This week, the Vince Vaughn vehicle “Delivery Man” hits theaters (our review here). While on the surface it may seem of a type with recent paternity comedies like “The Change-Up” and “The Switch,” it does feature one rogue element (aside from not starring Jason Bateman): it’s a remake of a French-language Canadian comedy called “Starbuck” that’s also directed by the original’s director, Ken Scott. It’s easy to see how the festival success of “Starbuck,” strong national box office and gentle high concept (a commitment-shy frequent sperm donor discovers he’s fathered over 500 children, a large segment of whom now want to meet him), might have put it on the remake list immediately. Indeed there are currently two other versions in the works—a Bollywood one and a French picture—but the choice to offer the directorial chair to Scott for the U.S. version is a little more unusual.
Of course Scott is hardly the first director to remake his own material and he doubtless won’t be the last. And in this case, the opportunity to have control over the remake of his breakout film, along with the chance to launch a potential Hollywood career and to work with a higher profile cast and a bigger budget, all make it seem like an understandable decision from his point of view, while DreamWorks are clearly hoping to bottle lightning by giving him the keys to the remake. Of course there are various different motives for a director wishing to remake his work: aside from simple financial reasons, occasionally a filmmaker really wants a second go at a story they feel they didn’t do justice to, or which has aged poorly, or which new technologies could help tell better. And from the studio’s standpoint, if they’re already involved in the risk-averse game of remaking a film that’s proven successful, why not double down by hiring the original director too?
But there are no guarantees. For every director who’s gone back to an old well and emerged refreshed and spruced up, there are four or five who’ve fallen victim to the standard law of diminishing returns on remakes, and in what we have to believe must be even more demoralizing fashion than if the material had at least been new to them—surely the tedium of spending another two years working on a story you’ve already spent years developing, filming, and the selling has to get to some of them. Here we’ve selected ten directors who’ve played the dangerous game of remaking their own films to see who triumphed, who stumbled and who provided the best counter-arguments to auteur theory by misfiring on their second go-round.
“L.A. Takedown” (1989)/”Heat” (1995)
Synopsis: A successful career criminal considers getting out of the business after one last score, while an obsessive cop desperately tries to put him behind bars.
Why The Remake? Michael Mann had originally envisioned this crime drama to be much more involved, complex and sprawling. “L.A. Takedown” is like the nuts and bolts “Heat” story minus the character subplots and the various interpersonal moving parts orbiting the main showdown of cop vs. criminal. Some will argue this is what bloats “Heat” in the first place, but its elaborate tapestry and rich character texture are what makes “Heat” such a masterful portrait of the criminal mind and its opposite. So we peer into the thought processes of those who fight crime for a living and those who don’t know how to live except by criminal means, and get a glimpse of the opposing codes they abide by, and why they’re driven to pursue their respective aims in the first place.
Similarities/Differences: It’s remarkable how similar the remake is, some lines are essentially ripped straight from the original or at least, are very much in the spirit of basic lines and monologues. Some scenes are eerily similar even when they’re shot differently and are clearly rewritten. Take the scene in “Heat” where Robert De Niro slams Waingro’s (Kevin Gage) head into the diner table for fucking up their first heist and killing cops that didn’t need to die. In “L.A. Takedown,” no one gets hurt (at least not until the strikingly similar parking lot scene), but the sentiment and spirit of the scene is exactly the same: Waingro screwed up, so he’s out of the crew for good with full contempt given for his lack of professionalism. Watching the scenes side by side, you get an incredible filmmaking lesson in how Mann can take the same idea, refine it, finesse it and turn it into something much more masterful with just a few key adjustments. This is what rewriting is all about. And like many Mann movies, both films are also preoccupied with the cool, alienating and beautiful allure of Los Angeles (a brief tiny cameo from the then not-exposed, still-vital, quintessential L.A. band Jane’s Addiction in the original shows the director knew what time it was too). Probably the most significant change in the remake is the ending. The villain still goes after Waingro the rat in the original, but what transpires after is very different. Considering you probably haven’t seen it, we’ll leave it for you to track down (it’s not hard, try Google), cause it’s still an interesting curio, especially if you’re a big “Heat”/Michael Mann fan (which you should be).
