By Natalya Gilfillan
As I settled down this Christmas to enjoy the usual stream of holiday television and film-watching, I found myself tuning in to the traditional classics that I had watched with my family so many times before. It struck me, as we aimlessly scrolled through Netflix and Amazon, how we always returned to the same choices when selecting a family film – Love Actually, James Bond or some other ‘classic’, as if the endless perusal of TV was pointless. It was as if there was so much choice, we had come full circle and couldn’t find anything at all. Perhaps we all prefer the quick hit offered by something we know we’ll enjoy. Inevitably, when we did decide to watch something new, we were barely halfway before we lost interest and turned to something we already knew and liked – a Bond film we had all seen at least three times already.
This chase of something we’ll enjoy because we know it – a quick rush of familiarity and reliability – is something that seems particularly prevalent at the moment. The endless remakes churned out by Disney and Marvel Studios all suggest one thing: that there is a huge market for remakes, as money-spinners that will draw audiences in time and time again. Disney began a series of live action remakes starting with Cinderella in 2015, swiftly followed by Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil all in the same year (the latter a spin-off of a spin-off). Whilst cinemas struggle against the instant watching offered online, their attempts not to go the same way as the DVD stores lie in the ability to utilise the immense magnetism provided by the wide-screen experience of films we already know and love. Arguably, the originality of film-making has been lost to extensive TV shows, and cinema has fallen back on recreating films that have drawn in huge audiences before. Marvel creators fire out films such as Spider-Man and Black Widow with startling speed and 2020 was the first year in more than a decade without a single Marvel film in release. Spider-Man alone has been remade nine times over the past fifteen years, whilst audiences have seen Warner Bros produce seven Batman films, with an eighth currently in production. As more and more action films are released, cinema as an art form does indeed seem to be dying out.
The simplest explanation for this is that people like what they know. But detractors of these remakes, sequels and prequels offer a far harsher view, arguing that these adaptions stifle cinematic creativity and chase revenue at the expense of the original purpose of cinema - as a director’s avenue for artistic creation. Certainly, the imminent prequel to ‘Game of Thrones’ and the widely-advertised new Star Wars spin-off ‘Boba Fett’ are clearly targeted at reaching audiences through the success of the originals. Considering the first Star Wars film debuted in 1977, it is remarkable, and in some ways ridiculous, that spin-offs are still being made.
However, the recent adaption of West Side Story provided an interesting take on this. The timeless classic released in 1961 seemed to have little room for improvement, taking 10 Oscars and ranking the 41st greatest film on AFI’s '100 Greatest American Movies of All Time' by the American Film Institute. Yet Spielberg’s film was fresh and exciting, reminding audiences how film makers can create new slants on classic films, providing dynamic perspectives. The intro of the film laid out the imminent destruction of the city, making the characters' struggles seem all the more pointless (and all the more tragic therefore), whilst the cinematic shots during the gritty opening credits had a remarkable absence of music, in direct contrast to the 1961 version. The film also had authentic casting, with Latin American actors cast to play the Puerto Rican characters, which the original version had failed to do. There was exploration into the backstories of the Jet and Shark’s poverty-stricken childhoods suffering neglect and abuse, making their depravity and violence more understandable – a cinematic nod to the importance of backstory in a film. Tony’s background was explored with insights into the darker parts of his character, exemplified by his murder of Maria’s brother, Bernardo Vasquez. These and many more changes gave a depth that the old version in some ways lacked, for all its undeniable brilliance, showing the honing a film can get with new takes from different directors. Other films have also had similar success; the Disney live action films had a certain magic to them, quite literally bringing to life the fantasy cartoons the generation before had seen, whilst sequels such as Mary Poppins Returns became a new classic that could belong to the next generation.
In my mind, rewatching classic films or remaking them seems to come back to the same ideas. But remakes provide changes that can give a depth to films new generations can recognise and relate to. Perhaps these remakes aren’t just money-spinners after all, but rather a director’s way of finding their own take on old classics and showing how cinema can find new avenues to be artistic and exciting, even if it is using films that we may have seen before. Although there is an argument these remakes are pointless, now that we all have the ability to enjoy the instant gratification of watching whatever we want at home at any time, it will take a film we already know we’ll enjoy to lure us to the cinema. And more importantly, with the diminishing budget of cinemas, it all comes full circle as these blockbusters will draw in the crowds that will keep the cinemas open and able to show those very artistic films that would otherwise die out.