Re-Viewing Remakes

By Verevis, Constantine | Film Criticism, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Re-Viewing Remakes


Verevis, Constantine, Film Criticism


Constantine Verevis

Preamble: The remake is both an industrial and a critical genre. Defined primarily in relation to a body of copyright law, the acknowledged or credited remake develops from being an "ethical solution" to the early practice of duping to become an economically driven staple of the Hollywood industrial mode of representation. Following the Hollywood "recession of 1969" and the "small-and-weird-can-be-beautiful-revolution" of the early seventies, the remake (along with the sequel) becomes typical of the defensive production and marketing strategies of a "post Jaws" Hollywood. In the case of the unacknowledged remake, the absence of a production credit shifts attention from a legal-industrial definition to a critical-interpretive one, in which the remake is determined in relation to a "general discursive field [that] is mediated by the structure of the [filmic] system and by the authority of the [film and] literary canon" (Frow, "Intertextuality and Ontology" 46). In either instance, "the intertextual referentiality between a remake and its `original' is largely extratextual" (Friedberg 175), located in historically specific technologies and institutional practices such as copyright law and authorship, canon formation and film literacy.

In their almost one thousand page long Cinema Sequels and Remakes, 1903-1987, Roben Nowlan and Gwendoline Wright Nowlan devote not quite two full pages to explaining the selection criteria for one thousand and twenty five alphabetically listed "primary films" and the many more associated remakes and sequels that make up their reference volume. The brevity of Nowlan and Nowlan's introduction is attributable to the fact that they make little attempt to define either remake or sequel, but rather take these as received categories, i.e., their principal criterion for selection is that a film has been previously designated as a remake or sequel in any two or more of a number of unidentified but "reliable source[s]," which list remakes and sequels of certain genres of films (xi-xii). While this type of lax definition makes for a wide selection of material and does not preclude the inferential reconstruction of at least some of the unspecified principles of selection (through an examination of those films that have been included), Nowlan and Nowlan's intuitive approach underscores the extent to which the remake is conceived more through actual usage and common understanding than through rigorous definition.(1)

While Nowlan and Nowlan put aside problems of categorization to list thousands of films, Michael B. Druxman's more modest (in scope) Make It Again, Sam, which sets out "to provide a comprehensive dissertation on the remake practice" by "detailing the film life of [thirty-three] literary properties" (9), attempts to ground its selection in some preliminary definitions. Druxman begins by electing to limit the category of remake "to those theatrical films that were based on a common literary source (i.e., story, novel, play, poem, screenplay), but were not a sequel to that material" (9). This "seemingly infallible signpost" is however complicated by those films that are "obviously remakes [but] do not credit their origins" (9). In such cases Druxman adopts a heuristic device--a rule of thumb--which requires that a new film "borrow more than just an element or two from its predecessor to qualify" (9). This in turn allows Druxman to distinguish between "nonfiction films" of a single historical incident or biography of a historical figure (e.g., the mutiny on the Bounty or the life of Jesse James) which differ because they are based around competing versions of the same incident, and those "nonfiction films" of a like historical incident which are similar even though they are based upon diverse literary sources (9). As might be expected from an approximate rule which arbitrates according to whether a film's borrowings are "significant" or only amount to "an element or two," Druxman ultimately admits that "there were many marginal situations . …

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