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8 1/2 Remakes That are Better Than the Original

April 9, 2010

Remakes. Everyone seems to hate them, and you can’t swing a dead cat around Hollywood without hitting one. Clash of the Titans is the most recent entry in that quasi-genre that has film snobs clamoring for what they always seem to assume are the superior flicks of the past. But before you begin shaking your head at the next adaptation, re-imaging, or reboot of that one old film you probably never saw nor plan to, it might lift your spirits to take a look at some remakes that not only lived up to the original, but even improved on it.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Remake of The Front Page (1931)

I wanted to confine most of this list to more contemporary films, because a lot of the earlier Hollywood remakes were, oftentimes, superior to the originals, which were made at time when directors were first starting to discover the potential of film.

Still, His Girl Friday should be mentioned, because 1) It strayed from the original film and the play upon which both are based by changing one of the main characters to a woman, introducing a relationship subplot, and 2) It’s a really funny movie.

The premise is newsreporter Hildy Johnson has to prove the innocence of a cop killer who’s been sentenced to the gallows by enlisting the help of his tyrannical editor Walter Burns, who in turn is trying to derail Hildy’s wedding plans to keep his top man on staff. It’s a comedy.

Like I said, His Girl Friday takes it one step further by making Burns and Hildy ex-spouses who still have a bit of spark for each other. All three—the play, the original film, and Friday—are witty, fast-talking screwball comedies, but Friday is the headliner with Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy. Director Howard Hawks encouraged ad-libbing and oftentimes the repartee flies so fast and loose that the dialogue overlaps—an innovation that Robert Altman would make a staple of in his films some 30 years later.

Freaky Friday (2003)

Remake of Freaky Friday (1976)

While we’re on Fridays, this seems appropriate. Few people remember the time when Lindsey Lohan was a rising star and made some pretty decent movies—Mean Girls, A Prairie Home Companion, and, yeah, Freaky Friday, which actually was an okay flick. You can criticize it for the premise, plot, and a lot of other things, but what makes the movie work are Lohan (yes, Lohan) and Jamie Lee Curtis’ performances, which take a preposterous situation of  mother and daughter switching bodies and, somehow, make it plausible.

The original is pretty much your standard Disney by-the-book non-animated comedy. It’s not a bad film (no Darby O’Gill and the Little People nor quite Blackbeard’s Ghost), but it takes place in that magical land of Disney non-animated comedies where the greatest danger is not making it to the box social in time—and even if you don’t, the only who ends up suffering is Buddy Hackett, who slips in a puddle and gets mud on his best Sunday coveralls. Shucks. The 2003 version at least took some chances by putting its characters in a few believable real-life situations, giving the leads a bit more of a challenge than blowing up typewriters and waterskiing.

Heat (1995)

Remake of LA Takedown (1989)

Did you know Heat was a remake? Neither did I until I started making this list. In 1989 Michael Mann got to work on a TV movie called LA Takedown, which pit a weary cop against an aging master criminal planning his last big score. Through the course of their pursuit, the two come to admire each other’s dedication while their family lives gradually crumble.

Takedown was basically a trial run for Heat, and six years later Mann took the original script, a much larger budget, and coupled them with DeNiro and Pacino to make one of the premier police dramas of the ‘90s. He was also able to flesh out the characters a lot more and do justice to the complex personal versus professional dilemma that gives Heat a surprisingly deep heart.

Henry V (1989)

Remake of Henry V (1944)

My Shakespeare-in-cinema thesis may be retroactively disapproved for writing this, but I greatly prefer Kenneth Branagh’s bloody 1989 rendition to Laurence Olivier’s 1944 men-in-brightly-colored-tights epic about the celebrated English king who overcame staggering odds to recover the English crowns (albeit dubious) claim to France. (For that matter, I also prefer Richard Loncraine’s 1995 Richard III to Olivier’s and Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet to the 1948 Best-Picture Oscar winner, but they’re not so much remakes as separate adaptations.)

You can claim that Branagh’s is not a remake proper, but it did weigh considerably on his mind during production, taking a deliberately more violent tone and setting the prologue on a film set as opposed to the Globe Theatre. Olivier may be the better Henry, but in terms of film, Branagh’s attention to detail and grit places you right into the courts of England and amid the blood-soaked field of Agincourt. Not to dismiss the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan, but Branagh led the way nine years prior (though Welles and Kurosawa did it a few decades before).

Ocean’s 11 (2001)

Remake of Ocean’s 11 (1960)

The original is, let’s face it, a vehicle for the Rat Pack, and is full of self-congratulatory moments, nods, and winks to the group. Today it’s pretty dated and even lacks the kitschy, campy charm of dated ‘60s movies. It’s fun at times, but you can’t help wondering why there needed to be a movie of the Rat Pack, or at least one that cast them as gangsters robbing a series of Las Vegas casinos, they were fun enough on their own.

