The Less-than-magnificent Ambersons, Et Al.

As unsatisfying as lukewarm leftovers, slavish remakes are cheap and easy, but they lack creativity and new ingredients.

January 13, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Here's a proposition for TV executives everywhere: stop remaking the fabulous films of yesteryear, unless you truly can bring something new to the party.

In other words, let's ban remakes, in favor of rethinks. If you can bring something new to the material, by all means go ahead. But if all you're looking to do is capture lightning in a bottle twice, spare us the effort.

The difference may not seem apparent at first, but three hours of your time tonight should prove my point. Beginning at 8 p.m., the A&E cable network is premiering a remake of Orson Welles' 1942 film, The Magnificent Ambersons. Anyone who watches it, and is at all familiar with Welles' earlier work, will wonder why the TV folks bothered to come up with this inferior copy of a flawed masterpiece.

There's nary a stitch of original thinking in this new production -- a fact the filmmakers essentially acknowledge by not even including a writing credit with the film, so faithful is it to the earlier version (what new dialogue there is was apparently lifted right out of the Booth Tarkington novel on which both films are based). Save for some additional scenes, which had been trimmed at the order of nervous studio executives before the original film was released, The Magnificent Ambersons 2002 does little to build on The Magnificent Ambersons 1942.

And this isn't the first time TV remakes have been satisfied with simply redoing what came before. Last year, TNT unveiled a new version of High Noon that only made viewers realize how inseparable Gary Cooper and the original 1952 film are. Ballyhooed remakes of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Ann-Margret in the role made famous by Vivien Leigh, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Jessica Lange filling in for Elizabeth Taylor, turned into little more than homages to the original actresses.

Coloring inside the lines

There are loads of potential explanations for such slavish devotion to what has come before. In years past, before videotape turned every home into a repertory theater, remakes were a way of introducing new audiences to time-tested material. In recent years, the ascendancy of such classic movie networks as TCM and AMC has made older films even more available.

Perhaps there's a thought that it can be done better. That may be hard to imagine when the source material sprang from the creative imaginations of such men as Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, but not every film from Hollywood's yesteryears was the product of such genius. When A&E decided to air a new take on The Great Gatsby early last year, one doubts they were put off by the prospect of second-guessing Jack Clayton, who directed the 1974 version, starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford.

Maybe there's even a noble side to the notion of remaking old films. Because hardly anything is shot in black and white anymore, there's a whole generation of young moviegoers out there who would rather cut off their right arms than watch an entire film in black and white (thank goodness The Wizard of Oz was shot in glorious Technicolor). Remaking The Hunchback of Notre Dame in color is certainly preferable to colorizing the original.

But kids outgrow that aversion to black and white, and soon even they would admit the 1933 King Kong is superior to the 1976 color version. And let's pray TV never decides to adapt the big monkey to the small screen, complete with animatronic apes and the Olsen twins subbing for Fay Wray.

Riskier gambles can pay off

The bottom line, however, is that new ideas can be hard to come by. It's far cheaper -- and easier -- to adapt an old script than commission a new one, and the financial risks are certainly less in bringing time-tested material to the screen than in starting from scratch.

Would it be too much to ask, however, that filmmakers raiding the Hollywood vaults for material bring something new to the table? Expand or tighten the stories, re-imagine characters, adopt a style that will shed new light on the story. Do something to make the attraction more than a famous name.

Remakes that fill that bill are certainly possible. Moviegoers have to look no farther than Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, which is so vastly superior to the 1960 version that comparisons hardly seem fair. Baz Luhrmann's 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet showed no material is too old, or too revered, to be thrown into a blender.

Even TV has had its share of successes. The 1982 miniseries version of John Steinbeck's East of Eden distinguished itself from the 1955 version with its increased length (which allowed more fleshing-out of the characters and situations) and a shift of focus, from the two scrapping sons (James Dean and Richard Davalos in the 1955 film) to the seductress (Jane Seymour on TV) who wraps them both around her little finger.

Great successes don't come without great risks. In the world of remakes, television executives need to be reminded of that.

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