Posted on by Scott Delahunt

If you’ve been following this column long enough, you’ll have noticed that the main key to  a successful reboot, remake, or adaptation is respect for the original work. Sounds easy enough; make sure that the new work holds up to the expectations of the original. However, many remakes have failed because the new work treated the original badly. Today’s entry takes a look at the different means of failure.

In long running works, continuity builds up. History builds up over time, and, even in the original work, can only be ignored if there’s a reason. In an reboot or an adaptation, fans will expect the continuity to be there; the Internet will be aflame with news of breaks from canon within minutes of fans perceiving the miss. Continuity is a bugbear; even original works, such as comics, can see ignoring and even retconning* causing uproars.

Avoiding can be easy enough. Simplest way is to provide a new continuity. Remakes work well here as they are a retelling of the original story. Not everything can be handwaved away, but some minor changes may slip through unnoticed. Marvel’s Ultimate line was an attempt to essentially reboot the Marvel universe to get rid of decades of contradictory continuity. DC’s animated universe**, aka the Dini-verse***, was similar, creating a new setting to retell stories of classic titles but also allowing for new stories.

Another method is to set up the reason for the continuity break. Fantasy and science fiction have many ways to create alternate timelines, parallel universes, and slightly off dimensions. The Star Trek reboot created an alternate universe after the villain travelled back in time to destroy critical parts and people of the Federation.

Or, one can be blazen and just ignore the previous work altogether. What helps in a move like this is using an original that’s either obscure or already looked down upon. Also helping, having a solid cast with stellar writing. The new Battlestar Galactica went down this path; the original series was remembered by the general public as being not so serious. Taking the premise and treating it in a far more dramatic manner allowed the new Galactica to catch people’s attention.

Many failed remakes can be traced to treating the new work as first a vehicle for its star then as a proper adaptation. Often, the new work takes the premise of the original and turns it into a comedy, even if the premise wasn’t one to start. This creates a problem as fans of the original will get turned off by the idea of their old fandom being treated as a joke and fans of the star wondering what is going on in the story. The remakes of Starsky & Hutch and Land of the Lost are prime examples of the problem. However, the trend tends to remain with older television series.

Passage of Time
Sometimes, a work just doesn’t age well. History marches on. Technology evolves.  Humanity’s knowledge of the universe expands. Remakes of works set in an historical era can be updated to take into account new information. Remakes of works set in the future can take into account changes in today’s technology. Works set in the modern era may run into the tech curve hard, though. Cell phones can destroy many a sitcom; imagine if two people misunderstanding each other called each other to clear things up; now fill in the remaining twenty minutes.

Comedies aren’t immune, sitcom example above notwithstanding. The first episode of Get Smart started at the theatre, actors performing on stage. Then a phone rings. In the 60s, it just wasn’t possible to have a portable phone; the gag was funny when Max leaves to answer his shoe. Today? Not so funny; cell phones are a nuisance in theatres of all types.  However, the Get Smart remake movie acknowledged the old gadgets and used them in clever ways.

These aren’t the only ways to sabotage a remake. However, they are obvious when seen.  Other ways will be covered in later columns.

Next week, the technology curve.

* Retroactive continuity, or “No, really, it’s always been this way; we have no idea of what you’re talking about.”
** Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Justice League.
*** After Paul Dini, producer.

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