There are many debates on social media among film fans, some can be light-hearted, friendly, informative and constructive, others… not so much. These discourses can be about single movies, entire genres, movie (A) versus movie (B), directors, actors, cinematographers, anything, everything, nothing. But there is one subject which never fails to to pump the white-hot, seething blood of anger and indignation through the collective forehead anxiety vein of Film Twitter, Facebook Film Groups and YouTube Movie Vloggers and that is the idea of a remake. Just the merest whisper that a studio is considering a remake can send even the mildest vlogger/commenter/twitterer into paroxysms of anger and despair; a full-blown announcement often leads to a complete meltdown, a volcanic eruption of fury and literally dozens of people signing an online petition (this seems to the point where even the most righteously indignant rein in their feelings, a line over which only those deemed to be slightly insane are willing to cross).
But there is a problem with this argument.
It makes absolutely no sense. None whatsoever. Once the argument is analysed it falls apart. It’s just another knee-jerk reaction in a world that is increasingly over-whelmed by knee-jerk reactions.
So let’s analyse it, see if I can put a few minds at ease:
When I was a kid my favourite meal was Macaroni and Cheese. It still is. If I had to choose a last meal? Mac and cheese all the way, baby. If I had to explain my love for this meal I could talk about its consistency or its simple flavour; the aroma that rises with the hot steam, tickling my olfactory senses; the joy of separating the skin of its grilled cheese topping from the smooth, creamy sauce; the slight, al dente texture of the pasta as it succumbs to every bite and chew. But the truth is that mac and cheese is my favourite meal now because it was my favourite meal as a child. Every time I have mac and cheese there are parts of my subconscious brain that spark Proustian memory (though not for me the lime blossom tea soaked madeleines, oh no): Feelings of safety and comfort and the infinite possibilities that every child imagines lay before them; chemical signals hit not only the sensory organ of my brain (the thalamus) but bounce around those crazy lumps of emotional memory, the amygdala and good old hippocampus and, even though I’m unaware of the process, bring me happiness and pleasure.
Film has a similar effect (as do many other things we hold dear) but it is something far more tangible. We all have movies that that we have loved for years and many of us revisit those films time and again. We love them even though they may not necessarily be great art or storytelling but because they make us feel good, somewhere in our brains old Proust is at play, we become emotionally attached, we create a sense of ownership and we cling to them with jealousy. When talk of a remake is mooted many of us react angrily as if it were an attack not just on the thing we love but upon ourselves. William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology (1890), “A man’s self is the sum total of all he can call his”, and he meant by this not only possessions but memories and emotions as well.
The idea that we can own something, possess something as if it were a part of our selves, comes early in life, in fact it is something children learn by the age of two (in The Moral Judgement of a Child (1932), Jean Piaget observed that even babies express jealousy over objects, displaying “Violent rage” when an object is taken away from them and given to another). By age six, children begin to display an emotion known as the “Endowment Effect”, placing extra value on an object simply by virtue of it being, or having been, theirs. In 2007, developmental psychologists Bruce Hood (of Bristol University) and Paul Bloom (of Yale) carried out an intriguing study of three to six year old children and their “Attachment objects”. The experiment ran like this: Parents were asked to bring their children and their child’s attachment objects to the laboratory, if they had no attachment object then a toy or doll they liked – to count as an attachment object the child had to have owned it for at least a third of their lives and that they slept with it regularly, the object could be a toy or book or blanket. The children were then shown a “Copying machine” – in truth a magician’s box – into which the experimenter first placed a green block, fiddled with a few dials and knobs and then produced two green blocks. The children were then asked to hand over their object for “copying”. They were then asked if they wanted the new “copy” or the original item. Of the children that had no special attachment to the object, all agreed to the “copying” and almost two-thirds agreed to take the new object – although it was in fact their original object. Of the 22 children who had attachment objects, four stubbornly refused to hand them over and only five of the remaining 18 agreed to take the “copy” – all the children were shown how the illusion worked at the end of the experiment so they knew they had their original item back. Other than the five who were happy to take the “copy”, it appeared that the children believed their objects had some special essence that made them unique, a kind of magical thinking that carries over into adulthood and our perception of things both tangible and immaterial.
As children mature into teenagers, their objects and their likes or obsessions become an emotional crutch for the self. This “materialism” usually peaks at middle adolescence when self-esteem seem to be lowest. It is about this time that they begin to base their friendships in shared interests, be that music or fashion or films or whatever.
Now, I’m a middle-aged man, I’m in my mid-fifties. My formative years were spent before the advent of video recorders/players but I have always loved film and trips to the cinema. I probably consumed more film than I did mac and cheese (which was a lot, food in the sixties and seventies was, let me tell you, bad). I also have to admit that I would have been one of those five kids who were happy enough to take home the “copy”, I’ve just never been that attached to anything. When vcr’s became a thing it was only natural that I sought employment in one of the new video rental libraries, what with my love of movies and everything and, although it is a phenomena rarely talked about, I found myself as part of one of the largest cultural shifts the West has ever seen. Before video, if you loved a movie you had to cram in as many watches of it on its theatrical run as you could, who knew when you’d get a chance to see it again – most cinemas only had a single screen so a theatrical run could only last until the next big release was out – and who knew how long it’d be before a film made it to terrestrial television – I remember the excitement at school when the first James Bond movie, Dr No, aired in 1975 a mere thirteen years after its initial cinema release. Home video changed everything*, now people could watch what they wanted, when they wanted and as many times as they wanted.
