In a time when a diverse, thought-provoking movie like Everything Everywhere All at Once wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and a studio like A24 consistently releases fresh genre films, audiences still love to complain about remakes.
Yes, there are objectively a lot of rehashed stories being promoted these days. Sometimes they’re major flops, but we can admit, if begrudgingly, that not all remakes are terrible. And even if they are, they still pull in millions at the box office, so they’re not going anywhere.
A 2019 survey shows that remakes are negatively reviewed in comparison to the original at least 90% of the time. It’s an inevitable downside to opting for a remake, reimagining, reboot, requel, revamp, and any other “re” you can use to identify something unoriginal. But why do some work and others don’t?
Defining a Remake
What are the differences between reboots, requels, and remakes? While these terms are often interchangeable, they do have distinct elements.
Reboots hit the reset button on an ongoing series/franchise, like Jurassic World and Star Wars. This is especially popular in the superhero genre with a seemingly endless amount of source material to continue various franchises and cinematic universes. Plus, both DC and Marvel have introduced the multiverse, meaning they can have as many iterations of Batman (The Flash) and Spider-Man (No Way Home) as they want in one movie.
Some reboots have almost moved into requel, or legacy sequel, territory. The best recent examples are Scream and Scream VI. Instead of rebooting the entire franchise, the filmmakers at Radio Silence continued the established storyline that began in 1996. They even have a film buff character Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) who explains the concept of requels and requel sequels. “See, you can’t just reboot a franchise from scratch anymore. The fans won’t stand for it,” Mindy tells everyone. “It has to be part of an ongoing storyline, even if that story should never have been going on in the first place. New main characters, yes, but supported by, and related to, legacy characters.”
Reasons for Remakes
Remakes and reimaginings keep the central plot of the original but change some aspects such as the location, period, genders, ethnicities, ages, tone, or genre. Other than making money, there are different reasons behind remakes. A common one is updating a film for modern times, which often means using technological advances and SFX.
Perhaps the most common reason remakes exist is that studios capitalize on nostalgia. We all know that Disney puts out more remakes than anyone, and with a vast archive of animated classics, they won’t stop anytime soon. They’ve released almost 20 live-action remakes since 2010 and there are at least 10 in the near future. The best Disney remakes have more characterization (Aladdin), improve other underdeveloped aspects of the original story (Cinderella), and/or take advantage of modern technology (The Jungle Book). However, the least liked Disney live-action retellings usually flop due to the film staying too true to the source material (The Lion King), failing to capture the heart/spirit of the original (Alice in Wonderland), and/or overcomplicating the story (Dumbo).
Another reason to remake something is to tell a story from a different perspective, whether it’s a female character in place of a male or a minority in place of a white character. And while these changes are prevalent, they usually don’t go over so well with audiences. In 2016, Paul Feig’s gender-swapped flop Ghostbusters caused quite a stir among fans of the original. A lot of the backlash was largely rooted in misogyny, but creating a different universe where the OG characters don’t exist left a bad taste even if the actors made cameos as other characters. Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife was more favorably received in 2021 because it was a requel involving the original cast and characters.
The early 2000s saw a surge of Americanized films and television series originating from other countries. In the TV world, shows like The Office, based on the UK series of the same name, were a success. But some just didn’t translate well in the U.S. like Skins, Kath & Kim, The IT Crowd, and Coupling.
With the rise of streaming, we’re given access to a massive amount of international television and American versions aren’t necessary. Several have prospered with U.S. audiences. Just look at Squid Game (South Korea), Élite (Spain), Lupin (France), Dark (Germany), Money Heist (Spain), Peaky Blinders (UK), Derry Girls (UK), and an endless amount of quality Korean dramas.
Horror fans will remember the onslaught of remakes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2005 alone, there was The Amityville Horror, House of Wax, Dark Water, The Fog, and 2001 Maniacs. But being an Americanized or modernized take doesn’t always negatively affect the film’s reception.
Gore Verbinski’s English-language version of The Ring, a 2002 remake of Japan’s Ringu, became a horror classic despite not being an original story, which can be credited to Verbinski’s style and Naomi Watts’ lead performance. John Carpenter’s The Thing is so iconic that many people don’t know it’s a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World, which itself is based on a novella from 1938.
More recently, Andy Muschietti’s IT and IT: Chapter 2 set records at the box office. The massive success stems from not only the incredible cast and visuals but the decision to split the notoriously long Stephen King storyline into two parts, giving us time to connect with the Losers Club and their adult counterparts. In 2020, audiences turned out for Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man which wasn’t anything like the 1933 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ 1897 novel. Instead, the film was about the very real horror of domestic abuse.
But then there are the horror remakes that tanked, like 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street — quite the failure. For one, Freddy Kreuger was played by Jackie Earle Haley, who is a brilliant actor but he’s not Robert Englund. The reimagined story was much darker, which didn’t sit right with fans because it was too different.
In contrast, Gus Van Sant’s 1998 almost short-for-shot remake of Psycho was panned for being a pointless, miscast carbon copy (among other things). However, over the decades, some people look back on it as a fascinating piece of art that Van Sant has freely called an experiment. In a 2018 interview, he explained, “It was more that during the ’90s the joke about the executives was that they would rather make a sequel than they would an original piece because there was less risk.”
Just like other genres, horror has embraced requels and reboots. Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy (and his upcoming installment of The Exorcist), and of course, Scream aren’t considered remakes. The new stories exist in the same universe as the originals and past characters usually have some connection to new characters.
Remakes aren’t inherently bad but it’s almost become a detriment if it’s a known property. It will be seen as another recycled idea, and many people won’t even give it a chance. However, you can’t argue with money and remakes are certainly profitable.
Though existing IP can seem like a safe bet, remaking anything is a risk. It will always be compared to the original, favorably or unfavorably, and how much it sticks to the original story decides its fate among fans as does whether it brings anything new to the table. You can’t change too much without upsetting loyal fans but sticking too closely to the original renders the remake pointless. In other words, they’re ultimately hit or miss.
A good remake usually improves something from the original, whether it’s dated concepts (2019’s Little Women), lack of diversity (2019’s The Little Mermaid), or problematic depictions (2021’s West Side Story). If the audience can sense the only reason that this remake exists is simply to cash in, it’s a detriment. The filmmaker needs to care and have something to offer the retelling or else it falls flat.
With creators like Ari Aster, the Daniels, Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, Mike Flanagan, Bong Joon-ho, Greta Gerwig, and Julia Ducournau, just to name a few, working today, audiences should feel at ease knowing original ideas are still making their way to theaters and streaming platforms. Hollywood isn’t out of ideas. It’s just afraid to take risks.
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Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known for film, television, and pop culture analysis which has appeared on Black Girl Nerds, WatchMojo, Mental Floss, and The Take. She loves naps, Paul Rudd, and binge-watching the latest series with her two gorgeous pups – Harry and DeVito.