Sometime during the last decade, “remake” became a decidedly dirty word for movie audiences. Depending on whom you ask, either the greed or the laziness of Hollywood’s major studios caused this transformation, and judging by the eagerness with which Disney/Marvel scavenges and appropriates its Hulks and web-slingers, I’m inclined to declare the source a mixture of both. The remake’s attendant cynicism causes understandable anxiety among film buffs when Hollywood executives start tossing around the “R-word” (remake) in relation to classic movies. We gnash our teeth, flail our arms in desperation, and annoy our loved ones with clichéd gripes: “A Ben-Hur remake? No one asked for that!” or “Old Boy in English, and by Spike Lee? No one in Hollywood has anything original left to say!” Yet in our wailing we forget that not all remakes are created equal. Sometimes, a remake transcends its source material and delivers a richer experience the second (or third) time around.
Of course, American audiences are culturally predisposed to favor the original because we often conflate originality with individuality. However, as author Jonathan Lethem once argued, there are no more new stories, only new ways to tell old stories. We do not valorize classic films like Ben-Hur simply because they happened first. Rather, we celebrate these films because they excited or engaged us the first time we saw them, and a fresh version – albeit with a similar plot – may excite us in new ways. An effective remake re-situates the themes and characters within the distinct socio-cultural milieu of its contemporary audience. Indeed, a great remake does not simply “re-make,” but rather re-imagines, and in doing so, exceeds its own humble foundation. Here are four films that surpass their originals, and may yet redeem the lowly status of the dreaded “r-word.”
1. 'Casino Royale' (2007)
This reboot of the James Bond series dispensed with the silly gadgetry and moon bases that had turned the venerable franchise into a caricature of itself. Instead, the new version of 1967's Casino Royale delivered a gritty, terse spy-thriller that traded world-ending plots for believable terrorist schemes. Moreover, Daniel Craig's performance in the iconic role — even with his sacrilegious blond hair — eclipsed expectations as he imbued Bond with both the requisite charisma and also an emotional vulnerability unique to the series. For the first time, James Bond became less opaque and more believable, and both audiences and critics responded enthusiastically.
2. 'The Fly' (1986)
Perhaps no other genre cannibalizes its progenitors as often as horror —remakes are practically de rigueur for horror filmmakers. Yet even a director as visionary as David Cronenberg caused some head-scratching when he opted to helm the remake of 1958's The Fly, which many critics considered an ideal horror film. However, Cronenberg's unmistakable production design and visual effects combined perfectly with Jeff Goldblum's dynamic performance, resulting in one of TIME's greatest films ever produced.
3. 'Insomnia' (2002)
Before he set to rebooting a certain other dark detective, Christopher Nolan directed this remake of a 1997 Norwegian film, which featured Al Pacino as an investigator with his own troubling secrets. Far from being just another appropriation of a well-made foreign film, Insomnia benefits from Nolan's brooding cinematography and bravura performances from Robin Williams and Al Pacino — perhaps the last of their respectively flagging careers. Nolan keeps the noir trappings of the original film, but adds enough of his (now) trademark psychological realism to make Insomnia feel singular and fresh.
4. 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964)
No list of remakes would be complete without mentioning A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in Sergio Leone's "The Man With No Name" trilogy. As befits a movie about a rogue gunman, Leone essentially stole the plot of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo without asking for permission, secured a modest budget, cast a no-name American actor in the lead role (who Italian-speaking Leon couldn't communicate with) and proceeded to redefine the Western film genre. The cinematography and score are as operatic and thoughtful as the violence and moral ambiguity are unflinching. Beside launching one of the most prolific actors and directors of all time, A Fistful of Dollars serves as a reminder that remakes need not be derivative retreads of past films. Instead, a remake should aspire to be culturally distinct and aesthetically unique. If a movie achieves these lofty ambitions, then it may earn "classic" status, and film critics will foam at the mouth at the mere suggestion of remaking it.
But film critics are often wrong.
Did I miss any remakes you love? Share in the comments.