A Defense of Readaptations

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Remakes have a bad reputation among movie lovers, who claim that they at the least are unnecessary and at the worst somehow ruin the original.

I agree that it would be folly to remake something like Citizen Kane or Sunset Blvd., whose claims to fame are the films themselves.

Some would argue that it would be the same folly to try to remake Gone with the Wind.  But many people do not acknowledge that you can’t remake something like Gone with the Wind unless you plan to completely do away with its source material.

Remake vs. Readaptation

People throw around the term remake far too loosely; a lot of the time, the term readaptation would be more appropriate.

As iconic as something like Gone with the Wind is, its story is not confined to the medium of film.  Margaret Mitchell wrote it as a piece of literature, and the film is merely one way of looking at the text.  True, if someone were to try to make Gone with the Wind today, it would be an uphill battle to compete with the imagery of the 1939 classic – but it would in no way be a cinematic crime.  The same goes for The Wizard of Oz, The Grapes of Wrath, and even Psycho and Jaws.

About a year ago, news broke that two studios were angling to make new versions of Rebecca and Suspicion, both of which Alfred Hitchcock turned into movies in the early 1940s.  Although the studios claim to be going back to the original novels, most of the news headlines latched onto the idea that Hitchcock movies were being remade – rather than saying a Daphne du Maurier or Francis Iles novel were being readapted.  It’s as if the original authors get no credit for creating the stories.

Adaptations and readaptations can be original

Although the plethora of adaptations, readaptations, and remakes might mark a decline in originality in modern moviemaking, there’s another way of looking at the picture:

A good number of classic-era Hollywood movies are based on books, short stories, or plays.

Fresh adaptations can be a lot more original than one might think.

Like it or not, the original screenplay has always contended with the adapted screenplay.  Such classics as It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Casablanca, All About Eve, and Rear Window actually began as stories conceived through media other than film.  People remember these stories now because somebody decided to make a film adaptation.  So let’s not shame a new film just because it’s not original.

Second, a new take on an established story can breathe new life into it.  For one example, I’m thinking of His Girl Friday, based on the play The Front Page, which had already been turned into a film before.  In a stroke of genius, His Girl Friday makes one of the lead characters a woman, adding a romantic comedy angle to the dark social humor – and becoming much better remembered for it.

I’m also thinking of Andrea Arnold’s most recent film, a new take on Wuthering Heights.  Emily Brontë’s novel had already been adapted for film and television a couple dozen times (most notably in William Wyler’s classic 1939 version), but Arnold turned it into something wholly new, exposing a grittier story.  Although she, like Wyler, only adapts the first half of the novel, her take on the story starkly contrasts the glossier 1939 film.

And yet His Girl Friday and Arnold’s Wuthering Heights generally aren’t referred to as remakes.  Is it because His Girl Friday has a distinctive spin?  Because Wuthering Heights is so respected a novel that Arnold’s film is clearly readapting the source material?

Regardless, I would love for other adaptations to be granted the same leeway.  There’s no need to tie ourselves to one adaptation of a written work, no matter how great that adaptation is.

So, yes, I’d love to see someone take another stab at adapting something like Gone with the Wind.  Why should we only have one fully realized way of visualizing the story?

Remake or Readaptation?

I’ve tried to present a straightforward argument, but I too realize that there are wrinkles here.  I would love to hear your take on the differences.  What if the old film is far greater than the original book, short story, or play – and the new adaptation directly references the old film?  Would you consider cases like these remakes or readaptations?  And do they hold artistic merit?

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5 thoughts on “A Defense of Readaptations

  1. I love readaptions. Like you say, it’s just another window on a story. I might not end up liking the readaption, but that won’t have anything to do with it BEING a readaption. Gone With the Wind is a favorite of mine — but how cool would it be to see a 2013 version? Quite, quite cool. I might end up not liking the 2013 version, but I’d immediately be ready to see 2014 take a stab at it. 🙂 Reese Witherspoon for Scarlett!

    • Exactly! Even if a readaptation is not how I envisioned the book/story/play/etc, I think it’s still better that multiple adaptations of these great stories exist. It would be fascinating to see what 2013 or 2014 sensibilities would do with GWTW. The only problem is that long movies are quite rare, so even more of the plot of the book would probably be lost…

  2. Good point! I’m confess that I always cringe a bit when I hear of novels being re-adapted, especially when I love the original adaptation. But many times I end up liking the re-adaptation too. I have to remember that the intent of the filmmaker is to capture the essence of the source material.

    • I completely understand why you would cringe at the idea, as a lot of modern adaptations perhaps stretch originality to the point of being too “out there.” (I think a couple of years ago someone was planning to adapt Captain Blood in space, for example.) But a surprising number of modern readaptations are pretty good, especially if they illuminate the source novel in a way that the original couldn’t quite do.

  3. Pingback: 5 Reasons Why I’m Excited for the New Rebecca Film | Many Media Musings

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