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The Obsession with Remaking Classics

Credit: HBO Max.

Staff writer Rena Hoshino compares the remakes of many beloved movies and TV shows to the original classics. 

As Jim Jarmusch once said: “Nothing is original”. With the saturated movie market of today, this statement rings truer than it ever has before – of the ten highest-grossing movies of 2022, nine were sequels or reboots of pre-existing franchises. In such a world, executives and producers are left scratching their heads, wondering how they can possibly reach the same success that 20th-century classics did.

The answer seems simple: re-create the success you had with the classics by…re-creating the classics. With new technological advancements in CGI and the ability to snag A-list celebrities to market it, there seems to be an easy formula for making the classic TV show/movie/play relive its glory days.

In this article, I will compare a few of these remakes to their originals. Here, audience ratings – both for the original iteration and for the new version – will be examined along with a few from critics. On top of this, I will consider how closely these remakes have stuck to the core parts of the original’s identity (such as the personalities of the characters, storyline, etc.), as well as how well they overcame its more dated features. This isn’t a watertight method of comparing them, but it’ll provide an idea of whether the remake was a successful product that helped the franchise to continue in the minds of new generations down the line.

The new version of “Scooby-Doo”, starring Mindy Kaling as Velma, is a remake that has received a heavy load of backlash. Lacking the iconic dog who gave the franchise its former title, and with characters that seemed to be stripped of their quirky but likeable personalities, the show received an all-time low rating of 1.3/10 on IMDB. Compared to “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated”, the previous regeneration of the iconic mystery gang which scored 8.1/10 on the same website, the downfall of the franchise is apparent and shocking. Where “Velma” seemed to miss the mark lies mainly in its humour – it attempts to make commentary on common problematic tropes, but never quite lands. Moreover, the appeal of the Scooby-Doo crew – their friendship and relationships with one another – is removed here. Instead (at least at the start of the show) most of the key characters seem to hate one another. To its credit, the choice to make its characters not exclusively white helped remove the show’s datedness, but it was ultimately let down by almost everything else.

Of course, not all remakes and reboots share this fate. Right at the other end of the scale is the relaunch of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” on Netflix as the “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”. The original, a campy sitcom for teens, scored 6.7/10, whereas its more dramatic counterpart showed improvement with a solid uptick into 7.4/10. It maintained this across platforms on Rotten Tomatoes too, going from a 67% audience score to 70%.

When it comes to movies, a large portion of remakes are by “Disney”: from “The Lion King” to “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “Aladdin”, there’s no shortage of sequels and live-action adaptations being released by this corporate giant. These seem to be aiming at creating more inclusive stories, perhaps to make up for the problematic narratives that underlie many of their original films.

However, these rehashed versions of old classics tend to fall flat, perhaps as the animated film still contains a kind of nostalgic essence that the new ones lack. The 1998 “Mulan” achieved an IMDB rating of 7.6/10 and a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 85% while its 2020 successor only managed a 5.7/10 and a 47%. Likewise, the 1992 version of “Aladdin” was rated an 8.0/10 compared to the 2019 version which lowered the score to 6.9/10. The critics seemed to agree with this: while the 1992 version scored a 95%, the 2019 film was given a 57%. Although Guy Ritchie cast Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud as the heroic protagonist, a rare occurrence in an industry which frequently villainizes the Arab-speaking world, it failed to erase the overt Orientalism of the film. Attempts were made to reduce this with the exemption of certain lines from the songs, such as the removal of a line describing Agrabah as a “barbaric” place. However, when the core myth that the film is based on is, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “rooted by racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia”, it seems reasonable to conclude that a remake is not a good idea. After all, the original story was invented by a French orientalist and popularised by an Englishman who further exoticised the characters, explaining why there doesn’t seem to be a coherent culture in the film but rather a mix of Arab countries represented as one vague depiction of the Orient (a term used by the West to describe the East as “Other”, a place of supposed inferiority).

One cult classic that has more or less replicated its success with its sequel is “Blade Runner”, with both iterations being rated an 8.1/10, 91% and an 8.0/10, 82% respectively. The original film had some intriguing commentary on human and non-human relations, and the way memories function, though it did tend to subsume agency from its female characters and its landscape relied on the exoticization of Asia. These issues were left largely unaddressed in “Blade Runner 2049”; With Ryan Gosling as K, it followed the aftermath of the first film and was widely considered to have been a successfully executed sequel with equally well-done cinematography and visuals. While the datedness is still there, the core characteristics of the franchise remain intact.

The movement of classic movies into theatre allows them to be performed with a new breath of air that engages their audiences in close proximity. “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins” are examples of this being done well, perhaps because music was already an integral part of both films, and “The Lion King” leaned into its use of theatrical techniques- “African masks, Japanese Kabuki costumes, Malaysian shadow puppetry…allowing both distinct flavours and an eclectic carnival spirit”. The 1964 “Mary Poppins” movie is rated 7.8/10 and 86% compared to the Mary Poppins musical in London being rated 4.5/5 on TripAdvisor. The general audience seems to enjoy the stage’s re-creation of the film, and its tracks are brought to life through its cast and those working behind the scenes. Critic Michael Billington also rated the show a 5-star recreation, describing the show as an “unassailable treat”.

For other films, however, musical adaptations fall flat and the main story feels stale and dated. The film “Pretty Woman” scored a 7.1/10, and its London version scored a 4/5, which may not seem like a significant drop, but considering most of London’s plays are rated between 4.5-5/5, it seems to be on the lower end of audience reception. This consensus is affirmed by critics, as Andrzej Lukowski rates the “cynical, soulless, nostalgia cash-in” a meagre 1-star and Arifa Akbar similarly rates it a 2-star, calling it a “tasteless romcom”. Looking at how dated this new version is, the issue of an inherently problematic plot once again comes into play. The romance in “Pretty Woman” bases itself on the “rich man ‘saves’ poor girl” trope which shadows old romance and makes a hero of the man for not sexualising the girl forced into sex work to make ends meet. The power dynamic between them makes it difficult to see it as a genuine relationship, and the fact that the original film lacked music may also contribute to this feeling of it not being appropriate for a West End adaptation. While it is not unsuccessful, it does not measure up to the success of many other movie-turned-plays.

Often, the pursuit of making a new cultural impact by revisiting old examples can be risky; balancing the potentially dated content of an old film with the core parts which made it successful is difficult, especially when gearing it towards a different audience. Simply recruiting a big-name celebrity can cheapen the feel of the movie, and attempting to recreate a franchise that had a problematic narrative in the first place can only highlight them to a modern viewer. However, it’s likely that the genuine desire to improve a cult classic and wanting to profit off something attached to an already successful predecessor are not mutually exclusive – it simply depends on the investment made to create a phoenix out of the ashes of the old.

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