Which is Better & Why? Take a wild guess. Scott Plank and Alex McArthur (who??) as the two leads vs Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The original cast had supporting help from Michael Rooker, Laura Harrington and Daniel Baldwin, while the remake had Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, William Fichtner, Amy Brenneman, Danny Trejo, Dennis Haysbert, Natalie Portman and a host of other talented character actors (Ted Levine being one of the best). There’s just absolutely no competition and to watch Pacino rip through some of Mann’s monologues vs. Plank is like listening to a Stradivarius concerto next to a bumpkin fiddler. And kudos to Mann for recognizing this material was A-grade and worth another go with stronger talent. And for extra credit: Nerds like us will notice some L.A. locations from ‘Takedown’ used in “The Dark Knight Rises” and if it feels like there are similarities in that opening heist, well you can bet Christopher Nolan’s probably watched everything Mann has ever made. “L.A. Takedown” [B-], “Heat” [A]
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934)/”The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956)
Synopsis: A vacationing family become embroiled in a political assassination plot when a murdered holiday acquaintance turns out to have been a spy and confides details of the plot to them in his dying breath. However they are constrained from alerting the authorities by the kidnap of their child.
Why the Remake? Apparently Hitch, in his later halcyon period, was always a little insecure when he looked back on his British films, and he confided to Francois Truffaut that his first go-round at this plot he later regarded as merely “the work of a talented amateur.” With peerless classics like “Notorious” and “Rear Window” already under his belt, Hitchcock re-pitched this remake (he’d first toyed with an American remake back in 1941, which would have made it one of his first U.S. pictures) as the film that could fulfill his contractual obligations to Paramount. The studio agreed that the story would work if updated, and reportedly Hitchcock banned the new screenwriter from watching the original, instead verbally communicating to him the essence of the plot and the scenes he wanted to recreate.
Similarities/Differences? While there’s no mistaking the films share a plot, and the climactic Albert Hall sequence is almost shot-for-shot in both, the much longer, ’50s technicolor version differs from the original in its locations (Morocco provides a more interesting backdrop for the family vacation than Switzerland), and in certain key details like the sex of the child; which parent hears the dying man’s secret and who is the target of the assassination plot. Also, of course, the central family is American rather than British, and with Doris Day’s character an ex-singer, room is made in the remake for a few renditions of the film’s Oscar-winning song “Que Sera Sera” as well as for slightly more sympathetic policemen and authority figures, instead of the shockingly callous stiff-upper-lip types in the first. Other than that, some of the fun of comparing these films is in noting how some of the kinks translate: in each a clue that is in fact a place name is mistaken for a person’s name; Hitch’s signature cameo appears at different junctures in each, and both times, rather unsatisfyingly, it is the heroine’s scream that deflects the assassin’s attention just enough so that he wounds, rather than kills his target. Factoid: the remake features frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann conducting the Albert Hall orchestra. Which was actually shot on a replica set on the Paramount lot.
Which is Better & Why? While “talented amateur” might be going a bit far, there’s no mistaking that the earlier film is the work of a far less experienced director, and tonally the shifts between suspense and light humor work far better in the remake, especially with Stewart and the surprisingly successful casting of Day, in a rare “serious” role, as the central couple: both actors manage the transitions from darkness to light better than their earlier counterparts Leslie Banks and Edna Best. That said, the portrait of the marriage in the 30s films does start off beguilingly witty, with a kind of “Thin Man” sophistication to their banter, before the plot mechanics kick in in earnest.And the 30s version does boast one notable ace up its sleeve in the form of an excellent Peter Lorre performance—creepy and ingratiating but not yet quite the caricature version. And while the original simply doesn’t boast the same confidence with details and shotmaking that Hitchcock had acquired by the time of the remake, the sense of peril that he’s much better at achieving in the 50s version is somewhat dulled by that film’s overlength—something you can’t accuse the 75-minute original of. When we get right down to it, neither film is in the top tier of Hitchcock movies; the aforementioned happenstance of the climactic shooting is one slightly disappointing feature, and with the protagonists being apparently comfortably married, there’s not the same kind of flinty, sparky relationship that makes such an appealing sub-theme in so many of his classics. In fact, the central couple, especially as played by Stewart and Day are so essentially wholesome that they register as rather bland, so that, as glossy and well-shot and gloriously technicolor as it the remake is, it’s still not as sexy as the Master at his best. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) [C+], “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) [B-]
“Ju-on: The Grudge” (2002)/”The Grudge” (2004)
Synopsis: A house in which a man murdered his wife and child becomes infested with apparitions of the dead family, and everyone who comes into contact with them is haunted to their eventual death.
