Update the Classics? Sure, Why Not?

As I was scrolling through TCM’s schedule this week, I noticed the 1946 Sherlock Holmes movie, Dressed to Kill, which aired yesterday morning.  Years ago, when I first saw the Basil Rathbone series, I was dismayed by the later films in the series that updated the story to the present day.  There was something about seeing modern vehicles and appliances in a Sherlock Holmes story.  Now, of course, the story has been done in the time period it was written, in the present day of the 21st century and with both genders in the lead role.  And it no longer bothers me one bit.


There was a time when remakes of classic movies bothered me.  Now, I find myself trying to remember why.  I really don’t know anymore.  I suppose with age comes the feeling that some things are important, some things aren’t.  Other art forms redo classic works all the time.  In music, you never cover a lousy song, you cover a great one.  In the theater, you don’t do a revival of a failed play, you do one that was a roaring success.  Why should it be any different for film?

Last week I watched The Lady Vanishes.  No, not the original, which I’ve seen a dozen times and have the Criterion DVD for repeated viewings in the future.  I watched the remake, the one made in 1979 with Cybill Shepherd, Elliott Gould, and Angela Lansbury.  I’d refused to watch it for years because how dare they remake such a classic!  But here’s the thing: Had it been a great remake, it would have gone down as such and it wouldn’t bother anyone.  Had it been a stinker, same result.  So what’s the problem?

As it turns out, it wasn’t quite a stinker but it wasn’t very good, either.  It didn’t bother me either way.  When Phillip Kaufman decided to remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he succeeded so well that many people still think it’s better than the original.   In fact, I’m among them.  I think it’s better than the original and as a result, I’ve watched it more times than the original but I should make it clear that I love both.  I just think the remake’s slightly better.  Since it was so good, you never hear complaints about Invasion of the Body Snatchers being remade in 1978.  But when a remake is bad, you hear things like, “They should remake bad movies to make them better, not classics.”  I know because I’ve said that myself, many times.  But now I don’t necessarily trust that point of view anymore.

Want to remake Casablanca?  Go ahead!  If the remake stinks, well, no one will be very surprised.  If it’s good, they’ll be pleasantly surprised.  If it’s great, it will go down alongside the original and people will debate which one they like better, just like they do with Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  But here’s what won’t happen, no matter what the movie turns out to be:  It will not, in any way, ever, change the fact that the original is a masterpiece.  And if it won’t change that, ever, then what’s the problem?

Oh, I know: If the remake’s good, people will never watch the original.  Eh, maybe.  Even so, enough people will and it will always be there for the watching should someone choose to do so.  I remember this coming up twice in the last decade or two, with the remake of Psycho and the remake of Charade.  I was among the hoards complaining that Psycho was untouchable and should never be remade.  Why?  Did I think the original would be forgotten in lieu of the brand new, and in color, remake?  I bet I did.  I was a fool.  And even if the Gus Van Sant remake had struck a nerve with moviegoers and become a modern day classic, I’d always have the original to watch so I’m not quite sure why any scenario outside of Van Sant destroying the original print would bother me.  Same with Charade (the remake, directed by Jonathan Demme, was titled The Truth About Charlie), I thought somehow the remake would supplant the original (I know, I must have been on a bender that week).  Again, even if it had, who cares?


Quite frankly, the older I get the more I’m in favor of remaking classics instead of bad or disappointing movies.  I say, take something that was great in its day and see if you can repeat it.  Now, this is a bit selfish on my part because what I’m wishing for here is the filmmaker to spend millions of dollars just to run a little experiment for me.  I’m a firm believer that movies are of their time and if you want to remake something, you have to make it for the time in which it’s remade.  Even if they take place in a specific period, it will succeed or fail based on how well it relates to the world around it.  So when Philip Kaufman remade Body Snatchers, he didn’t fill it with an air of threatening communism but a loss of emotion due to everyone becoming a counter-culture space cadet.  It became as much about 1978 and San Francisco as the first had been about 1956 and the threat of communism.  So I’d like to see what a filmmaker would do with some of the great classics.  Would they be smart enough to update it in the right ways?  Van Sant didn’t update Psycho and, he claims, didn’t really want to.  He claims he was doing exactly what I’m talking about, that is, running an experiment to see if something from a specific time period would work in a new time period if left unchanged.  The answer, I believe, was no.

