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Film Discussions: The making of a remake

A Prophet Film Poster

With the news that Sony are set to remake the acclaimed French prison-drama A Prophet in what appears to be at first glance a risky and unnecessary move, it’s worth remembering that not all remakes are such a bad idea.

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In fact, A Prophet might turn out to be a decent film, or even a good one depending on the director, cast and what it tries to do. What offends some is not so much the actuality of a remake as much as the idea of one. It appears to offend their supposed moral compasses. And if this isn’t bad enough in certain cult or fan favourite films, then the mawkishness gets worse when it comes to cemented classics.

Only very recently have we seen the arrival of Bates Motel and Hannibal on television, taking on the immortalised characters of Psycho’s Norman Bates and The Silence of the Lambs’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter. But as we know, Hannibal has been in so many other forms and versions that he could almost rival James Bond in the reincarnation stakes. And Norman Bates, too, whether people choose to remember it or not, turned up in sequels throughout the 1980s and 90s in Psycho II, Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning as well as Gus Van Sant’s [experi]mental remake in 1998.

But it’s certainly the case that, percentage-wise, remakes don’t hit the spot all too often. This is particularly true given the lack of improvement in quality (if at all), particularly considering those that leave a small gap time-wise between original and update.  Was The Amazing Spider-Man really necessary given the similarities, and did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really supersede the Swedish film which arrived just two years previous to it?

And these remakes – particularly the problematic ones – tend to come from either the horror genre, or through making a foreign-language film “available” to an English audience [that refuses to read subtitles]. For every fresh foreign breakthrough – see  [REC] or Let the Right One In – there’s the remade version that follows and is inevitably a letdown (Quarantine, Let Me In).

And judging by the most recent news relating to A Prophet, the upcoming Carrie and Oldboy remakes, the Tell No One production and the ongoing Akira rumours, these aren’t going away anytime soon. As for English-language horror, the likes of The Last House on the Left, The Thing, Straw Dogs, Fright Night, Friday the 13th and Halloween demonstrate the output of the last few years alone.

Despite it all, though, there are some positives to take from the remake sub-genre, and this is why we shouldn’t necessarily write-off A Prophet, Carrie or Oldboy before we know any better, especially given the talent associated with them (Spike Lee, Chloe Moretz, etc.) Films like True Grit and The Departed are shining examples to filmmakers as to what remakes can offer when talent like the Coen Brothers or Martin Scorsese is involved, as well as reminding the audience that remakes and adaptations can work, even if it is rarely.

Furthermore, the recent resurgence in franchise rebirths is perhaps the best example of all when it comes to rejuvenation. Batman, Planet of the Apes, X-Men, James Bond, Star Trek and more are all huge hits spanning decades of fame and fortune and immortality, as well as numerous adaptations and interpretations. Recent output including Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Casino Royale, The Dark Knight Trilogy and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek proves that – despite the bad press – those that stick around long enough eventually find their feet well enough to provide a worthy second coming.

The most notable factor for those that do seem to work is that the style is sufficiently different as to adequately mark it as something nodding towards but ultimately distinct from the original. True Grit and many of the franchise films benefit from the gap in time between the original (or previous instalment) and the recent success story, whereas foreign-language films often fall down because their conversions can be lost in translation.

Another issue here is that the initial films – as hinted at above – are fresh, unique and are very good. Any attempt to replicate an already massive hit, particularly a recent one, is fighting a losing battle long before the filming (A Prophet being a great example). However, it can be done, as Scorsese’s The Departed took the pace and action of an already very worthy standalone film (Infernal Affairs) to good effect and added the required depth to make it almost an hour longer and truly his own (and yes, The Departed is comfortably the better film).

However, not even the brilliant David Fincher could draw creative blood from such a fresh stone, and his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was as uninspiring and dull in as many ways as the original was fresh and edgy. This lack of respite between the two releases is usually a warning sign ad is the reason why the news of A Prophet’s remaking – after its 2009 release – is a daunting task, and for many a scary thought.

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