Why the Remake? With the remake of “The Ring” performing above expectations, suddenly, J-horror remakes were a thing, and “Ju-on” was eyed as a potential rival/successor franchise by producer Sam Raimi. Shimizu was initially reluctant (indeed, he seems to have been trying to shake off the ‘Ju-on’ legacy ever since he made it) but was convinced by the assurances that the producers wanted to retain the film’s Japanese setting, the original’s malevolence, and that he’d be able to continue to work with a predominately Japanese crew.
Similarities/Differences? The remake is significantly different from the original, in terms of the shape of the narrative, for one thing. While ‘Ju-on’ is a series of seemingly randomly shuffled non-chronological chapters, in which the central character of one may crop up only as a passing presence or a voice on an answering machine in another, the Hollywood version is arranged in a more nuclear manner. So the central woman, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is much more of a continuing presence, and indeed, the later film feels more like ‘her story’ than the story of the grudge itself. Still, the remake also uses a fractured, non-linear approach, though to a lesser degree, while switching around the characters to enable that most “Hollywood version” of elements—a romance subplot—to suggest itself. The design of the apparitions themselves is also different, slicker and more inherently evil-looking in the remake, where the original varied from the seemingly innocuous, to the um, what? (dodgy smoke monster thingie with red eyes), to the unintentionally funny (sorry, but when the little boy shows up with the poorly applied eyeliner…). In fact the remake invests more time in making us understand the hierarchy between the different supernatural aspects, making the ghost of the murdered wife into the central malevolent force, and giving Buffy a more active role in piecing together what happened and how to fight back, than any of the characters in the original are afforded. Oh, and we’ll give you one guess as to which version has a character surviving beyond the end credits…
Which is Better & Why? Fun fact: “Ju-on: The Grudge” was in fact director Shimizu’s third installment in the ‘Ju-on’ series, with the previous two being direct-to-video hits. Which is perhaps why the Japanese film feels so disjointed and scattershot—it’s not so much that its logic is confused, as it really just doesn’t have any underlying logic. So there’s no real telling how or when or why a particular ghost will manifest itself, why it has chosen this victim, and why now, where can it go etc. Basically the film never establishes the rules of the grudge, and this, coupled with the jagged, non-chronological narrative, is probably what gave the original some of its power back in the day, especially to Western audiences used to approaching ghost stories as essentially problems to be worked through and solved. But the issue with it now is that it comes across as a series of skits, all of which—especially white-skinned, black-eyed female with hair straggling over her face—we’ve become hugely familiar with to the point of parody in the years since. And yes, it’s a ghost cat, but that doesn’t make the original’s over-reliance on the “it’s only a cat!” trope any less irritating.The remake has its fair share of these problems too, of course, but maybe because we’re culturally programmed in that direction, its a more coherent narrative and deeper (albeit cliché) characterization, actually stands the test of time a bit better. But we have to confess to finding neither film particularly scary, with the occasional inventiveness of the first version often counteracted by unclear storytelling, while the slicker American remake feels like it has too many of the rough edges smoothed down. Damned either way, really—as you can probably tell, we’re not huge fans of either, though ‘The Grudge’‘s huge $187m take off a $10m budget does make us take a breath.“Ju-on: The Grudge” (2002) [C], “The Grudge” (2004) [C]
“Lady for a Day” (1933)/”Pocketful of Miracles” (1961)
Synopsis: Annie, an aging indigent apple seller has maintained a ruse for years to her Europe-raised daughter that she’s a high-class woman of wealth. When her daughter comes to visit her in New York with her aristocratic fiance and his father, Annie’s street friends, her bootlegger patron and his girlfriend rally round to help create the illusion.
Why the Remake? No stranger to self-remaking, having already fashioned “Riding High” (1950) after “Broadway Bill” (1934), reportedly Capra had wanted to do a remake of “Lady for a Day,” the first film for which he got a Best Director nod, for years, but had been repeatedly turned down by studios who felt the material was just too old-fashioned. So Capra bought the rights himself and brought it to United Artists, planning to shoot it as a period film set in the 1930s anyway. He probably regretted his decision—the shoot was miserable and Capra was somewhat railroaded into casting Glenn Ford by Ford offering to co-finance. Ford and Bette Davis didn’t get along, and Capra began to suffer health problems related to stress (it would be his last directorial feature), and ended up taking a bit of a bath on it when it made a loss.