One problem a lot of us have is clinging to the original regardless of the quality of the remake.  I suffer from that with many movies but hopefully, I’m getting past it.  I see people get upset about a remake like True Grit and I don’t really understand the fuss.  John Wayne’s John Wayne and always will be.  Jeff Bridges is Jeff Bridges.  I like them both and I like both movies.  Why not do Citizen Kane next?  How come The Seven Samurai can get remade from The Magnificent Seven to A Bug’s Life and no one cares but Citizen Kane is untouchable?  Remake it!  No one’s ever going to touch the original but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be damn curious to see what someone could do with a remake.  And stop redoing the original Star Wars trilogy’s special effects.  Remake it instead!  After the next three get made I say go back and redo the first three.  Keep coming up with more original works, too, of course.  Much more original than remakes.  But when you do a remake, challenge yourself.  Pick a classic, like Gus Van Sant did, and see if you can successfully update for a new audience or as an alternate take for the old audience.  I won’t complain.  Not anymore.

27 Responses Update the Classics? Sure, Why Not?
Posted By Tim : April 9, 2014 2:28 pm

Interesting post- although I’d rather see less remakes than more these days, they’re inevitable, and remakes have been going on since the 1940s if not earlier, so it’s not completely a product of modern times. I do find it troubling that remakes are so plentiful these days (think it speaks to a dearth of original ideas), and seem to have read somewhere that studios have their own departments committed to looking through their past output for remake ideas.

Think I also read somewhere that although Rathbone and Bruce were brought into the current time (back then) for their entertaining Holmes films, director Roy William Neill intentionally started minimizing the modern day references, which in my opinion is why they still stand up so well, along with the duo’s fine performances.

Posted By missrhea : April 9, 2014 2:51 pm

While I like to think of myself as an old (i.e., classic) film fan, I find that many times I’ve seen the remake long before the original or subsequent remakes. I’m thinking about You’ve Got Mail/In the Good,Old Summertime/The Shop Around the Corner in particular. I like You’ve Got Mail the best but it may be because I saw it first and it reflects my life in a small way (I met my husband through our employer’s internal conferencing boards several years before the Internet exploded onto the public’s consciousness). I see the charm of the ‘original’ The Shop Around the Corner but I don’t care for In the Good, Old Summertime at all. Maybe it’s the choice of actors that makes the difference.

I love The Enchanted Cottage even though I’ve never seen the ‘original’ version and I absolutely hate the idea of anyone remaking it now.

I wonder why it bothers us with films but we tolerate it all the time with television which is always remaking/updating something from years ago?

Posted By heidi : April 9, 2014 4:18 pm

With regards to the Sherlock Holmes series, I don’t look at the modern remakes and tv series as really Sherlock Holmes. To me, they have no taste of the originals, that’s what lets me sleep at night anyway. As to Body Snatchers, the only one I can watch is the original. And I say watch with the one caveat: I can’t watch it alone, it creeps me out too much. I saw it at an entirely too young age, and it left quite an impression with me-and I am old now! I have seen the Donald Sutherland movie a few times, but it doesn’t give me the creepy crawlies that the original one does…which is what I want, darn it! But, that is the only one that is ever shown it seems. I am waiting for the original to be aired so I can watch it, with my husband in the room, and a blanket to throw over my head. I am not of fan of remaking movies in general. It has been done, do something different! Aren’t there any independent thinkers out there that can make movies? And, the Shop Around the Corner is my favorite of those movies. I love it when Jimmy Stewart has to pull up his pants legs to show Margaret Sullivan he doesn’t have bow legs. I am easily entertained, I guess.

Posted By LD : April 9, 2014 5:13 pm

In the past I have made the mistake of seeing a remake first. For years I didn’t see the original THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE because I disliked the remake. My mistake. On the other hand, seeing THE PAINTED VEIL remake encouraged me to see the original and I preferred the remake, not a lot, but enough. Then there is BODY HEAT, not a remake so much as derivative of DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Both films I like.

