Remake Angst

Because of a planned essay on movie adaptations–I’ll be a little more specific about details in a few weeks–I’ve been thinking rather broadly about the concept of making and remaking texts.  Although adaptations and remakes perform vastly different tasks–one reinterprets a text, often a novel or comic book, into a different medium while the other reworks an older film–there are similarities between the two practices, especially when it comes to fan or audience reactions.  Both are reinterpreting an “original” (or at least prior) text, and both risk alienating audiences who don’t wish to have their experience of that prior text tarnished.

With that in mind, I’ve been fascinated by the response to two announced remakes.  The first, a new reboot of the Planet of the Apes films, seems to have been met with relative indifference.  This could be due to the fact that the most recent “re-make,” Tim Burton’s 2001 version, was less than popular with audiences and critics.  Or it could be that the Planet of the Apes transmedia world is relatively expansive–including novels, TV series, and multiple sequels.

But the other announced remake, a reworking of the 1981 Dudley Moore-Liza Minnelli film Arthur, has been received with varying degrees of panic and righteous indignation. One frequently retweeted comment complains, “*head desk* They are going to remake ARTHUR. That’s it. Just shut Hollywood down. It’s over for them!”  Karina Longworth (who is one of the few people who has expressed curiosity about the remake) cites a commenter on Nikki Finke’s blog, angrily denouncing the remake plans: “Of all the remakes, this is the most blasphemous of all. This is worse than remaking Casablanca.” A second commenter agrees, adding (with an odd echo of the McCarthy hearings), “This remake is a complete travesty and I hope it dies a gruesome death in a money pit abyss (altho clearly Rusty and Greta aren’t costing much). A complete insult to all involved in the original, particularly the late Steve Gordon. Shame on everyone working on this remake. Have you no sense of decency?”

To be honest, I don’t have strong feelings about the original Arthur film.  The performances are relatively charming, but the film’s glib treatment of Arthur’s alcoholism is sometimes cringe-inducing.  Like Karina, I’m happy to see Greta Gerwig, one of the strongest talents to come out of the Mumblecore movement, getting more work, and given her performance in Greenberg, I think she’ll handle the “poor girl from Queens role” nicely.  But the outrage over remaking here seems oddly disproportionate, especially given that most of the commenters at Finke’s site likely haven’t watched Arthur in a decade.

Part of what fascinates me about these reactions is the degree to which they talk about how Hollywood is bereft of ideas, illustrating this point with increasingly absurd and presumably sacrilegious remake ideas, culminating with a commenter asking, “What’s next, a new “Citizen Kane” in 3D with a CGI-ed Orson Wells speaking with an Australian accent?” I think I’d actually pay to see that movie, actually.  I’m certainly prey to mild ambivalence over remakes, especially when they tangle with my popular culture nostalgia, but for an industry that is almost entirely based on remaking, reworking, and reimagining older texts and ideas, I don’t quite understand why the Arthur remake isn’t being treated as business as usual.

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