Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Adaptations, Updates, and Just Plain Acts of Desperation

The new Live Free or Die Hard comes out today, 12 years after our last outing with John McClane. Critics have been unable to resist comparing this oddly timed update of the Die Hard franchise with the recent return of Rocky Balboa (17 years after Rocky 5) and the upcoming (ultra-bloody) return of John Rambo (almost 20 years after Rambo 3). Now, if we could just get Commando 2, Delta Force 3, and Red Dawn 2, we could call this a real ‘80s action reunion!

But seriously, the studios have been quite unabashed recently in digging back into their winning franchises of the past. Examples of this include the Charlie’s Angels duology, the Mummy duology, Superman Returns, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, all of the recent John Carpenter remakes, Will Smith’s upcoming I am Legend, Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor, Adam Sandler’s The Longest Yard, the upcoming updates of Clash of the Titans, Escape from New York, Transformers, GI Joe, and He-Man, and many, many more. This coming fall on TV, we will see souped up reincarnations of the Bionic Woman and Flash Gordon.

I have commented a lot lately on Hollywood’s inclination to mine the past, whether it be adapting works from novels, short stories, comic books, amusement park rides, or video games to the screen, reviving existing silver screen franchises, or just plain pillaging the vaults of the great films of the past. In other businesses, this is called harnessing your core competencies or getting behind a tried and true product. It works for Coca Cola and Cadillac and General Mills. In the entertainment industry, however, it just signals a gross shortage of original ideas.

Now don’t get me wrong: not all of these have been bad. Some may have even outdone their predecessors. Peter Jackson’s King Kong, for instance, paid respectful homage to the original but breathed new post-modern life into it technically, dramatically, and artistically. It will not be hard to outdo the laughable production value or the rickety stop-motion creatures of the original Clash of the Titans. I predict that Will Smith will easily outperform Charlton Heston’s Omega Man, which strayed far from its own source material and drowned itself in ‘60s psychadelia and religio-phobic social commentary. Indeed, great movies can come from this revival of past material.

Nevertheless, some attempts have just been plain shameful. The John Carpenter remakes, for example, have basically proceeded in this fashion: “Remember that Carpenter flick. That movie rocked! But just imagine if they did the same movie with new CGI. Hey, wait a minute… What if we did the same movie just with new CGI?! Oh, man, this is going to make a fortune. Hand me that original script and I’m just going to add in more violence and more chances to show off those digital effects.” Other attempts, like the Charlie’s Angels movies, have taken this tack: “Remember that good old TV series about those hot chicks who solved crimes for that old guy they never saw. That was so funny but also so hip, what with all the girl power messaging and retro fashions. I bet that would have some good audience recognition value. But, man, no one would ever want to see a movie about three women who were just plain detectives. I mean, how could we ever do any ridiculously distracting, unbelievably choreographed visual tricks and fight sequences with such a boring bunch of characters… Wait a minute! A lightbulb just came on! Why don’t we call it ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ but then insert three totally different girls, ditsy girls with inexplicable kung fu skills, heavy weaponry experience, and a massive wardrobe. They’ll still talk to that old guy through the radio but that’s about it. When we aren’t thrilling the audience with wire-fu acrobatics, we’ll keep them hooked by blasting pop tunes and making fun of the original series. Oh, that’s ironic and sassy. Audiences love ironic and sassy. It’s genius!”

So what’s the deal with Hollywood? Why are they unable (or unwilling) to create original characters and stories for film and TV? Obviously, they want something with a proven track record and a fan base. I get that. But shouldn’t they also be seeking to create the next great franchise, the next Star Wars, the next Matrix, the next Die Hard? The truth is simple: adaptations and updates = low risk investment; completely original = high risk investment. That’s why the studios reserve their gambles on original content for low budget comedies and dramas. Yes, my friends, the accountants are holding the staff of power here. Unfortunately, these accountants have no eye for a good investment or a bad investment, only for high or low risk. And that’s no way to invest in any business.

So, at this rate it seems that great original blockbusters will be a once-in-a-decade phenomenon. Expect to see every TV show, movie, book, video game, consumer packaged good, or song you ever even thought might make a decent film make it to the big or small screen. And expect those movies you love today to be recycled as many times as they possibly can to turn a profit. Some will be good; some will be desperate, blood-sucking pieces of no-good commercial trash.

So, is there any hope for great original blockbusters in the near future? Is Hollywood so caught up in risk and marketability that a glimpse of one of these might be as rare as a sasquatch sighting? Should I just be happy with those great adaptations and updates that come our way- just put up or shut up? Chime in and throw in your two cents!


  1. I think you may have answered your own question. Great achievements or at least good ideas come along every decade or so. But I think we're only looking at the blockbusters. Matrix was a good idea, and I'm sure it did really well at the box office, and I know people came out saying, "I've never seen anything like that before," but looking back at it, was it a great film? The acting was tepid, the story was typical cyber-punk, the special effects were average. It was the presentation, the cinematography, the candy coated spoon feeding that got us. The creators weren't afraid of the scope, they didn't let things like grandeur stop them.

    Spielberg did the same thing. Kubrick did the same thing. Welles and Kurosaw and Copolla did the same thing.

    The Lord of the Rings trilogy is still recent enough that I don't think we'll see something that grand and well handled for another couple years. Pixar tries really hard, but in the end they make movies for children and can only be so profound.

    But we also have to look at non-blockbuster movies. Even in adaptations there are decent movies, but most of those are books. Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain, Lolita, Clockwork Orange, Schindler's List. All critically acclaimed, none really a box office smash.

    Now, with that in mind, there have been some good film remakes too, and not all of them either critically acclaimed or major hits, but better than the original; Ocean's 11, The Fly, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Shop of Horrors. Not great movies maybe, but not as bad as the idea of Charlie's Angels.

    I also here tell there's the boy named Harry Potter that's been something of a success.

    Will Clash of the Titans and Thundercats flop? You bet. They only way they'd have a chance at being a decent film is to completely abandon what made them successful movies or shows in the 80's, utter and complete improbability and camp. These aren't the 70's or 80's any more, these are the Oughts. People are smarter. Even shows like that wouldn't fly now, but there's one thing we always forget.

    There are no new ideas, just new ways to present them.

    I'm kind of looking forward to Bionic Woman, personally. It looks like they'll handle it seriously, which is the best way to handle anything any time you remake it.

  2. I love a good movie, whether it be an adaptation or a remake or a completely original work. What bothers me about this trend is that it indicates an inability (or unwillingness?) to create great, completely new blockbusters.

    The second thing about this that bothers me is that it seems to be overly commercially driven, pushed by bean counters instead of people with an ounce of vision. That's my beef with the industry.

    Untapped talent exists out there; great new stories are waiting to be told. But unless they carry a pricetag of $50M or less, forget about ever seeing them except once in a blue moon.

    Again, I love any good film. In fact, most of the great films we are seeing lately are adaptations and updates. I just worry about Hollywood beating the same stories and characters to death, sucking them dry of all profitability and potential, and then leaving us to mourn the loss of some things that should not have been toyed with.


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