When Is a Remake Not a Remake?

I think it comes down to what kind of an emotional attachment one has to the original. I have to admit that although I liked the 1969 version of True Grit, having seen it at the drive-in when I was a kid and several times since on television, I don’t have strong feelings about it.

I do understand, however, that those who have a particular fondness for The Duke would not want to see his legacy tampered with, and I am, in general, not a fan of remaking the classics. My first question is always, ‘why?’ Are there no new stories left to tell?  The counter argument could then be made that “there is nothing new under the sun.” If that were true, then okay, tell an old story in a fresh and original way.  I cannot understand why it was thought to be a good idea to remake, line-by-line and scene-by-scene, Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. Was it just because they thought the world needed this film to be in color? That’s worse than Ted Turner’s misguided, and thankfully short-lived, plan to systematically colorize all of the classic black and white films in the Turner catalog. (Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.) I can only guess at the hallucinogens shared by director Gus Van Sant and the studio execs who backed that travesty.:What monumental hubris to think that they could do it better than Hitchcock.

I generally find appalling the xenophobic trend Hollywood is following of scavenging foreign markets for good films to bastardize by remaking them in English with actors known to American audiences.  What’s worse, they almost always end up being inferior to the original.

Was it really necessary to redo the Swedish Let the Right One In a mere two years after its release? Chloe Moretz is an extremely talented child actor, but surely something else could have been found for her to do, other than Let Me In, before Scorsese was ready for her closeup? (By the way, she’s in his next film, Hugo Cabret.)  The remakes of the three Swedish films based on Stieg Larsen’s acclaimed books, the second and third of which have just hit American theaters this fall, are already underway with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and an all-star cast.  While I think Daniel Craig will make an excellent Mikail Blomqvist, I enjoyed Michael Nyqvist’s performance in the original and I really can live without seeing Craig’s.  An Academy Award for Best Foreign Film virtually guarantees an American remake. Example: The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant German winner from 2006 is currently in development, according to imdb.Pro.

Granted, the notion of remakes is not new. It’s been happening for almost as long as there have been films. There have even been directors who have remade themselves, like Alfred Hitchcock who made two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, one in 1934 and another in 1956. Twenty years is about a generation. Many who saw the Jimmy Stewart version may not have been aware of the British version with Leslie Banks and Peter Lorre (especially since this was before the advent of television, the medium by which most of us cut our teeth on ‘old’ films.) So does the acceptability of a remake have to do with the passage of time?  A new version of Easy Virtue was released in 2009. Hitchcock’s came out in 1928 (and it’s not one of his more beloved films, although not many saw the new one either.) My question is: Was it the 81 years in between the two versions or the fact that both films were based on a play by Noel Coward that allows them to coexist?

There are many films that I would immediately be up in arms about if they were to be remade. Hell, I’m not at all happy that it was decided that 1981’s Arthur, featuring a timeless performance by the late Dudley Moore, was ripe for the picking.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Helen Mirren. I adore her and everything she stands for and I’m sure Russell Brand will be appropriately funny, but I’m not looking forward to this. Indeed, unless forced, I probably will not see it. The trailer better knock my socks off. And it could well be my own fondness for Arthur, but I see a difference between the remaking of it and this year’s True Grit.

The former is based on an original screenplay, the latter on a classic novel.

I can hear eyes rolling from here, and I know what you’re thinking: “How would you feel if they decided to remake Gone With the Wind, also based on a ‘classic’ novel?”  Are you kidding?!  I’d hate it, plain and simple. There is no scenario I can think of that would make that acceptable. Fortunately, I think GWTW is one of those rare films that is in a “protected class.”  There are a few I can think of, such as The Godfather or the original Star Wars Trilogy. Of course, that could just be wishful thinking. The Hollywood machine must be fed and it may eventually come for the pantheon of untouchables.

I can imagine that Clark Gable (or even Charles Laughton) fans were not happy when Marlon Brando and company remade Mutiny on the Bounty.  Brando fans were probably up in arms about the Mel Gibson version, however, time having created distance between each versionI would argue that there is room in the canon for all three versions.