Similarities/Differences? With the remake a full 40 minutes longer than the original, and shot in lush color, ‘Miracles’ is far broader in scope, and fills in, sometimes to the point of redundancy, the back stories of many of the characters whose personalities are rather more stock in the first iteration. For example, ‘Lady’ has Dave the Dude’s girlfriend, nightclub owner Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) the archetypal wisecracking, fast-talking gangster’s moll with a heart of gold. In the remake, a whole prologue occurs in which we find out that the equivalent character, Queenie Martin (Hope Lange) is in fact the daughter of an associate of Dave’s, a “good girl” who turns into a showgirl star in part to pay off her father’s debt to him. Queenie, however just wants to get married, where Missouri never mentions that (and we like her a lot more for it). Glenn Ford’s Dave is also embroiled in a subplot involving a kind of turf war with a rival, where Warren William, the Dave in ‘Lady’ has no such distractions. Apple Annie herself is also given a different spin by the two actresses: May Robson in ‘Lady’ is irascible and faintly contemptuous of the classist trappings that the Count sets so much store in. Bette Davis in the same role however, shifts the orbit of the film somewhat: she’s an undeniably great actress and she really makes us feel for Annie, but that’s almost part of the problem. Imagine if Capra had cast Brando in the Jimmy Stewart role in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and you might see what we’re getting at. In Davis’ reading of the character, Annie is a far more tragic figure, riven with doubt and self-loathing, even when she’s in her gin-swigging beggar persona. And so the later film feels like an awkward mix of broad false-identity comedy and real pathos, which Capra only masks with lashings of rather unconvincing sentimentality.
Which is Better & Why? While neither is essential Capra, both feature the familiar Capra hallmark of people surprising the protagonists, and themselves, with their kindness and the community coming together to help out one of their own. But not only does the “people are fundamentally decent” moral feel a little hackneyed by 1961 standards, but the later film actually wears the mix of poverty and wealth rather badly, knitting a kind of grubbiness into the story that makes the fact that Annie will be consigned back to a life of begging once her daughter leaves feel really quite cruel. As Capra had feared, Ford is nowhere near as convincing a “dude” as William, and Ann-Margret in her first role is almost as insufferably cloying as the godawful child’s-voice rendition of the title song. As much as Capra wanted to hold on to the old values he’d so delightfully espoused many times before, you can practically feel the real world nipping at the heels of ‘Miracles’ so that what works as escapist fantasy in “Lady for a Day” becomes twee, or maudlin, or otherwise out of touch in 1961. That said, “Pocketful of Miracles” does contain the single greatest performance given in either film: Peter Falk’s disgruntled sidekick Joy Boy is an absolute scene stealer (and was Oscar-nominated), and it really feels like of everyone in the later picture, it was only he who nailed the tone. “Lady for a Day” [B-], “Pocketful of Miracles” [C]
“Funny Games” (1997)/”Funny Games” (2007)
Synopsis: A loving family head to a lakehouse for the weekend, only to be menaced by a pair of mysterious intruders
Why The Remake? The original 1997 version of Haneke’s playfully horrible endurance test “Funny Games” was in fact intended to be set in the U.S. all along, but with Haneke not yet a major force in world cinema, it was difficult to get funding, and he was forced to set it closer to home, in Austria. The director had always wanted the film to reach American audiences (the film’s subject of screen violence and their consequences being rather more pertinent), but a reluctance to embrace arthouse films, particularly ones as austere as this, meant his hopes were thwarted. Haneke seemed to put the idea out of mind, until producer Chris Coen (“Wristcutters: A Love Story“) approached him at Cannes suggesting an English-language redo to help it connect with its intended crowd. Haneke agreed, but on one condition: that he could cast Naomi Watts in the role played by Susanne Lothar in the original (whose role had itself been turned down, trivia fans, by Isabelle Huppert).
Similarities/Differences: Given that he used a virtually identical scripts (with a few quirks of translation, or slight updates for the 2000s—references to laptops et al), and even filmed in the same house, with many of the same props, the film is virtually identical; a true shot-for-shot remake. To their credit, the actors—Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet joining Watts in the principal roles—haven’t set out to replicate the work of their predecessors, which was very much the filmmakers’ intention (“They are people, after all, not marionettes,” Haneke said in an interview). But otherwise, it’s probably as close to a facsimile of the 1997 original as you could ask for, Haneke going as far as to reproduce shots or set-ups that, in retrospect, he wasn’t happy with. He told Cinema Blend at the time: “In order to decide to do a shot-by-shot remake, you have to be masochistic to some point, because it is a much greater challenge. If you do an original film, and you don’t like a scene, you just cut it out. But if you do a shot-by-shot remake you don’t have that option; you have to be sure it succeeds… If I did it again the first time now, given that I’m older or whatever, I would do maybe one or the other cut differently. But since I made the decision to do a shot-by-shot remake, there wasn’t even an option… If you go with a principle you should adhere to the principle.”
