Are Film Remakes Ever Merited?

Suspiria. A Star Is Born. Little Women.

Not only do all of these films release this month, but they’re all remakes (and, in the case of A Star Is Born, a third or fourth iteration depending upon your definition).

Since cinema’s golden age, remakes have been a staple of the studio system. Hollywood is risk-averse; despite some flops, remakes tend to be less of a gamble than entirely new material. But I care less about the studio system’s motives for a remake than I do the filmmaker’s.

My biggest question is always, “Why?”

I entered this week’s column without an answer to this question. Perhaps I’ll leave without one. So, if you’re someone who needs a definitive conclusion, now’s your chance to get out…

Still with me?

I had the experience of seeing the Suspiria remake earlier this month. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you really want my opinion, you can email me (let’s just say I have a lot of feelings). The original Suspiria is a 1977 Italian horror flick widely regarded as a “cult classic,” and known for its intense, vibrant colours and score by Italian prog-rock band Goblin. Suspiria shocked audiences and inspired a slew of filmmakers (in my case, it led to a first kiss with my soon-to-be college boyfriend. Because there’s nothing quite like a woman gruesomely entangled in a room full of razor wire to set the mood).

Enter: Luca Guadagnino, the director of Suspiria 2018. Guadagnino skyrocketed to international renown after directing last year’s Call Me by Your Name, so tackling horror seems an odd choice. The moody, dark world of his Suspiria (now set in the Cold War’s divided Berlin) is aeons away from the sun-soaked backdrops of Call Me by Your Name, but in the press notes for the film, the director cites a childhood fascination with the original Suspiria as a major catalyst for his love of cinema. Around the age of 13, we are told, he started writing “Suspiria by Luca Guadagnino” in his notebooks and fantasising about remaking the film.

Again, I am struck by that irksome question, “Why?”

It seems conceited to take something you love so much—something that has given you creativity and passion and vigour—and think you can remake it at the same calibre or better. Let it give you inspiration, sure. Let hints of it soak through your work, absolutely. But take its name and repackage it for a new audience, and you start to lose me. It feels unnecessarily vain.

But, here’s where I run into problems in my own philosophy: what about the song covers? Are they ever merited? Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” will always stand out to me, while Weezer’s version of “Africa” is dull and lifeless. Do I only think remakes are allowed when they’re done well? How much time has to pass until a remake is acceptable? Should covers only be allowed in music but not movies?

I have to applaud Guadagnino for at least sending Suspiria in a completely new direction. The story and setting are different, while the general themes remain intact. At this point, though, why bother still calling it Suspiria? Name recognition made me feel biased while watching the film, as I’m sure it will others. I kept comparing this new, unfamiliar Suspiria to a movie it scarcely resembled.

At this point in my reasoning, I looked up the definition of “remake.” It didn’t clarify much: “To make again, or anew,” or “A more recent version of an older film.” “To make anew” I can live with. “To make again” makes my heart sink.

Different chefs make the same dishes differently, and we praise them for it. But a movie is not a meal; its enjoyment and value differ greatly. And it’s not a song to be replayed over and over (just so we’re clear, I’m really, really sick of Weezer’s “Africa” cropping up everywhere). As a photographer, I love the work of Cindy Sherman, but I would never be presumptuous enough to claim that my self-portraits are remakes of hers. Nor would I deign to reshoot any of her images.

I wanted to answer my own question. I wanted to end this article with a neatly tied bow, but most things in life can never be finished that way. Truth be told, there are some great remakes out there. The Departed is a remake of a Hong Kong film. Ocean’s 11 of a rat pack one. The Magnificent Seven (NOT the recent one) a Western reimagining of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. But, see… that’s the word I like to see thrown into the mix: reimagining. I can do without cross-cultural remakes made only because the original wasn’t in English (I’m looking at you, American version of Let The Right One In), but I accept that they’re bound to happen. I accept that the onslaught of remakes won’t stop. I just wish more people would let themselves be inspired by a film, and bring flavours of it into their own work.

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