It is JMHO that the new True Grit is an old story told in a new way. It is based more closely on Charles Portis’ book than the 1969 version directed by Henry Hathaway and of course starring the inimitable John Wayne. It is not so much a remake of that movie as it is another interpretation of the source material. The 2010 version is based on a screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen, who relied on the novel as their source. They did  NOT rely on the screenplay of Marguerite Roberts who also, however nominally, used the novel as a source. So, technically, can it be called a remake?

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I haven’t read the script for either version, but I can only imagine how tempered and watered down the one written in 1969 was, simply because of the era in which it was conceived. The Coens’ version went for ‘true’ or real ‘grit’ if you’ll pardon the pun. Everyone, with the exception of Mattie, looks filthy and like they probably smell worse. Many moons have certainly crossed the mountains between baths and dental hygiene had obviously not been introduced to the prairie yet, despite the appearance of a so-called ‘dentist’ in the 2nd reel

The dialogue has all of the wit and humor of Coen classics like Raising Arizona (Emmett and Moon reminded me of  Gale and Evelle Snoats) and Fargo, but with the formal and stilted vernacular of the 1880’s.  When was the last time you heard the word ‘braggadocio’ used in a conversation? There are no anachronistic colloquialisms or modern slang to jolt you out of the moment or clash with Carter Burwell’s authentic score.

The supporting performances are all authentic and spot on, from Leon Russom’s sheriff, J.K. Simmons voice-over as a country lawyer, to Barry Pepper’s Ned Pepper.  Josh Brolin is practically unrecognizable as Tom Chaney, including  his speech pattern.

Hailee Steinfeld is no Kim Darby. (Thank you! I can’t see her ever boiling bacon or giving John Cusack TV dinners for Christmas.) What a find. She’s phenomenal. From the moment she appears on screen, she commands it. The “grit” in the title does not belong to Cogburn as much as it does to her Mattie Ross.

Matt Damon as LeBoeuf gives a performance that we haven’t seen from him before. His verbal sparring with Mattie is a joy to watch and listen to. “Ay-dee-os”

Of course, the key to the success of the film is whether or not one buys Jeff Bridges as Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn.  The answer for me is yes, I did. His Rooster is so different from Wayne’s that it’s very easy to forget you’ve ever seen this character on screen before. I said the other day that I thought Jeff Bridges would do ‘irascible old coot’ very well and indeed he does. As a physical specimen, neither he nor the character are aging very well, but it works for the actor here.

This is ‘The Dude’ nearly twenty years on and with more than a vat load of ‘beverages’ under his belt and living in the much harsher environs of the Old West. But The Dude abides, and that’s all one needs to know.

There was one recreation of an iconic moment from the John Wayne version, and that was when Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn charges across the prairie to duel with Ned Pepper, his reins in his teeth and a gun blazing from each hand. It is my opinion that scene was recreated as a snapshot homage to The Duke and the 1969 film and the only time either Wayne or the earlier film are brought to mind.

So then do the objections have more to do with a classic John Wayne character being portrayed by another actor than the movie itself being remade? They must. I can’t imagine there are too many people worried about Glen Campbell or Kim Darby’s screen legacies.

If that’s the case, then I have to say that I at least understand the sentiment. I don’t want to see Russell Brand playing a character that, for me, is indelibly Dudley Moore’s, and I could not stomach anyone but Clark Gable playing Rhett Butler (and no, I did not watch the television miniseries. Timothy Dalton? Really?)

JMHO … the 2010 film is pure Coen Brothers, with little to no resemblance to the 1969 version…and I enjoyed it immensely.

and a 1/2 out of 5


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4 responses to “When Is a Remake Not a Remake?

  1. *rubs hands eagerly* Can’t Wait to See This!

    What a cast! Hoping this film comes to the hinterlands sooner rather than later — I’m looking forward to seeing Bridges and Damon in these roles.

    I don’t usually get torqued about remakes (exception: “Sabrina”, for God’s sake what was Harrison Ford thinking?!) and I think Mel Gibson was HAWT in “Mutiny 3”, but they had better NEVER — F*CKING EVER — touch GWTW!!! Fur will fly. Just sayin’.

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