Which Is Better & Why: Though the film presumably has some power for those who’d previously shunned the German-language version, the remake failed to get much more of an audience, taking less than $1.3 million in the U.S. and never playing more than 300 screens, so Haneke’s scheme to bring the film to a wider audience didn’t really pay off (we do wonder what would have happened if Warners had gone wide and deliberately mis-sold it as something like “The Purge“—rioting in the theaters, probably…). The remake isn’t bad—the actors are very strong, and what wasn’t broke hasn’t been fixed—but it is pretty much pointless, and doubly so for anyone familiar with the original, because it is to all intents and purposes the same film. Then again, we’ve never put “Funny Games” among the first rank of Haneke’s work anyway. There’s an undeniable punk-rock power to the film, and the ‘rewinding’ scene remains a real shocker. But compared to “Code Unknown” or “Caché” or “The White Ribbon,” it’s a crude piece of work that’s somewhat lacking in texture. Still, if the original is one of his most simplistic films, the remake is certainly his most unnecessary. “Funny Games” (1997) [B], “Funny Games” (2007) [C]
“The Vanishing (Spoorloos)” (1988)/”The Vanishing” (1993)
Synopsis: After a woman disappears at a roadside gas station, her boyfriend becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, for years afterward. The kidnapper himself becomes fascinated with the man’s tenacity and eventually makes contact with him, wanting to see what price he’s willing to pay for the answers he seeks.
Why the Remake? A low-budget European, foreign-language arthouse hit, with a director looking to make the leap across the Atlantic? “The Vanishing” more or less wrote the book on this sort of thing happening, especially considering the the early nineties saw the flowering of independent U.S. cinema, and if Hollywood could steal in on the act by taking promising foreign films that shared that sensibility and repackaging them for easy distribution stateside, then it must have seemed like a no-brainer. We can only hope that Sluizer got paid an enormous amount of money, or that, indeed, possibly his motive for making the remake was to highlight by stark contrast just how great the original was.
Similarities/Differences? If there’s a poster boy for why getting the same director to remake his own foreign film for the American market is anything but a guarantee of success, it’s probably, sad to say, 1993’s “The Vanishing.” The ending, so chillingly nihilist in the original, was literally ruined by a completely counterproductive “happy” Hollywood version in which good wins out after all (totally contrary to well, everything the film was actually about). The psychology of the kidnapper is also altered from one version to the next: the original has Raymond a fascinatingly weird character, with a certain twisted logic to how his mind and ego games play out; he is the embodiment of the detached, alien curiosity of a true psychopath. Jeff Bridges’ Barney is by contrast, a far less threatening presence, despite his weird slurred accent, who becomes an adversary to outwit, rather than an unknowable and vaguely amused force of malevolence. And of course the new girlfriend role is radically altered in the remake, with Nancy Travis getting a lot more ho-hum backstory to her relationship with Kiefer Sutherland, because in the U.S. version, somebody, obviously, has to save the day. But hey, the missing girl is played by pre-bigtime Sandra Bullock so there’s that.
Which is Better & Why? The original is better in that it’s actually good, where the remake is essentially a laundry list of every terrible cliché that springs to mind when you hear the words “Hollywood remake.” I know we’re harping on about the ending, but this is the sort of story where altering the ending actually fundamentally changes the film, and so many things that are irritating about the remake are merely the reverberations of that change echoing back through the story. Where the original is about the infectious and corrosive nature of obsession and can almost be read as an allegory about curiosity and biting into the forbidden apple, the remake’s drive to a good-conquering-evil ending totally sells that out. In fact the raw existentialism of the original, which is what made it so unsettling—the fact that it played out largely inside the mind—is so tediously externalized in the U.S. version that the boogey monster can actually be vanquished with a goddamn shovel. Oh, man this is making us angry all over again. Suffice to say, the original is a sparse, elegant chess game played to neat checkmate (reminding us a little of a low-key “Seven” in how it plays out), where the remake employs all the cunning and strategy of Chutes & Ladders to deliver a completely anonymous Hollywood product. “The Vanishing (Spoorloos)” (1988) [A-/B+], “The Vanishing” (1993) [C-]
“Ball of Fire” (1941)/”A Song is Born” (1948)
Synopsis: A naïve and bookish professor working on an encyclopedia with seven fusty male colleagues, has his life overturned when a sassy nightclub singer sees them as her ticket to avoid the police, who are after her for the testimony she could give against her gangster boyfriend.
