Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Remakes are great

As you may have gathered from various remarks made here and in various features (read Clarke on John Hurt in tomorrow’s soaraway Irish Times!) I was not disappointed by Tomas Alfredson’s take on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I won’t preempt …

Tue, Sep 13, 2011, 22:14

   

As you may have gathered from various remarks made here and in various features (read Clarke on John Hurt in tomorrow’s soaraway Irish Times!) I was not disappointed by Tomas Alfredson’s take on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I won’t preempt Friday’s review by saying too much here.

Oh Jesus. Not him again!

Let’s just remark that the film offers a delicious complement to the classic BBC TV series. By doing things slightly differently, Alfredson proves that remakes can have a point. The two versions — like two productions of, say, Hamlet — approach the material from very different angles. (Oh and I, of course, know that, being preceded by a TV series, the new Tinker, Tailor is not strictly a remake. Look, just play along. Okay?)

One of the supposedly unshakable tenets of movie lore states that the remake never lives up to the original. Now, it is true that a recent slew of unimaginative sequels does rather turn one against this particular field of endeavour. Think for a moment of the remakes of The Stepford Wives, Alfie, The Poseidon Adventure and The Pink Panther. Now fold down the flap on your vomit bag and hand it to the helpful stewardess. There’s a good fellow.

It needn’t be this way. What links A Star is Born (1954), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Fly (1986), Scarface (1983) and The Thing (1982)? Oh, you’re way ahead of me. They are all remakes. What’s more, rather than being clever reinventions of forgotten trash, most of these films were preceded by very decent efforts. Indeed, I would argue that the 1937 version of A Star is Born — with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March — is slightly better than the transcendent Judy Garland version. It is true that almost all were originally based on non-filmic material, but you won’t find much of the source stories in the later versions of Scarface, The Fly or The Thing. (Though the Coens’ recent version of True Grit did follow the novel closely.)

What binds these films together, apart from their excellence, is the visible application of a fresh, original sensibility. Each of these film-makers used the original framework merely as a structure on which to hang their own idiosyncratic musings. The best way to respect the former film is to put it out of one’s mind and make believe that the new script just emerged damp and squealing from the womb. Too often, hack directors think that, standing on the shoulder of a giant, they just need to stand up straight to get their head in the stars.

This explains why, when knocking together the Autumn movie preview for Friday’s Ticket, I found it hard to get excited about the upcoming remakes of  Straw Dogs and (yes, again) The Thing. I sincerely hope that Rod Lurie and  Matthijs van Heijningen Jr have found new ways of attacking those deliciously violent films. But the trailers for both suggest that they’ve just put younger actors into the clothes previously worn by Dustin Hoffman and Kurt Russell. The sad fact is that, knowing callow viewers rarely bother with anything made before 1990, the film-makers needn’t really bother fretting about the Anxiety of Influence. Heck, only a few old bastards such as me will have seen the original films.

Shape up, gentlemen. Sit down and watch The Fly or A Star is Born — or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  for that matter — and you’ll learn that, yes, remakes can be great.

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