Let me start by noting that I’m sticking with genre remakes here. They’re what I know, and what I care about and have experience with. I can’t say if the American remake of some French sex comedy is superior to the original, because I don’t watch sex comedies from either country. (Also notable is that people outside of the genre camp usually don't care much one way or another about remakes, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Specifically, I’m drawing on my experience with The Fly, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dawn of the Dead, as those are films I have enjoyed in both original and remade form, and I believe they stand as the undisputed champs of the remake world.
The first common thread between all of these remakes is that none of them tried to slavishly imitate the original. It’s weird and counterintuitive, since presumably a film is being remade because the original is beloved, but the best remakes don't take too much from their predecessors. The story might follow the same beats — and by and large, all of my case studies do — but everything is different enough to give the film its own identity. Both versions of The Fly deal with the hazards of scientific hubris, but they both do it in their own way. On the surface, the stories are similar, but they're thoroughly different in practice. In fact, it seems safer to lean toward more difference than less: The two Dawn of the Dead films share little more than a setting (a mall) and a setup (zombies are everywhere, civilization is collapsing, run!), and that makes for two complementary films that offer up unique views of the zombie apocalypse but never step on each others’ toes.
Another key to a good remake is the update. Generally, remakes are separated from their originals by years, decades even, and updates can make a cheesy, musty old story a lot more palatable to modern audiences. Try watching the original The Thing From Another World without laughing at the stagey acting, cringing at the awful gender politics in the romantic subplot and maybe even feeling a bit fidgety thanks to the old-timey pacing. Compare that to John Carpenter’s remake, with its snappy pacing, more naturalistic acting style and utter lack of stereotypical ’50s romance clichés. It’s quite a difference. The same can be said of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is pleasantly creepy, if a bit hokey, in its original incarnation, but bone-chilling and oppressively paranoid in its remake, mostly due to a shift in the way stories are told rather than any special effects or other technology.
Of course, those matter, too: As much as I love the original Dawn of the Dead, the zombies in the remake look roughly one million times better — and it matters. Ditto for The Fly, which swapped a silly “rubber mask” monster for one of the most enduringly skin-crawling transformations into a subhuman monster ever put on the screen. It’s just a piece of the puzzle, but the truth is that the technology we make movies with matters, and a good remake takes great advantage of this.
Finally, remakes need to bring something new to the table beyond a new coat of “paint.” Sometimes, it’s a much-needed gravitas — Cronenberg’s The Fly vs. the original, for example. Maybe it’s just the opposite: Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead ditched the heavy-handed social commentary of the original and replaced it with a gleeful nihilism that worked wonderfully. It could be anything, but it has to be something — there needs to be a reason to remake it besides “we can make it look better, and also, money.”
Give me all three of those things, and you might just have a remake worthy of the original, if not even better.
See The Thing at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue, at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4. Find out more at denverfilm.org.