The first look at Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was released by iTunes on Wednesday. The Avengers is reigning at the box office. Men in Black III, the latest installment of the Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones comedies, is set to hit theaters this Friday.
Why does Hollywood produce the same movies over and over? The film industry may hope to rake in millions by remaking a hit, and audiences certainly love hearing the same stories. But the real magic of remakes is that they reinvent the past. First, they give a fresh interpretation to an old story, a strategy that entertains in itself. But they also give a “revived” nostalgic experience, providing familiarity, but eliminating any wistful longing for the dead and distant past by putting forth a more modern interpretation.
Quintessential American classics, whether The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, resonate not only for their artistic achievements but also for the way they capture an earlier time in our national narrative. No matter when they are made, movie versions of these classics will always say something about who we have been and who we have become as a nation. For example, as a portrait of pre-Depression America, the new Gatsby may be particularly popular from today's audience, which has just passed a pre-recession era of more plentiful consumption and wealth and now may be questioning the American Dream.
The appeal of remakes is that they’re different with each production. The Fitzgerald novel has been made into motion pictures three times before -- in 1926, in 1949, and most famously with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in 1974 -- with different directors, actors, cinematography, and overall experience. Luhrmann, a bold, lyrical, often controversial director, is bound to provide a unique interpretation. Audiences can find comfort in a familiar storyline while experiencing a fresh take on the novel.
The Avengers takes a similar approach of reinvention. It brings together several Marvel superheroes for the ultimate task of saving the Earth from takeover by an outsider. It reunites the audience with old characters facing a new situation.
Ten years after the last MiB film, Men in Black III reminds audiences that a decade has passed, but comforts them by showing that nothing has changed. Once again, the two leads have to time travel and fight aliens. To save his partner-in-crime Agent K from a murder, Will Smith is sent to the early 1960’s, as if making Smith young again. Tommy Lee Jones, as if he would depress an aging audience as a 65-year old Agent K running around with a laser gun, shares screen time with the handsome Josh Brolin, who plays a young Agent K. We see these familiar, older actors as their younger selves facing the same problems, stirring nostalgia without having to recognize that time has passed.
Grainy, silent, black and white films satisfy our cultural and social necrophilia and remind us of how much distance separates us from the past. Remakes, on the other hand, let us see the past come alive again and closes such distance. Ultimately, they demonstrate how reinterpreted plots and characters can offer something fresh, yet familiar to new audiences.