Every time a remake of a beloved film or franchise gets announced, there will be at least one person who says, “This is the worst idea ever, and everyone involved in that production should die instead of ruining my childhood” or some equivalent. Occasionally, that person is me.
Without fail, there will be at least one person who then says, “You’re an idiot. A remake doesn’t somehow invalidate the existence of the old film or ruin that old experience for you. Pop in the original and all will be forgotten.”
And that one person will be wrong, because a bad remake can invalidate the existence of an old film and ruin that old experience.
Because I’ve found myself so invested in Korean cinema in the past few years, most people don’t recognize the names of films I have seen. I mention The Thieves or Castaway on the Moon (both highly recommended, by the way) or any other number of films and all I get are blank stares. One of the rare exceptions to that rule is Oldboy. Although most people haven’t seen the film, they are at least aware of its existence. I can tell them that they have to see it, and although I cannot in good conscience recommend the dubbed version available on Netflix Instant, people seem more receptive to that than most.
When Spike Lee’s remake is released, things will be different. Recognition of the name Oldboy will skyrocket, but it won’t be Oldeuboi that people are thinking about; it will be Oldboy. I’ll explain that I’m not talking about the story of Joe Douchett (seriously, what kind of name is that?), and that the story of Oh Dae-Su is vastly more compelling, but then the blank stares will come back. I’m making broad sweeping judgments about the remake, but I think it would be basically impossible for Spike Lee to live up to Park Chan-Wook’s original. Oldeuboi is one of the best films ever. There is no reason to believe that Oldboy will be, and after Oldboy is released, people won’t care, especially if it turns out to be decent in and of itself.
Because, on the whole, people don’t actually seek out originals. Even I’m guilty of that. I see the American remake and that’s good enough for me. There are too many movies to watch to experience a narrative twice without damn good reason. So when people tell me that the three-hour miniseries version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is superior to Fincher’s version, I believe them. Maybe one day I’ll watch it, but it’s not a priority now and I doubt it will ever be. If they want to talk to me about the finer points of that film, I’ll shrug and let them do so, but it will be a terrible conversation. I saw Let the Right One In, but had Let Me In been released before I did so, I probably would have ignored the original and felt satisfied enough.
Which is completely terrible, because one of my favorite things about movies is the discussions that can take place afterwards. So maybe watching primarily Korean movies is a bad way to go about that, but I try to spread my interests whenever I can. I invite friends over pretty much any time I’m watching something, and sometimes people actually show up. I can talk with them about Padak Padak or A Fish and get that shared experience. Wanting to talk about an original only to learn that the other party has only seen the remake is disheartening, and convincing that person to sit down and watch the original so it can be discussed is every bit as unlikely as that person convincing you to see the remake in order to just discuss that. Barring the existence of a particularly pointless shot-for-shot remake (I will never see the original Funny Games because I’ve already seen the remake), discussions will be forcibly limited.
One thing that is important to remember is just how fluid memory is. Every single time a memory is recalled it is reformed in a slightly different way. This affects everything in life, from memories of a person’s whereabouts on any given day to the sequence of events in a particular film. I have an extremely vivid image in my mind of a shot from Memento that is not in the film. The last two times I have watched it, that shot has not been there despite me being completely sure it is there. (The irony of misremembering that film is not lost on me.) And it’s a really important shot, too. But it’s not a real shot, and if it was things would get even more confusing than they actual are. I don’t know why I remember that shot, but I do, and in discussing the film it’s possible that I could convince someone else that it is there (there is something similar to it near the end). The way a movie is discussed can radically shape the way it is remembered. It’s a weird thing to think about, but it’s significant.
Watching a different version of a film can also affect those memories. Seeing the Director’s Cut of a film will change the way a Theatrical Cut (inferior or not) is experienced, because the differences will color the way everything else is seen. Deleted scenes can do the same thing, although the lack of context can make those a bit easier to disassociate from. Seeing a remake will do the same thing. Those changed emotional associations will stay and they will change the way films are seen. The experience of watching Oldeuboi again will never be the same after watching Oldboy. I can pop it in whenever and see it and love it and enjoy it, but it will have been changed in some way. Watching an original after seeing a remake will have that film seen through the lens of that. For better or worse, it will be constantly compared in the same way any kind of adaptation is. “Why did they change this?” “Why did they cut that?” Those questions will . Even if it’s better, “Wow, that was amazing!” becomes “Why the hell did the remake not keep this scene? It’s so amazing!” or (more likely) “This is so much better than the way that stupid remake did it.” Both of those things will change the experience, and change it for the worse.
There is really only one case where this won’t be an issue, and that’s when the remake is so radically different from the original that it may as well be a different film altogether. Such is the case with the Franck Khalfoun’s recent remake of the 1980 film Maniac. The remake, which is shot almost exclusively from the point of view of the killer (in this case played by Elijah Wood) differentiates the film from the 1980 original to such a degree that the two are completely disconnected in my mind. The cinematography techniques don’t always work, but my issues with are unrelated to its predecessor. Khalfoun wanted to make something different and worth seeing even for people who saw the original, and he did so. The most fundamental narrative may be the same, but in execution things could hardly be more different. Without the Maniac name (and the removal of a few shots that are there as fan service), it could stand on its own.
In Stephen Soderbergh’s State of Cinema address, he lamented the current state of remakes. He said, “Why are you always remaking the famous movies? Why aren’t you looking back into your catalog and finding some sort of programmer that was made 50 years ago that has a really good idea in it, that if you put some fresh talent on it, it could be really great.” While everything that I said above would apply to these films, it wouldn’t matter because no one would care. Remaking mediocre films in general could avoid a lot of these issues. Remaking bad films could be even better; there’s nowhere to go but up.
And I don’t see why filmmakers shouldn’t do that. I’m not fundamentally against remakes, but I am fundamentally against remakes of great films that don’t differentiate themselves in the way that Maniac does and I have heard The Departed does. I wouldn’t actually know about the latter, though, because as much as I want to see Infernal Affairs, I have already seen The Departed. I feel just content enough that I haven’t been able to force myself to watch Infernal Affairs in lieu of some other movie that I will experience with completely fresh eyes. I feel bad about it, and I feel awkward not being able to say I have seen Infernal Affairs, but there are only so many hours in the day, and I’m not watching movies at double speed.
When I say that a bad remake can ruin the experience of an original film, I mean the entire experience. Watching the movie is changed, thinking about the movie is changed, and talking about the movie is changed. Instead of getting remake rights for every popular foreign film, American distribution companies should pick up the rights to make those films available and show people what they’re missing. People might not like reading their movies, but if they can be shown that getting over that initial hump is worth it, it will open up a whole new world for them. I think that would do far more for the health of the film industry than pumping out inferior remakes.
And after all this complaining and moaning, Spike Lee’s Oldboy might be awesome. I’m holding out hope that it is and somehow differentiates itself to the degree that I can write an open letter of apology to the man and his crew. It’s definitely among the more high profile remakes in recent memory, and it’s got some massive shoes to fill. If it’s bad, Oldeuboi will pay a price. If it’s decent, Oldeuboi‘s fans will. If it’s great, then it won’t really matter, because everyone should see it anyway. I won’t be running in the streets if that last one happens, but I’ll be happy about it. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll tone it down the next time I hear a beloved film is being remade.
Except with the Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance remake. That thing is going to be terrible.