Posted on by Scott Delahunt

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with Serdar about remakes, specifically, why remake a work when the result winds up being the same. This got me to thinking about the nature of a remake. Serdar’s thoughts can be seen on his blog, and are well worth reading on their own, too.

What is the purpose of the remake? Sure, at some point, it’s “make money”. Beyond that, why remake? Is there a new interpretation to explore? Is the focus changing to a different character? Or, as in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, a shot for shot remake? Lost in Translation has looked at many adaptations and remakes. One could argue that an adaptation is just a remake in a different medium. In this case, though, the purpose is to interpret the original work in a new medium. Look at the number of books adapted as movies and television series. Just the going through the book and finding the key scenes alone means that someone is already creating a new interpretation. When remaking in the same medium, a new interpretation is needed.

Compare the two Battlestar Galactica TV series. The original was space opera, coming on the heels of Star Wars, telling the tale of a ragtag band of refugees of worlds lost to killer robots. The remake’s twist on the original was to remove the space opera. The remake took a hard look at the needs of maintaining the human race in a hostile environment while still being chased by the exterminators. The original, there was hope that humanity would survive, even if the discovery of Earth wasn’t shown.* The remake, on the other hand, kept a close track of the number of survivors, and an increase was a major point of celebration; humanity’s survival wasn’t certain. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Psycho remake was shot for shot the same. There was nothing new that an audience couldn’t get from the original. That’s a danger; if a remake gets audiences to go back to the original and not see the new version, something has gone wrong. Something to remember – novels don’t get remade, just reissued. There’s little point for an author copying an existing story word for word. At most, an author will revise a story to reflect changes in the real world.

What types of remakes are possible, then? I’ve grouped a few, and these may not be comprehensive or completely exclusive ways, but I’ve added examples to try to make things clearer.

Shot for Shot Remake: Like it says on the tin, the remake redoes the original work using the same approach. If the original work is an older movie filmed in black and white, the new version may just add colour. Once again, Psycho is the best example. Unless a great deal of time has passed between the original work and the remake, most people will prefer the original.

Remake with a Twist: This sort of remake changes something in the original, whether it is the main character, the setting, or the mood, among many other elements. This sort of remake doesn’t need to be “official”. An example of changing the setting is The Magnificent Seven, a Western take on The Seven Samurai. The seven ronin (masterless samurai) become gunslingers in the remake, thus changing expectations of the characters. Battlestar Galactica is a great example of a change in mood, plus changes in characters.

Remake Continuation: Instead of remaking the original work, the remake continues from where the original left off. Usually, the new work acknowledges what has happened before. Best example of this is Star Trek: The Next Generation, which advanced the timeline of the Star Trek universe to show how the voyages of the USS Enterprise has affected the galaxy. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek could fit here, too, except instead of continuing, it fills in details of the characters before they were first seen in the original series.

Cross-media Remake: Usually called an adaptation, this is when a work in one medium is adapted for another. Typically, the path is from long-form (novels, television series) to short-form (movies, video games**). Sometimes, though, a movie will be adapted as a TV series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and there are the rare novels that go beyond being just a tie-in to a TV series.

As I mentioned, these are not exclusive. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek falls under both Remake with a Twist and Remake Continuation. The animated film Gnomeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s*** Romeo and Juliet only done with garden gnomes, covers Remake with a Twist/ (they’re garden gnomes!) and Cross-media Remake (animated garden gnomes!).

What does this mean for people hoping to remake a work? At a minimum, figure out what you want to do with the work. Few people are going to want to see a shot-for-shot remake*** when the original is still around. There needs to be a reason for the remake to exist. Otherwise, why bother?

Next week, superhero universes and adaptations, on the road to The Avengers Adaptation.

* Galactica 1980 is being ignored here, for many reasons.
** Some video games. Video gaming is turning into its own creative endeavor. See the works of Bioware and Bethesda as examples.
*** The Bard may be an exception to the problems of a shot-for-shot remake. Filming one of Shakespeare’s plays usually requires staying true to the original script. Anything else is just an adaptation.
**** No, I meant three stars. The previous footnote still applies.

  • One version of #2 that I’m going to be taking a close look at is the upcoming Japanese remake (!) of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (!!), starring Ken Watanabe (!!!). Many aspects of the original map very nicely to Japan’s feudal era, just as the latter mapped to the former for “Magnificent Seven.” Plus, the caliber of the talent all around indicates it’ll be at least a respectful production.

    Another example of #2 which didn’t work at all was a remake of “Rashōmon” (in Japan, no less), which tried to rework the conceit in what might best be described as a “Usual Suspects” fashion. It didn’t work — not just because the original is such a strong movie (, but because everything added to it only distracted us from the central concerns of the original. The subjectivity of truth and the subjectivity of identity might well be mashed up as topical concerns for the same film, but this wasn’t it.

  • Gotta mention Douglas Adams here. “Hitchhiker’s Guide” has been a radio drama. A series of books. A TV series. A movie. But it’s not just cross media, he put in different things each time (like the Vogon homeworld in the movie). Except some parts ARE shot for shot (or read verbatim from the book). And for continuation, we have the tagline “the fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy”. It’s been said he was never quite satisfied with the end result.

    Extending beyond that, one could argue that authors (and creators) are constantly trying to remake their own material… or that of others (fanfic?). And what makes that sort of thing popular likely relates to the same breakdown.

    • Scott D

      You forgot the HHGG interactive text game, which Adams also worked on. But would you say changing the medium with each version also means that something different was done to the story? What works for a TV series doesn’t work for a radio play (no visuals) or a movie (less time available).

      Good point there. I haven’t delved into the nature of sequels at all, nor on similar stories from the same author (Louis Lamour has worked with the same theme in the same genre many times, f’rex). Fanfic is a whole new kettle of fish, too.

      • I would agree, actually. That’s partially my feeling on why video game adaptations of films shouldn’t stay strictly in line with the film version, since what works in a linear storytelling model (I just want to sit back and be taken for a ride) may not work as well in a somewhat non-linear model (I want to actively engage the content). That doesn’t mean that the content has to step outside of continuity, just that the team shouldn’t be shackled by a true-to-form (if that’s the right phrase) adaptation of the source material.

    • He actually said that himself. He mentioned in an interview that the end was depressing and he didn’t like ending such a lighthearted series with all the characters ending up erased from history, so he would like to go back and write another one and give them all happy endings.

  • I’m a little surprised that the Wizard of Oz wasn’t mentioned in this post, with the endless “reimaginings” and the botched continuity. Perfect example of a time when cross-media and remakes go horribly wrong.

    • Scott D

      It didn’t occur to me as I was writing. The Wizard of Oz gets odd – the popular perception of the setting comes from the movie with Judy Garland, not the books by Baum. It looks like “Oz, the Great and Powerful” is following the movie continuity. I’ll need to spend time poking apart the Oz books and movies at some point.

      • I think they’re pulling from both – the “ruby slippers” were trademarked or copyrighted so they pulled the silver slippers from the books. They’re also basing the Wicked Witch more on the book than the movies for a similar reason (they have her appearance in the film so tightly trademarked that any Wicked Witch from now on cant have a wart…)

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