Soderbergh’s 2001 film keeps true to the original by also boasting a star cast (all of whom can act) and tongues in cheeks, but it’s an actual movie–not a swank setting for the cool kids to look around trying not to look cool. I find Clooney a bit more convincing as a master heist planner than Frank Sinatra.

Little Shop of Horrors (1985)

Remake of Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

As one of the less than 1 percent of movie lovers who’s actually scene Roger Corman’s 1960 film, I can say the only thing anyone’s going to remember it for is a cameo by a young Jack Nicholson. The rest is more of a curiosity (and Seymore dies at the end—[What? You’re not going to watch it]). Frank Oz’s 1985 musical, on the other hand, is a hilarious send-up of the 1950s with first-rate songs, the Rick Moranis performance to end all Rick Moranis performances (screw you, Honey I Shrunk the Kids), and, come on, Steve Martin as the dentist? Gold.

In fact, the casting should have warranted its own Oscar for the cameos alone—Martin, yeah, but also John Candy, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, and James Belushi. The chorus and Levi Stubbs are even better. And 25 years later, the puppetry for Audrey II is still mind-blowingly amazing. Broadway musical

Scarface (1983)

Remake of Scarface: Shame of a Nation (1932)

Howard Hawks 1932 film about the small-time hood who works his way up the ranks of organized crime only to have his empire come crumbling down with him is a classic, but DePalma’s 1983 is the one people will be watching for years to come. Few movies boast as many memorable scenes as the nightclub shootout, the image of F. Murray Abraham being hung from a helicopter, the mound of cocaine, “Say hello to my little friend!” and, of course, the chainsaw. With a script penned by Oliver Stone (who reportedly based the chainsaw scene on an actual incident), a dynamite cast, and Brian Depalma’s gritty direction, Scarface’s influence stretched beyond cinema, impacting music and video games as well. With a three-hour-plus running time, it hardly ever steps wrong, and that’s no little accomplishment, my friend.

The Thing (1982)

Remake of The Thing from Another World (1951)

Even if you love the 1951 sci-fi classic about an alien life form that terrorizes a snowbound research station—it was, after all, selected for preservation in the National Film Registry (the film, not the research station)—John Carpenter’s 1982 remake is the one everyone watches. While taking many of the elements from Howard Hawks’ original—the setting, the Creature’s vulnerability to fire—Carpenter kept true to the original story “Who Goes There?” by having the Creature take on the appearance of its victims, which added a chilling element of who-can-you-trust? suspense lacking in the original film.

Add to that a fantastic cast featuring a batshit-insane Wilford Brimley and Kurt Russell’s epic beard, Ennio “I did the music to The Good the Bad and the Ugly” Morricone’s score, and some of the gruesomest special effects ever seen, and few can argue that John Carpenter’s The Thing is just putting on the dog.

Honorable Mentions

To round out the list, I thought it might but good to include some films that may not have bettered their predecessors but are still damn strong on their own. If we could get more of these first-rate flicks, a lot more people’d welcome remakes with open arms.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Remake of Purple Noon (1960)

I can’t really say whether Anthony Minghella’s Taltented Mr. Ripley is better than René Clément’s French classic because I haven’t seen Purple Noon. But I have seen The Talented, and it’s a great movie. Both are based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and evidently stay true to Tom Ripley’s fascinatingly psychotic antihero (again, haven’t seen Purple, but I’ve read the book and can say that Damon’s performance nails it). Still, even if Clément’s film were Citizen Kane, Minghella’s thriller would hold its own.

Nosferatu (1979)

Remake of Nosferatu the Vampyre (1922)

It would take one German cinematic icon to live up the standard set by another some 55 years prior, and Werner Herzog’s remake does indeed capture the sheer hypnotic eeriness of F.W. Murnau’s landmark vampyre film. But while Max Schreck’s verminesque portrayal of Count Orlock is still a chilling image, Klaus Kinski almost goes him one better by somehow making the toothy bloodsucker a tragic character. Herzog’s film may not be as groundbreaking as Murnau’s, but in terms of pure cinematic power, it comes damned close.

So there you go. Hopefully this has given you more of a positive outlook on remakes—after all, they don’t all have to be bad, and simply because it’s been done before doesn’t mean that the older version is automatically the superior. If not, well then shut up and go watch some movies.


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3 Responses to “ 8 1/2 Remakes That are Better Than the Original ”

  1. Jackson on April 9, 2010 at 11:11 am

    good stuff Nat, nice to learn a thing or two about remakes that i had no idea were remakes.

  2. Pancake on April 18, 2010 at 7:08 am

    Such a great list Nat – I love The Thing so much and His Girl Friday is fantastic (wasn’t it remade again with Christopher Reeves and Kathleen Turner? I forget the title…)

    I saw Purple Noon a few months ago (Alain Delon, rrrooowwwrrrrrr!) and I would agree that Ripley is a better film – Purple Noon was good – and so pretty – though it all but ignored Tom’s homosexuality and suffered from s l o w pacing.

  3. Nat on April 18, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Somebody read this damn thing? Have you seen Le Samurai?