Orient Express – rehash, reimagining or redundant?

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Remaking an admired movie is such a dangerous move. Is it a chance to put a new modern spin on a timeless story, or is it a sacrilegious attempt to cash in on lingering goodwill for a movie? Is there a point where perfection has been reached, and it’s time to leave well alone? Well, this last week I ventured forth to give Kenneth Branagh’s new version of, ( Murder On The Orient Express (2017)) and also had a chance to see the recent version of The Dark Tower.

In this case, I suspect the motives were pure – Branagh has tried to modernise the way the story is told, and uses some fun cinematographic tricks to do so.. but somewhere along the line the essence of what made the earlier version so memorable has dissipated. On the other hand, the recent remake of “It” was a critical and commercial success. So what is it about remakes..?

To have a conversation about remakes, it’s worth splitting them into a few different categories…

1. From novel / stageplay

Murder on the Orient Express falls into this category – it seems less egregious to go back to a story originally told in a different medium – since surely since the reading of a novel involves such a degree of imagination on the part of the reader, there are an infinite variety of versions to be visualized. The tricky thing though is to make it something that enough of an audience will relate to, without being too niche an interpretation to turn people off, or too unimaginative to give the fans of the book what they wanted (The Dark Tower..?). When you do it right, you end up with “Lord of the rings”, which most people would say was definitive – far more so than the previous 1978 animated version. Likewise – what about Ben-Hur? This was a successful movie epically told with state of the art stunts and visual effects and production design – and I’m talking about the 1907 version. Then of course it was remade in 1925 – the most expensive movie of the silent era, by some estimates. And yet still, with the advent of sound and colour, another remake in 1959 scooped a record number of Oscars. I won’t mention the subsequent animated version, 2010 mini-series or utterly redundant 2016 version. Then again, for every Ben-Hur there’s a Sahara, or a Dune (also due another remake). Many divide opinion.. I rather liked the 2013 Baz Luhrmann take on The Great Gatsby.. but many didn’t, with perhaps their memory of the book being too different, to Luhrmann’s idiosyncratic style.

2. From foreign language

This category has a higher percentage rate of success stories.. often the original version is better – but remaking into English gives it a wider audience, and often the success of the original allows more budget for the remake (Three Men and a baby, The Magnificent Seven). Let’s not forget that A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was a remake of Yojimbo from 3 years earlier. But then, was the English language version of Taxi really superior to the French language version? Different, yes – better, no. Perhaps the best vindication of a remake – “Some Like It Hot (1959) was a remake of a French movie from 1935.. and who remembers “Fanfare of Love” now..? What is great about some of these examples is how a new language allows a new spin and a new lease of imagination rather than a retread. A new language can give you a new point of view to explore the ideas.. or, you can end up with risible pointless versions like Swept Away..

3. From earlier movie

There are so few real success stories in this category, remaking an earlier original movie, you have to wonder why they bother continuing to try. The problem is, it is often classic or highly successful movies that are remade (The Wicker Man (2006), Planet of the Apes (2001), The Pink Panther (2010) are all examples of dire remakes, presumably on the concept that there would be a built in audience of fans of the original. There are cases where a remake does do something to warrant its existence – even if not better, it is different and interesting in its own right – Scorcese’s Cape Fear was an interesting reimagining of the original Mitchum classic. Howard Hawkes managed to pretty much remake his own movie several times (Rio Bravo became El Dorado and later Rio Lobo, before being remade by John Carpenter as Assault on Precinct 13. Remaking a movie just because the original was in black and white is also a frankly heretic thought – you need look no further than Gus van Sant’s Psycho to confirm that. And who would honestly say we need a ‘colour remake’ of classic movies like Casablanca or It’s a Wonderful Life..? Remakes have given us classics though – The Thing by John Carpenter was far superior to the original 50’s version. Ocean’s Eleven was somehow even cooler with Clooney et al than it was with the Rat Pack, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was funnier and smarter than the 1960’s original (Bedtime Story)

Ultimately, remakes have to be taken on their own merit – forget the original and try to assess the movie by itself, for the audience it was made for. But it sure can be hard to put aside your memories of the original or other multiple predecessors. Yes, there are good remakes out there – but it’s a brave producer who thinks he knows he has the right new spin or has picked the right time to produce a remake.. Ultimately, it’s not the success, the language or the source that matter – it’s how rich a story is, and what new eyes you have to bring out something new. The new Orient Express is a case of rich story, not enough new has come to the table.

Orient Express – rehash, reimagining or redundant?


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