Films from plays are different. Plays are meant to be performed over and over so I find remaking them more acceptable. I have seen two remakes of STREETCAR, both made for television. They had fine performances and were true to Williams play not having to deal with the censorship of the 1950′s. For me the original is the best.

In keeping with comments already made, where are the writers? The people with original ideas?

Posted By Emgee : April 9, 2014 8:27 pm

Citizen Trump…. i like it! And maybe in a remade Casablanca Rick and Ilse will get on that plane together after all. “Sorry, Victor, this seat’s taken”
Dorothy will never have to go back to Kansas again and Scarlett and Rhett take marriage counseling.

Soon in a cinema near you!

Posted By AL : April 9, 2014 9:24 pm

It’s been said before, but has never happened: Instead of remaking “classic” films, why don’t they take one that was/is considered a failure, correct the flaws and remake it that way?

Posted By LD : April 9, 2014 9:51 pm

AL, I think that is what happened when they remade THE MALTESE FALCON in 1941. The original in 1931 did not do well, and neither did SATAN MET A LADY in 1936. I don’t know of other versions.

Posted By Doug : April 9, 2014 9:54 pm

They can re-make the movies just fine, but they can’t re-make the actors, the stars whom we connect with roles.
Look at the Wizard of Oz-WE may never be comfortable with another Dorothy because Judy Garland is “our” Dorothy. “We” may never, but we aren’t everyone-why shouldn’t a new teenaged actress take on the role? Make it her own in a new “Oz” picture for the generations who lack the connection to the classic that we have?
Who is the best Hamlet? The best Scrooge?
My favorite Sherlock (when in a certain mood)is Michael Caine in 1988′s “Without A Clue”. Ben Kingley as Watson, Lysette Anthony as the beautiful lady in trouble, Peter Cook and Jeff Jones for comic relief. I wouldn’t mind seeing that film re-made.

Posted By Dan : April 9, 2014 10:57 pm

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” has been made at least 3 times. “Showboat” (a musical) has been made at least twice. Does anyone know the movie (story) that has been remade the most number of times, and the movie (musical) that has been remade the most number of times?

Posted By Jenni : April 10, 2014 12:18 am

I usually err on the side of sticking with the original version of a film but, I saw the 1934 film Age of Innocence, starring Irene Dunne, and then last week happened to watch Martin Scorsese’s version of Age of Innocence that featured Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer,and Wynona Ryder. Hands down, Scorsese’s was the better version with the details and colors of 1870′s high society New York citizens, their homes, fashions, foods,and social mores. As much as I like Irene Dunne, the actors and actresses in the 1993 version were much, much better. The added voice of Joanne Woodward as narrator was a great addition, too.

Posted By Jennifer : April 10, 2014 2:50 am

I agree with the association aspect. I think people hold movies to such an emotional regard that when they see someone else in a role they hold dear, it just feels wrong. Unless it’s done extremely well.

Something to consider is WHY people remake a movie. In the early days, many talkies were remakes of silents like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, done because they could now use sound. Or black and white films updated in color like Mutiny on the Bounty. Then there were those that were remade, but as musicals like A Song Is Born (Ball of Fire), High Society (The Philadelphia Story), and The Opposite Sex (The Women), to name a few. And of course there are those American remakes of foreign films. As mentioned above.

Slightly off to the side, people remake book adaptations over and over and I don’t really hear anyone complain about that. I think Les Mis has been done 7 or 8 (or maybe more) times, The Three Musketeers has been made about ten times in some form or fashion, and there are an endless supply of Jane Austen adaptations. And nobody’s mad, because the lovers of the books are always excited at the opportunity to see a more thorough version than before.