This freedom of viewing became even greater when sell-through videos became a thing, now people could own their favourite films and watch them ad infinitum – or at least until the dirty, uncleaned heads on their vcr snagged the tape and chewed it beyond recognition. Children – especially children – could watch the same Disney animated feature over and over and over and… Exasperated parents learned the words, “Let’s watch this one for a change”, were akin to saying, “Yep, there’s definitely a monster under your bed”, if they wanted their child to have screaming fit that could be heard down the street. Then came dvd’s and satellite movie channels and blu-ray and streaming.
All this in the space of forty years-ish, so if you’re younger than me chances are this is probably where your sense of ownership (stewardship?) of films can find its roots.
Not convinced by that argument? Try this one:
This is a can of soup:
Ceci n’est pas une boite de soupe (apologies to Henri Matisse):
Is the can of tomato soup in any way diminished by Andy Warhol’s art? Or, more importantly, does Warhol’s can of soup mean that the original no longer exists and can no longer be enjoyed? In many ways Warhol’s version makes the original more iconic. It doesn’t make it better. It doesn’t make it worse. Some people may enjoy one more than the other (I haven’t tried to eat a print of the second but I’m pretty sure the original is way tastier), that’s okay. It doesn’t matter.
The same goes for cover versions of songs. Do you prefer Jimi Hendix’s version of All Along the Watchtower or Dylan’s? Is Bowie’s version of The Man Who Sold the World diminished by Nirvana’s version? Or Lulu’s? What about The Fall’s cover of Sister Sledge’s Lost In Music? Ed Sheeran covered Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty, civilisation did not end. The originals are not forgotten. They still exist. There is no statute or law forbidding us from listening to them. Nobody is suppressing the knowledge of their existence, in fact cover versions are one of the most celebrated and acknowledged forms of musical expression. By extension isn’t every recital of classical music – ie Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Taverner et al. – a cover?
I’m just going to leave this picture of David Tennant in Hamlet here and let you extrapolate on the argument with regards to theatre:
So why not film? It is an accepted truth that there are only seven basic plots – overcoming the monster, rebirth or renewal, the quest, journey and return, rags to riches, tragedy, comedy – so it could be posited that nothing is ever new, that’s not what upsets people though, it is the idea that story, actors, special effects, whatever is being replaced wholesale; to tell the story in a way that is somehow different to the one we hold dear**; that somebody is trying to insert an imperfect “copy” into their history without their permission. It’s a real, if irrational, emotion and it comes from one of the most negative of reactions: Selfishness. We may own a copy of the film, be that a physical copy or a subconscious or emotional one, but we don’t own the film, whoever holds the rights does and it is theirs to do with as they will.
Let’s look at a recent example: The Princess Bride. The furore began from a single line in a sprawling Variety retrospective of one of the film’s executive producers, Norman Lear. A small line from a small paragraph in a long feature that was picked by Variety to promote the piece: Sony’s chief executive, Tony Vinciquerra, was quoted as saying, “Very famous people whose names I won’t use, but they want to redo The Princess Bride”. Social media exploded with even one of the film’s stars, Cary Elwes, tweeting, “There’s a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to damage this one.”
Obviously my reply to mister Elwes would be, “How?” (and I’m not going to be cynical enough to question his interest here <cough> royalty cheques). Would a new version chop scenes out of the original or bleep some of the most quotable lines so as to claim them for itself? Of course not. Yes, a new version might be really bad but that doesn’t reflect on your love for the original, does it? If anything a bad remake justifies that love. But what if, and I’m spitballing here, what if the remake is really, really good? What if it’s better than the original? Is this the real fear?
The Princess Bride was released theatrically 32 years ago (1987) and struggled to set the box office alight – it was made for $16 million and its initial worldwide gross was less than $31 million, a figure that would struggle to rise above being rated a “modest success”. It was only upon its home release that the film started to gather momentum, probably via word of mouth, and become the “classic” it seen as today.
Now imagine you are Tony Vinciquerra. You’ve been installed by Sony as chief executive not because you are great artist or visionary but because you know how to make money. You are sitting on a property with a great legacy but diminishing returns, you’ve wrung every penny from home sales and streaming rights but that property is not strong enough to build a franchise around. This is not a question of quality or integrity, it is a question fulfilling your job role, about making money for your shareholders. So take The Princess Bride, chuck a blockbuster budget at it, hire the hottest and popular actors to play the leads (this is the most accepted way of getting bums on seats, being the biggest reason people – not social media film people, but, y’know, the people who only go to the cinema three or fours times a year – people love stars and celebrities), so, I dunno, Tom Holland and Zendaya as Westley and Buttercup, Dwayne Johnson as Fezzik, Seth Rogan as Vizzini… Inconceivable? I don’t think so. It’s a new version for a new generation and, despite what you may think about it, there are people who will love it, will always remember it, will always “own ” it. This new version will be theirs, it wasn’t made for you, get over it.
Sometimes we have to let go. Sometimes we have to let the things we love have a chance at a new life. We have our attachment objects, isn’t it fair that we let other generations have a chance at claiming their own? “Sharing is caring” and all that. It’s okay to hang onto to things, they are what made us us but it’s even better to grow, to find new things, to understand that the world does not revolve around us and our selfishness.
Right. What’s for dinner?
* Well, almost everything, Disney had a well established routine of re-releasing their films in cinemas on a seven year cycle, they had no intention of letting the public watch any of their oeuvre on videotape and Warner Bros. came up with a genius plan of charging £50 per month to rental outlets for each copy of their films and they got to choose which titles you were allowed to stock, which effectively meant nobody had Warner Bros. films in their local library. Thankfully business models change.
**There’s a fine line between the idea of a “Remake” and “Borrowing heavily” and sometimes a film can have a foot planted either side of it. The movie that is probably more appropriated into people’s perception of themselves than any other is Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, a film that “borrows heavily” from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. So heavily, in fact, that many do actually regard it as a remake. Me? I’m not sure, but I will admit it’s a helluva balancing act.