The Rare Delight of the Actually-Good Movie Remake

Did you know that there are about 121 remakes and reboots currently in the works?—Like, how could there possibly be so many? What beloved childhood classic of mine is next on the chopping block? Anytime another remake is announced, be it Clueless or The Princess Bride—two movies that should be left alone!—the Internet collectively groans, yet we drag our asses to the theaters, give studios more money and thus more incentive to keep recycling material. And all for what? So we can declare, for the umpeenth time, “It’s not as good as the original”?

After so many “live action” Disney remakes, one starts to dissociate. But the worst is when they trick you into thinking it’s your duty to support certain films, especially of the gender-swapped variety that get misogynist bros up in arms as soon as the trailer drops (ahem, Ghostbusters). And then there’s something patronizing about immediately remaking fresh new foreign films for English-speaking audiences. The Korean thriller Parasite hasn’t even been released stateside and it’s already in talks for an American remake. Give it a minute, will ya?!

A new Clueless? *Shrugging while shopping emoji*

Yet the concept of a remake or reboot is refreshing and fascinating. Think about it on IRL terms: how I wish I could remake certain periods of my own life—wouldn’t that be great, to have that kind of rewriting power? In theory, a remake lets you relive your favorite stories, but also learn from mistakes and update it with relevant material. There’s something aspirational to this, if we forget about all the remakes that have failed or embarrassed us. If the formula is right, even the recently recycled has the power to excite.

I can’t speak on this particular one yet, but Greta Gerwig’s Little Women had many of you screaming, sweating, and screenshotting leading up to the trailer drop. It was a whole cultural moment. Here, it’s a combination of a trusted director (though Gerwig is new-ish behind the camera, her debut solo directorial effort, Lady Bird, was enough proof of greatness to come) and casting (Timothée Chalamet just feels so right as the heir to young Christian Bale’s throne). And even the Little Women I speak of there was a remake (by the way, here’s a success story: I like the ’90s remake more than the ’40s original). The perfect culmination of director and cast also rendered the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo far superior, breaking the general rule that the international original is better. Noomi Rapace was fine, but Rooney Mara’s goth waif transformation not only improved the portrayal of hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander, but actually changed Mara’s entire look and career. As for David Fincher, I don’t know a better auteur for crime thrillers.

Rooney Mara throbbing with Scandinavian chill

Here’s another exception: Jim McBride’s Breathless with Richard Gere. I’d argue this one is at least as good as Godard’s Breathless. If Gerwig stuck to Little Women’s 19th Century era and Fincher lets his Dragon Tattoo throb with the same Scandinavian chill of his predecessor’s, McBride benefitted from taking on a drastically different setting and tone and owning it completely and unabashedly: his vision of a decadent L.A. in the ’80s, instead of black-and-white Paris. Though each couple has an American and a Frenchie, Gere’s id-driven, sexpot passion makes the American version pop in an oh-so-American way. Especially when crossing country borders, there’s a delicate balance to keeping the spirit of the original without appropriating what might be a unique concern to the place of origin. In that case, remakes benefit from almost being unrecognizable as such (the 1983 Breathless, if it weren’t for the obvious title, could count). The Tawainese director Tsai Ming-Liang took Rebel Without a Cause and gave it a nightlife-drenched, urban ’90s Taipei update with Rebels of the Neon God.

The mark of a great remake could also be that it eloquently captures the atmosphere of its time, without openly pandering to its audience, thus becoming significant societal commentary. David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing are the shining, go-to examples of remakes that are better. It isn’t so surprising in hindsight, now knowing Cronenberg and Carpenter are masters of horror. Both of their remakes capture political paranoia in subtext, while Cronenberg pushed the envelope with eroticizing one of the grossest films ever made (Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are so sexy until they’re… so not).

It had its moments!

Oftentimes, it can also be a matter of which order you saw the movie and what it meant to you then. The Steve Martin-starring Father of the Bride was such a special father-daughter viewing experience for me growing up that my dad and I still make jokes about the kind of in-law he would be. My dad used to teach me to play basketball, as Martin’s George does with his daughter. I always laugh at the hot dog scene and the financial spiral he falls into, because I can imagine my own dad going through such a panic. These are scenes burned into my fond movie-watching memories. Many years later, I watched Minnelli’s 1950 original, and while still good, it didn’t quite hit the same. This was not me and my dad’s movie.

If I stop grumbling about non-stop reboots and remakes for a sec, I can see younger audiences delighting over Gerwig’s Little Women as I had with the previous version as a kid growing up in the ’90s. Then I remember all the little girls who had dressed up as Ghostbusters and asked for autographs from the new all-female cast. There’s no stopping Hollywood’s remake machine, so maybe we should just focus on finding the ones worth delighting in.

Photos via Everett Collection.

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a South Korea-born, New York-based writer. She's literally always at the movies.

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