Why the Remake? Hawks revisited the wonderful original a mere seven years later, but not without misgivings already then. Designed as a way to capitalize on the growing popularity of jazz, and featuring a plethora of huge names from the big-band era, often playing themselves (Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong among others, with Benny Goodman actually given a character role leading to frequent “Benny Goodman? Never heard of him” jokes), the shoot was an unhappy one, with star Danny Kaye going through a divorce and being, according to Hawks “about as funny as a crutch.” Later on Hawks was blunt about his motives: “Because I got $25,000 a week, that’s why.” Which, you know, good reason.
Similarities/Differences? The original features only a couple of musical numbers, as Gary Cooper’s adorably befuddled professor ventures out into the world of nightclubs and boogie-woogie to better inform his encyclopedia chapter on slang. In the remake, as a further excuse for more songs and improv jazz numbers, the professors are working on an encyclopedia of music specifically, and are alerted to their ignorance of jazz, sending the not quite as adorably befuddled Danny Kaye out into the night, and it makes the remake an altogether flashier, but emptier affair. With regard to paramours, Virginia Mayo does a decent job in the remake, in fact it’s probably one of her best performances, but it’s destined to be outshone by the earthy manipulative sexiness of the ultimate bad girl-gone-good, Barbara Stanwyck, in the original. But aside from cast, the original’s pacing, which doesn’t have to screech to halt every few minutes for an (admittedly impressive) clarinet jam, feels much more organic, and if it is more laconic than Hawk’s rapid-fire signature “Bringing Up Baby” or “His Girl Friday”-style ratatat, the overall tone is gentler too, but no less winning. The machinations of the plot too are slightly altered from one version to the next, leaving some of it feeling slightly truncated in the latter, like where the tiny engagement ring the professor gives her (as opposed to the massive rock from her sugar daddy) plays a more pivotal role in the original, in the remake it’s really a single gag and gone.
Which is Better & Why? No contest. The original adheres much closer to the Billy Wilder script, which is possibly all you need to know—he was reportedly on set throughout the shoot. Not that Hawks needed any help with direction, in fact the first film is a lovely example of all parts working in harmony, and there’s genuine chemistry between Stanwyck and Cooper that Kaye and Mayo, for all Mayo gives it her all, just can’t match. But seriously, Stanwyck could probably have manufactured sparks with a toilet brush. The remake’s raison d’etre, of course was the inclusion of all those jazz greats, and while there is some interest to be borrowed from seeing them perform, it does both slow down the narrative pace and date the film, and not in such an endearing way as the wacky slang (“give him a call on the old Ameche” is a favorite) featured in the 1941 version. In fact, while it’s often adversely compared to the pinnacles of Hawks’ output, we have to say we think that’s unfair, and the original, with its softly, loopily screwball take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves deserves reappraisal as a sweethearted romance that’s exactly as uncynical as story about love conquering cynicism should be.“Ball of Fire” [A-], “A Song is Born” [C+]
“Nattevagten” (1994)/ “Nightwatch” (1997)
Synopsis: A law student takes a job as a night watchman at a morgue to help make ends meet, only to become the prime suspect in a series of serial killings.
Why The Remake? A big hit at home in Denmark and on the festival circuit (it played Critic’s Week at Cannes in 1994), the original “Nightwatch,” or “Nattevagten” in Danish, was an obvious choice for a U.S. redo; a slick, atmospheric genre piece helmed by a new filmmaker who clearly had some serious chops. As such, Bob Weinstein snapped up remake rights for his Dimension Films (burying the original film in the U.S. in the process, as was his wont), and hired Steven Soderbergh (then in the pre-“Out Of Sight” lull of his career) to work on the script with Bornedal.
Similarities/Differences: As far as this kind of remake goes, there isn’t a world of difference between the two films. The Danish original is a little less refined—the giallo-ish tone can dip into campiness and unintentional humor in places, and there’s an unpleasant strain of misogyny which is mostly removed by the U.S. version. The latter, meanwhile, adds a few quirks, perhaps thanks to Soderbergh’s work, and is glossier in places. But the plot plays out much the same, with set-pieces replicated from the original and some shots repeating. The haircut of lead Ewan McGregor (in his first American role after breaking out with “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting“) even mimics that of the main character in the original. It didn’t seem to be a particularly happy experience: Bornedal later reflected to Filmmaker Magazine, “Bob and Harvey were tough bosses… it’s easier for me to move in Scandinavian waters: from idea to actually filming the story, it’s not a very long road. I have the feeling that in Hollywood, you need to have endless discussions before you come to some sort of reality at the end of the tunnel.”
