Donald Clarke: When is a new take on a movie not a remake?

A complex formula involving several variables dictates whether the word is appropriate

The time has come to get pedantic about cavalier use of the word “remake”.

“Viewers of The Darling Buds of May remake ‘switch off’…” the Daily Mail thundered as it assiduously gathered together a bunch of tweets that said rude things about ITV’s The Larkins. We will come back to the curious assertion that the new series “‘has nothing on the original’, which first aired in 1991 for three series”.

Earlier this year, the Independent wrote about a “sci-fi/action remake of Dune”. On Wednesday, our friends at the Mail warned us that the “critically acclaimed 2021 remake hits cinemas tomorrow”. Somewhat bafflingly the Spectator went with “Denis Villeneuve’s eagerly awaited remake of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune”.

When discussing the Hollywood remake, I have, in earlier columns, been guilty of listing films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) alongside Some Like it Hot (1959) and A Star is Born (1954) as evidence for the defence. This was wrong of me and I beg the court’s forgiveness.


Fresh interpretations

The point is not that there is anything wrong with those first two films. The point is that they are not really remakes. They are fresh interpretations of source material that also generated earlier films. In contrast, Some Like it Hot and A Star is Born really are based on cinematic sources (Some like Hot is, indeed, arguably a remake of a remake, but we don’t have space to tell that story). When Villeneuve set to work on Dune he was inspired not by David Lynch’s notoriously hectic 1984 film – or, for that matter, by the 2000 TV series – but by Frank Herbert’s still widely read novel from 1965.

A movie adapted from the same novel or play as another movie is something else altogether

The Mail's argument that The Larkins is not a patch on the 1991 "original" requires some unpacking. The "original" is surely HE Bates's 1958 novel The Darling Buds of May. The 1991 TV series – the one that famously launched Catherine Zeta Jones's career – is not even the "original" adaptation. In 1959, the book was loosely adapted into an American film called The Mating Game starring, of all people, Tony Randall and Debbie Reynolds.

The odd thing is we already half know this use of “remake” to be inappropriate. Nobody is referring to Joel Coen’s upcoming The Tragedy of Macbeth as a remake of Justin Kurzel’s film from 2015 or of Orson Welles’s take from 1948. The notion that every one among the dozens of Macbeths filmed since 1908 is a remake of James Stuart Blackton’s lost silent film from that year is patently absurd. William Shakespeare’s text towers over all as the key source.

So we have that sorted then. A remake is a film derived solely from an earlier cinematic source. A movie adapted from the same novel or play as another movie is something else altogether. We can retire that erroneous use of the word, climb up on our high horse and ride off into pedants’ heaven.

‘Based on’

Steady there, pardner. If only the bore’s life were so easy. What about a film such as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho? Both that 1998 oddity and Alfred Hitchcock’s more distinguished shocker are credited as being “based on” Robert Bloch’s schlocky horror novel of the same name. But the Van Sant film works from Joseph Stefano’s script for Hitchcock and – though it is not quite the “shot-for-shot” remake often claimed – offers variations on the earlier work’s visual aesthetics. The film is derived more from Hitchcock than it is from Bloch. It would require tortuous semantic convolutions to forbid use of the r-word in its vicinity. See also films such as Total Recall (2012) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) that retain the titles of earlier films named differently to the ultimate source material. Get in the remake bin.

Nobody producing a film of Everybody Comes to Rick's, the then-unproduced play upon which Casablanca is based, can reasonably expect to escape accusations (if that is the word) of remaking the Michael Curtiz classic. If the "original" is little more than a hill of beans then you had better prepare for that indignity. A complex formula involving several variables – the source's distinction, how much is retained from earlier adaptations – dictates whether or not the word "remake" is appropriate.


This we can say in advance. Steven Spielberg’s imminent West Side Story should not be thus described. Since the musical arrived on Broadway, it has been revived countless times in numerous theatre districts. None of those productions has been dubbed a “remake” of the one that opened in the Winter Garden Theatre 64 years ago. So Spielberg should get his crack at the old warhorse without being accused (still not sure if that is the word) of remaking the film that won the best picture Oscar in 1962. His War of the World’s wasn’t a remake either. Nor was The BFG. Always was a different matter.