They Remade THAT?!?

I saw “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” on Wednesday, the Tim Burton directed version of the Roald Dahl book. But to the bulk of the viewing public this film is seen as a remake of the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. I thought the new film was very good, a nice re-imagining of the story, and new visual effects means even more outrageous visions of each bratty child’s end. But no matter how much you want to separate the two films, make them separate entities that should be graded on their own merits, we the viewing public can’t do it. Especially with a film like “Willy Wonka”, that has become a part of the entertainment culture for my generation, the reaction against the film can be particulary cruel.

The 1971 film is a great film, that owes almost all of its staying power to Gene Wilder’s monumental performance. Personally, as a young child, the movie scared the crap out of me – pure nightmare fuel. Those orange-faced OompaLoompas, with their creepy voices and creepy singing and creepy stiff dancing, sent me out of the room every time they appeared onscreen. But still, the movie was colorful, and had sophisticated moments for the adults and silly visual gags for the children.

Burton’s “Charlie” was an attempt to retell the story as it appears in the book. The 70’s version was about commerce, however: The filmmakers were interested in tying in the movie with a line of Wonka-branded candy. The filmmakers changed the story to suit a “film-friendly” plot. And, most significantly, Dahl, the author, did not endorse the film, feeling it diverted from his vision. The new film was made with the cooperation of Dahl’s widow, and the filmmakers wanted to keep the onscreen vision in line with Dahl’s story. This alone moves this film away from a simple remake to a re-imagining, and to me requires assessment beyond a simple comparison. But I started to think about movies today, and just how many are remakes.

I’m going to limit this discussion to remakes of films, not adaptations of books, comics, or television (that could be a whole ‘nother discussion!). What puzzles me is the desire of filmmakers to take a previously released film, especially a film that was very entertaining
or acclaimed, and remake that instead of attempting something original. Have filmmakers become that bereft of originality that this is a viable option? Are studios needing to put out movies regardless if it brings nothing new to the cinema scene? Or are we as the moviegoing public willing to allow this cultural cannibalism?

Sometimes its tough to make a value judgment against all remakes as a class. There have been the remakes that, in my opinion, have genuinely improved on the original. Case in point, the 2003 version of the 1969 film “The Italian Job”. I saw the new version without any prior knowledge of the original, and thought it was a fun popcorn-chomper. But in the interest of equal time I then saw the original. While different in plot, the older version was the textbook, clinical definition of “period piece”. Late sixties “grooviness” oozed from every frame of this film, and its dialogue and acting wasn’t that good (in my opinion). This was a rare case where a remake was better than the original.

But as for bad remakes, they abound. The 1975 morality/social commentary film draped in an action story, “Rollerball”, was remade in 2002. The original was about conformity, a commentary on how society crushes the individual and his accomplishments to keep the masses under control. It also commented on the “Roman Coliseum” atmosphere of modern sports in the television era: Do whatever it takes to stay on top with fame, money, and women, even at the expense of your own morals. The new version is about a loud, ultra violent game, nothing more (and with a car chase…what the?). That is a reason this movie flopped, but the real crime was that a studio committed $70 million to it. A handful of creative-minded directors could have created a half-dozen original concepts that most likely would’ve done well enough to recoup that kind of investment.

How about some others:

  • “Godzilla”, a 1998 big budget remake with strange plot holes and a non-engaging story, made all the more unpalatable by the absurd amount of hype.
  • “Psycho” was released in 1998, a frame-for-frame remake of the Hitchcock classic. The simple reply is, why? If the original was that good, what is the point of remaking it, especially if remade EXACTLY the same!
  • “The Bad News Bears” is being released this year, a remake of the genuine classic from 1976. This is a good example of a pointless remake since the original was so good and holds such a fond place in people’s memories. I suppose an argument for this remake is “for a new generation”. But kids playing little league are still kids playing little league, and today’s kids will still relate.
  • “Flight of the Phoenix” was released in 2004, but to my surprise I learned it was a remake of a 1965 film starring James Stewart. I had the opportunity to see it and found the film to be very entertaining and engaging, with memorable characters. I have not yet seen the remake, so I will hold judgment on it (the reviews I’ve seen were mixed). Could it have been successfully remade? Possibly, since the original leaves many opportunities to extend the base story. But the original was very good, and we could have lived without a remake.

Probably the point I’m making is that remakes can be good, provided that there is a means to remake it into something unique. Or if the film that shares a title and plot with a classic does the work to differentiate it as something separate from the original (such as Burton’s “Charlie…”). But these days there seems to be more a move to cash in on the goodwill of an original for the sake of making a blockbuster film, or to exploit effects at the expense of what made the original great.

But my greatest fear is the desire will become too great for Hollywood, and true classics of film will become grist for the remake mill. Today’s environment of “splash sells” makes this reality all too plausible. Could some fool remake “Lawrence of Arabia” as a vanity piece for the acting flavor of the month with millions in digital effects? Will there be a green light for the “modern adaptation” of “Citizen Kane”, targeting some modern-day mogul as the original caricatured William Randolph Hearst? Or could Bogey and Astor be replaced with Brad and Angelina in a “hip” realization of the 1941 John Huston noir classic “Maltese Falcon” directed by Michael Bay (complete with slow motion explosions)?

Hey, there’s a remake this year of the horrifically bad 1979 movie “Parts: the Clonus Horror” called “The Island”. Anything’s possible.


  1. Squiggy says:

    Kill me when they remake “The Thin Man.” Because they would never allow that much boozing on-screen.

  2. DaveHo says:

    Squiggy says:

    Kill me when they remake “The Thin Man.” Because they would never allow that much boozing on-screen.

    I agree that in our PC-world you couldn’t show people having fun while cranking down that much booze. I believe a remake would be two young people “high on life” who share snappy dialogue and do Benny Hill-esque double takes. Not the same at all…