Which Is Better & Why: “Nattevagten” and “Nightwatch” are very much of a piece: if you don’t like one, you’re unlikely to particularly enjoy the other. And again, they’re mostly close enough that watching both is a fairly redundant exercise. That said, there are different pleasures to be found in the performances: the original has an entertaining chance to see very, very young versions of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (the Kingslayer from “Game Of Thrones“) and Sofie Grabol (the lead in the original Danish version of “The Killing“), while the remake has a nicely ambivalent turn from Josh Brolin, and a totally gonzo one from Nick Nolte, who barely bothers to conceal the twist involving his cop character. Ultimately, if you can get past the icky sexism, we’d probably go for the original, which is a purer and scarier experience, but the other is reasonably entertaining too.“Nightwatch” (1994) [C+], “Nightwatch” (1997) [C+]
“13 Tzameti” (2005)/”13” (2010)
Synopsis: A down on his luck young man, in an effort to provide for his financially struggling family, unwittingly becomes a player in a high-stakes underground Russian Roulette tournament.
Why the Remake? Hollywood knows a high concept when it sees it, and the chance to remake the gritty, low-budget, French language original, which won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, into a high-profile English-language film packed with scarcely-above-cameo roles for a plethora of hard-man-type action stars was clearly irresistible. From Babluani’s perspective, we have to take into account that “13 Tzameti” was his first feature, and while he completed another French-language film in the meantime (“L’Heritage“), the chance to crossover to the U.S. with such a massive cast and inflated budget must have been all too alluring.
Similarities/Differences? The meat and potatoes of the films are often identical, shot-for-shot, especially once we’re in the games themselves. However, for the remake Babluani ditched the original’s black and white for color and also added in more backstory, both for our main character, (Sam Riley in the remake, who has a father in hospital, a sister with a child and mother who’s being forced to sell the family house to pay hospital bills, as opposed to the more quickly sketched mother and brother in the original), and for some of his competitors. So we get mini-prequel scenes between Jason Statham and Ray Winstone, for example, who play the gambler/mentally unstable brother team in the remake, outlining past history that is only alluded to by a few lines of dialogue in the original. Similarly Mickey Rourke’s character in the remake gets a whole subplot about being a convict sold into the game by a corrupt prison warden, whose “minder,” acting powerhouse Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson he may or may not have successfully recruited as an ally.
Which is Better & Why? In what’s not even close to a photo finish, the original takes the ribbon by miles. The spartan, pared-back minimalist feel of it adds greatly to its tone of gritty foreboding and then downright queasy nastiness, and the unknown faces (the lead is played, and very sympathetically by the director’s brother Georges Babluani) mean it’s about 5000% more unpredictable as to what’s going to happen, who’s going to buy it and when. In the remake, it feels like the stars get offed, or not, in the exact reverse order of the size of their paycheck and their level of recognisability, where others (Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgard, Ben Gazzara, Gaby Hoffmann) seem to have been cast in whatever roles were left over, just because they could be. But less forgivable, perhaps are the things that the director, here gifted a second bite at the cherry and far greater resources, chooses to keep the same: the creakiness of the staging of the “games” themselves, in the original film is easy to excuse, but there would have been time and money to have made those scenes clearer and more dramatic (if not necessarily more graphic) in the remake. Instead this, of all places, is where Babluani goes nearly shot-for-shot, meaning it’s as unclear as the first time who pulled the trigger first, who died and how many are left. Other areas that had an opportunity for expansion but aren’t given it are things like the lead character’s progressive psychological change from round to round; in the original the enigmatic, spartan feel makes absences like this feel deliberate, but the remake’s more bloated approach makes us really notice the areas that are still sketchily drawn. And the ending, too, in the original works ok (though still, we’d argue, is kind of a weak dismount for such a taut film till then), but in the remake it feels especially anticlimactic as it comes at the end of a film that thinks its much broader in scope.“13 Tzameti” [B], “13” [D]
“A Story Of Floating Weeds” (1934)/ “Floating Weeds” (1959)
Synopsis: A traveling actor returns to the seaside town where he has an illegitimate son, only for his current mistress to engineer an affair between the son and another member of the theatre company.
