn’t matter to me which member of the Kirk-Spock partnership bit the dust the second time. It was trite and I’d already been there done that. Other than leaving Benedict Cumberbatch as the equally scary John Harrison, my other suggestion for a movie that decided to have Khan was to give him the big death scene after writing him as a potential ally of Captain Kirk (it’s a new reboot universe, they can do almost anything they want). But, as a friend put it – “That’s too original.”

Which leads me to the ultimate remake question? To redo Casablanca. A friend tried to make me feel shame for trampling a classic until I told him that it’s really an homage/disguised sequel where we get to explore the one story element that matters – Rick gets the girl. The powers that be have given us Casablanca in color and Casablanca with gender switching where Rick and Victor are now women and Ilsa is now the man between them (Barb Wire). They have yet to give us the one hypothetical question – under what circumstances would it be artistically acceptable for Rick to walk away with Ilsa?

Possibly, this failure of imagination may be fueled by both of the above examples tanking at the box office. Another possibility, is that Casablanca’s time has come and gone what with semi-legendary stories of people in Hollywood conducting experiments by sending out classic old scripts and putting them through the modern development ringer. The story says no one even recognized the script and none even thought it was good.

Records from the set and recollections of the cast and crew tell us that no one knew the ending to the movie until the Epstein brothers shouted “Round up the Usual Suspects!” while driving to the studio. They logically decided that one of the two men should shoot the German commander and Louis would let them go saying into the phone “round up the usual suspects.” They went back and forth until they realized that Rick as the younger man of action should do the shooting, because that’s who the audience would believe did it. Once Rick shoots the German, Ilsa goes with Victor because Rick must protect them to advance the war effort.

I realized very quickly in my ongoing attempts to try the new ending that it couldn’t be a direct sequel because our perceptions of Rick, Victor and Ilsa are so fixed that most of us couldn’t conceive of the alternate ending. In Casablanca, the enemy was Nazi Germany and the ethic was to blow the shit out of them, but an ending where Victor, the writer and newsman who becomes the inspirational key to the war, gives up the girl requires a different villain that fought with propaganda more than bullets. Thankfully, history provides…the Soviets.

So, now I’m in Cold War Espionage territory where the CIA is paying conservative Italian parties to crush the Communists at the polls. The story now hinges on an analog to the Soviets attempting to hide the truth from the great writer that helped win the war against the Nazis and get him to endorse the Party. When he finds out the deception he offers to stay behind to give Rick and Ilsa time to escape. Obviously, this is the plot of an upcoming science fiction novel that I’m writing.

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