Hollywood is now well into an age of remakes. Almost every big movie that comes out is based on a comic book, novel, video game, or prior movie. I used to think that this was because “they’re running out of ideas,” but as it continues, I have discovered reason to be optimistic about Hollywood’s creativity.
I am not saying that the most recent remakes have been increasing in quality—they may or may not have. At the moment, that is not what interests me. What interests me is that our very concept of what it means to watch a movie may be changing.
For a century of filmmaking, individual movies were basically unique: Rear Window was called Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, not to differentiate it from other versions (there were no other versions), but simply to identify it as one of Hitchcock’s creations. When plays or novels were adapted for the screen, it was usually done once and for all. Remakes were rare. We would even denounce a plot that was too similar to another as being “ripped off.”
As remakes became prevalent during the past decade, we no longer called it “ripping off.” We liked seeing a new Spiderman and a new James Bond in edgier, flashier movies (and note, this time it was not the same Bond portrayed by a new actor—he was a new Bond, in a new kind of Bond movie). Nonetheless, we were still in much the same mindset as before: there was only one “new” Batman with which to contrast the “old” versions, just as there was only one Lord of the Rings adaptation.
We assumed this was the way movies had to be—until this year, when director Marc Webb gave us yet another new Spiderman. To my knowledge, a remake has never been made this soon after the original and certainly not this soon after a prior remake. I hope this changes movie history. Now it is not a question of the old Spiderman versus the new, but of Sam Raimi’s version, Webb’s version, and the classic comics. I would find it very interesting if, in the near future, it became acceptable to have multiple, contemporaneous films based on the same story. These should not really be called remakes but rather “retreatments”—or, to be cute, “retreats.” Does it still sound like Hollywood is running out of ideas? Well, read on.
Imagine a scenario in which there were several movies exploring the character of Jason Bourne, with each director attempting to highlight different parts of Bourne’s personality. Imagine if Jason Bourne were not the property of just one film franchise…what would happen if Bourne’s character were available to any screenwriter who wanted to write about him? I propose that this would not be unimaginative recycling on the part of Hollywood. It would be richer than what we have at the moment. For instance, every “new” action movie these days is basically a Bourne Identity copy anyway. Copycat movies do not produce anything new, and therefore impoverish the movie landscape. They revisit a formula. In contrast, a remake has the power to revisit a character.
If a character could not only be remade, but “retreated,” we could have multiple interpretations to compare and contrast, just as there are multiple stories about any folk hero. It is this kind of filmmaking that gives us heroes.
I propose that “retreats” have in fact been typical in cultural stories throughout history. Characters from folk tale and myth are able to have many stories told about them, with none being the canonical one. In Greek plays, as in Shakespeare’s time, the audience largely knew the stories already—one went to the theater to enjoy the playwright’s rendition of a common story. The differences between versions enable us to contemplate a character dialectically, getting to know him even better.
Even now, the second new Spiderman is not the only “retreat” movie out there; ”retreats” are happening all around us. Tim Burton did not bring Alice in Wonderland to the screen so much as he gave us an entirely new vision of Wonderland. Pirates of the Carribbean 4 was not a next chapter in the prior story, but an altogether new kind of Pirates of the Caribbean movie: the writers felt free to turn it into an adventures-of-Jack-Sparrow movie instead of a Will-and-Elizabeth-struggling-to-find-their-place-in-a-world-where-lawfulness-and-lawlessness-continually-clash movie, and I am glad. (I mean, which one would you rather watch?)
How did it happen? Well, part of it could be what I am going to call the “George Lucas effect.” Lots of people did not like the new Star Wars movies. I propose that this is not so much because the movies were bad (although they certainly are), as it is because they felt so different. Some people thought this was okay and enjoyed them for what they were. Lots of loud, angry twenty-somethings like myself really did not. But what everyone agreed on was that these movies felt more like a different “kind” of Star Wars movie. And whether or not you liked them—whether or not that was a wise marketing decision on Lucas’ part—it has gotten into all of our heads that if there can be multiple versions of Star Wars, there can be multiple versions of anything. It has now become possible for people to prefer separate versions of the same movie narratives. For that I might be grateful.
I look forward to the age of “retreat” movies in which we can have contrasting versions of beloved tales, in which we can have the benefit of Sam Raimi’s cartoony filmmaking plus Webb’s grittier style and think about what each contributes to the character of Spiderman without arguing that one or the other “does not count.”
Of course, if Hollywood is simply running out of ideas, I will be disappointed. And probably not for the last time.
Note: I have talked here about these movies as remakes. Something I do not have time to explore in this article is, “Why are so many of them superhero movies?” By and large, we are not remaking the sports movies, the romantic comedies, or the dramas. Perhaps it is because superheroes are iconic and therefore more suitable for “retreats.” It could be because the moral insecurity of our day causes us to gravitate toward men who know right from wrong. Our Catholic readers might point out that we need “saints” to relate our lives to, and that we will find them somewhere if we do not get stories about them in our upbringing. At any rate, we crave superheroes