By Christopher Campbell
David Cronenberg stunned many with his decision to remake his own film The Fly, involving himself as writer and potentially director of Fox’s reboot effort. But this certainly isn’t a bad idea. After all, Cronenberg’s version is already a redo of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 sci-fi/horror classic of the same name, and it’s considered one of the best remakes of all time. It is very likely that he will now also deliver one of the best examples in which a director remakes his own film.
Sure, there are plenty of bad examples, especially when it’s a French filmmaker attempting to translate his hit comedy for Hollywood (see Three Fugitives and Just Visiting) or a Japanese filmmaker rehashing his own horror sequel in the States (The Grudge 2 and The Ring Two). And let’s not forget the unnecessary redundancy of Haneke’s Funny Games U.S.
But some of the greatest directors have made remakes of their own works that are at least as good, if not better than their originals. We take a look at five examples that Cronenberg could learn from — though he probably doesn’t need the help.
Original Film: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Remake: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Why It Works: While many have tried and failed since to Americanize their films by remaking them in Hollywood, Hitchcock’s attempt resulted in a work considered superior to its predecessor. Maybe it was in part the lack of a language barrier that handicaps other foreign filmmakers transplanted to the U.S. However, Hitch’s own idea is that he was a more professional director when he made the film the second time. For many film fans today, there’s certainly greater appeal in the color cinematography, the A-list Hollywood casting (James Stewart is a far more charismatic lead than Leslie Banks) and of course the hit, Oscar-winning song performed by female lead Doris Day,“Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera).” The remake also has a number of changes from the original in setting and plot, and the update from pre-WWII themes to cold war themes was a terrific way for Hitch to display his evolved political feelings.
Cronenberg Could Learn: Unlike The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Fly remake will be better off not casting bigger stars than the original’s Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were in 1986. He could easily modernize the themes, though, particularly with current issues regarding genetics and scientific
Cecil B. DeMille
Original Film: The Ten Commandments (1923)
Remake: The Ten Commandments (1956)
Why It Works: Obviously there was good reasoning behind remaking a silent film once sound came about, but DeMille’s second version of The Ten Commandments was made nearly thirty years after the introduction of sound films. And no, despite the similarity in year, this wasn’t an attempt to do as Hitchcock had done. Besides, DeMille had already remade two of his own films, The Squaw Man (1918, redone in 1931 — plus both were remakes of a 1914 version, co-written by DeMille) and The Golden Chance (1915, redone as Forbidden Fruit in 1921). Anyway, the second, more famous film isn’t a complete a redo, despite having some near-identical shots and sets, as the 1923 version consisted of two parts, the Biblical story and a modern-set parable. Fortunately, the 1956 film deals only with the first part about the life of Moses, which it expands upon. Most people would say, of course, that the remake betters the earlier film because of the advances in such technologies as color cinematography (the 1923 film did feature early Technicolor in one sequence, at least) and Paramount’s VistaVision widescreen format. It’s also worth noting that DeMille’s research for the remake was more substantial than for the first film.
Cronenberg Could Learn: Following the Fly remake news, reported with the recognition that Cronenberg now has access to better special effects and technology than available in ‘86, many writers jumped on the idea of a digital 3-D version of The Fly. Some of these suggestions were in jest, but it’s certainly an option. Digital 3-D is the closest thing we have today to the widescreen trend of the 1950s. And the idea sounds better than another effects-based suggestion: depicting the metamorphosized scientist solely with CGI.
Original Film: Ukikusa monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934)
Remake: Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959)
Why It Works: This is another case of a silent film being logically remade as a sound film (and now in color), but there’s much more to it than that. Like a master painter revisiting a subject, such as sunflowers or a certain setting, over and over again, a master filmmaker such as Ozu was interested in many of the same stories and themes throughout his career. And yet, as with other great artists, he is different after twenty-five years and so the film is markedly different in at least an internal and personal sense. Aside from having sound, gorgeous color cinematography and some minor story changes, Floating Weeds very closely resembles the earlier film. However, the change can be felt in Ozu’s attitude, as he is known to have been mellower in later years.
Cronenberg Can Learn: Really, Cronenberg doesn’t have to learn this, as long as he truly is an artist. While he may not be on the level of Ozu, he is an auteur whose films display marked changes in his personality over the years. So just as in the case of the Floating Weeds films, even if Cronenberg were to attempt a fairly straight remake of his earlier film it would feel different to the audience internally.
Original film: These Three (1936)
Remake: The Children’s Hour (1961)
Why It Works: Back in the 1930s, the Hays Code forbid a major theme of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, that of homosexuality. So the playwright adapted her plot, which was based on a true story, by changing the central lesbian affair between two school teachers into a heterosexual one involving adultery between one teacher and another’s wife. Also, potentially to disassociate the film with the controversial Broadway production, the title was changed to These Three. Nearly three decades later, the Code still had its restriction in place, but times had changed enough for Wyler to do a more faithful version, albeit with the homosexuality still mostly only hinted at (the director even cut some scenes he felt might not pass the censors or sit well with critics). Today the film is considered an important work in the progress of gay acceptance, at least cinematically. However, many believe it could have been a lot braver in its treatment of the issue.
Cronenberg Could Learn: There’s not much that the 1986 Fly couldn’t get away with that a remake could — censorship-wise, at least. The closest parallel would maybe be that the new film might be more acceptably blatant in its allegory of the AIDS epidemic, but that would hardly make it better, and that wouldn’t be especially relevant. So, maybe Cronenberg could instead do as Wyler did with his remake and be more faithful to the source material. Instead of involving a man transforming slowly into a giant fly, do the switcheroo of body parts like they did in 1958. The metamorphosis in the ’86 Fly is gross, but the idea of a guy with a giant fly head is scarier. As is the idea of a fly with a little voice calling out, “Help me! Help me!” while being attacked by a spider. Wouldn’t that be cool to see with today’s effects?
Original Film: Ball of Fire (1941)
Remake: A Song is Born (1948)
Why It Works: Somewhat akin to the reasoning behind remaking a silent as a sound film, there is the idea of turning a non-musical into a musical. The concept isn’t limited to cinema, of course, as it was also a big trend on Broadway. A Song is Born basically just takes the premise of Ball of Fire and adds in songs (performed by big band legends like Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong), as well as bright Technicolor cinematography. It is by no means equal, let alone superior, to the first film, which was co-written by Billy Wilder. In fact, it was one of Hawks’ worst reviewed pictures, and it’s likely his own least favorite, as he only agreed to do it after a very persistent Samuel Goldwyn offered him a ridiculous amount of money. The musical is quite beloved nowadays though, especially for the soundtrack. It may not be great in the same way others on this list are, but it is great in terms of how entertaining it is.
Cronenberg Could Learn: Cronenberg already directed a musical version of The Fly, an opera written by Howard Shore and David Henry Hwang, which was performed in Paris and Los Angeles last year. Could this be why he’s suddenly interested in a film remake? Could he want to adapt the opera? It’s unlikely Fox would be into that sort of thing, though it would be pretty cool. Let’s just hope that his reason for becoming involved with this remake isn’t like Hawks’ regrettable excuse. He doesn’t seem like the sort of filmmaker to sell out that easily nor need to.