Why The Remake: Short answer: the original film was a silent, and Ozu wanted to remake it in sound. Long answer: 1934’s “A Story Of Floating Weeds” was one of Ozu’s most successful films, and the director talked frequently of remaking it over the years (it wasn’t uncommon for him to do so: the year after the “Floating Weeds” re-do, his “Late Autumn” adapted 1949’s “Late Spring,” for instance, while “I Was Born But…” came back as “Good Morning“). His opportunity to do so came when Daiei Studios asked him to make a film for them in 1959. Ozu was contracted to make a film a year for Shochiku Studios, but had already completed “Good Morning” in the spring, so if he worked quickly, he could squeeze another one in: hence, deciding to recycle earlier material, and rework “A Story Of Floating Weeds” into “Floating Weeds.” The director said at the time “Many years ago I made a silent version of this film. Now I wanted to make it again up in the snow country of Hokuriku [the earlier version was located in Kamisuwa, central Japan], so I wrote this new script with Noda [Kogo Noda, his co-scriptwriter]…but that year there wasn’t much snow, so I couldn’t use the locations I had in mind in Takado and Sado.” For the record, even the original was something of a remake: Ozu had been inspired by George Fitzmaurice’s 1928 silent “The Barker,” a film about a traveling carnival starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr that had been a big hit in Japan.
Similarities/Differences: The obvious aside—the remake has sound and color, and gorgeous color at that—the two films have much in common. The script and story is mostly unchanged, Ozu’s technique was already refined when he made the original film, and compositions recur in both versions. The film even opens and closes in remarkably similar fashion. There are aesthetic differences—the original, shot in Kamisuwa, is rain-drenched, the remake set in a heatwave in Shijima. But as is fitting for one of cinema’s most subtle masters, the real differences come in the details: the latter film, made only four years before Ozu passed away, is the film of a director near the end of his career, more at peace with the world, and even more accepting of the flaws and transgressions of his characters than the ever-humanist filmmaker had been before. The remake is a less melodramatic film, in some ways, less heavy in tone—not that the original was necessarily hard going, but the difference is noticeable when watched back-to-back. And the tonal lightness of the latter film is amplified by a breezy, alomst “French seaside” score.
Which Is Better & Why: That’s a tough one. Both are inexpressibly beautiful films, and despite the similarities, make lovely companion pieces to each other (forget a single class, you could teach a whole film school module on the two movies together, unlike some of the straight-up replications on this list). We would perhaps argue that there are a couple of performances in the remake that don’t quite blend with the ensemble. But really, it’s hard to separate them (not least because Criterion re-issued them together). And who would want to? “A Story Of Floating Weeds” [A], “Floating Weeds” [A]
There are plenty of other high- and low-profile directors who’ve revisited their own work, (both high- and lowbrow) that we haven’t included here, but it’s a feature we’ll probably run a part II of sometime, so we’ll hopefully be able to discuss them then. In the meantime, if you want to search out other precedents, John Ford has at least one remake to his name (“Marked Men“/”Three Godfathers“), and Howard Hawks could appear once more if you consider “Rio Bravo,” “El Dorado” and “Rio Lobo” revised versions of each other. The Pang Brothers came to the U.S. to make the terrible “Bangkok Dangerous” out of their original and also terrible “Bangkok Dangerous“; Roger Vadim singularly failed to do for Rebecca de Mornay in “And God Created Woman” what he had done for Brigitte Bardot, and mankind, in the original; Alan Clarke remade his TV “Scum” into the film “Scum” just a couple of years later, retaining Ray Winstone; Leo McCarey started a trend by making “Love Affair” (1939) into “An Affair to Remember” which would then be remade into the Warren Beatty “Love Affair“; Cecil B. De Mille directed a total of twenty ‘Commandments‘; William Wyler reverted to the original play’s name “The Children’s Hour” for his remake of “These Three“; and Raoul Walsh transformed “High Sierra” into “Colorado Territory.” Tod Browning remade himself not once but twice, and James Whale, along with lesser-known figures like John Franklin, John Farrow and George Marshall also rifled their back catalogues for inspiration. French directors Francis Veber and Jean Marie Poire helmed English-language remakes of their films, while John Woo went in the opposite direction to most, remaking “Once a Thief” into a TV movie.
And that’s not even to mention those directors, like Tim Burton, George Lucas and Destin Cretton who made their own shorts into full-length films, but that’s probably a whole different feature…
–Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton and Rodrigo Perez