Posted By johnnytoobad : April 10, 2014 5:49 am

Just a couple points I wanted to add … Often I find that ANALAGOUS, SIMILAR films are much more fascinating to discover than flat-out remakes …

For instance, using one of the main examples above, even though I’m in the camp of preferring the original fifties “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” over the ’70′s version — nevertheless I equally admire “It Came From Outer Space” — made a few years earlier & based on a Bradbury story — but in many ways extremely similar in the basic key concepts and ideas explored

And for that matter, the recent British film “The World’s End” is in many regards another quasi remake of IotbS/ICFOS — but chock full of its own wonderful sensibility and humor which make it a very different type of experience in a much lighter vein

My other comment is just that what they really ought to do — but seem to almost NEVER do — is to remake films that had great key concepts but were terribly bungled in execution …

As a random example, take the notorious “Sliver” … You could make a 4-star movie with the fascinating concept of an evil developer perversely installing secret wiring into his apartment tower so as to spy on everybody … Unfortunately this movie is a hideous train-wreck — one of these depressing outings which give the term “thriller” a bad name, signifying pulpy audience manipulation in which logic & plot continuity are thrown out of the window entirely — partially redeemed by Sharon Stone’s emotion and beauty, I’ll admit — but basically a disastrous film

Why not remake that but do it RIGHT and use the wonderful kernel idea to build a GOOD NEW film AROUND? Maybe there ought to be a competition for making the best remake of the worst possible film

If anyone could make a GOOD version of the Kristy MacNichol vehicle “Just The Way You Are” (my personal vote for the worst movie of all time!) — well, that genius I would TRULY revere!!!!

Posted By swac44 : April 10, 2014 11:09 am

BTW, there is a remake of Casablanca, set in a dystopian future and starring Pamela Anderson, titled Barb Wire, and surprisingly it’s not a trainwreck. It’s original inspiration was a comic book, I don’t know if the Casablanca elements are in there, but it manages to be a lot of pulpy fun within the Casablanca story framework.

As I posted on your FB, I even came across a fun remake of a classic that I didn’t even know existed on TCM recently, the blaxploitation entry Hit Man, based on the British classic Get Carter, only a year or two after the original, and decades before the abysmal remake with Sylvester Stallone. I’ll take the Bernie Casey/Pam Grier version over Sly any day.

Posted By Andrew : April 10, 2014 12:26 pm

I think my reflexive antagonism to remakes of classics is based on my belief that their are a finite number of movies made each year. I already have a great version of Casablanca and thus I don’t need another one. Go tell me a different story.
I think the relationship between remakes originals is very similar to that between a novel and a movie based on it. If you are looking to make a product that will capitalize on something else’s good name then you get what we fear from remakes. When you view the movie as new way to tell the story, then you get a chance at good movie. (Sort like when composers do a “variation on Joe Blow’s symphony #32)
I think that Doug is spot on with his point about our emotional attachment to the original actors.

Posted By AL : April 10, 2014 8:38 pm

LD–thanks. I forgot about that one. I’m glad you discovered the Jessica Lange STREETCAR–I think they did an excellent job of avoiding the look of a stage-play when it was filmed. I’m very sad that they dropped the announced plan to film the Glen Close SUNSET BOULEVARD–even though they admitted up-front that it would just be a film of the show. I saw it in L.A. the week it closed & moved to B’way. It was unforgettable. As Nancy Olson said “They’ve enhanced the film version”

Posted By LD : April 10, 2014 9:55 pm

AL-It’s been years since I have seen Lange’s performance as Blanche and longer for Ann Margret’s. I remember Lange’s as being emotionally exhausting. It is what I imagined Jessica Tandy’s stage performance was.

Posted By Doug : April 11, 2014 1:35 am

Dan asks: “Does anyone know the movie (story) that has been remade the most number of times?”
My first guess is Romeo and Juliet-my second is Hamlet.
Third? Dracula.
Personal note-I’m going to see “Fiddler On the Roof” tomorrow night at our community theater. It may not be the same as the film, but that’s okay. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, Blossoming even as we gaze.

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 11, 2014 6:09 pm

Dan/Doug: Conventional wisdom has it that the story that’s been remade the most times is THE THREE MUSKETEERS or DRACULA. However, I contend that the story which has been remade the most times…because so many uses of the idea don’t acknowledge the source…is Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” The idea of humans being hunted as sport has been used in so many movies and TV shows I’m not sure they could be counted.

johnnytoobad: You do realize that SLIVER is essentially a remake of JAGGED EDGE, and was subsequently remade again as BASIC INSTINCT? Yep, Joe Eszterhas just took the same script (someone suspects the man/woman they’re involved with of a murder, throw in a weak “red herring” character to muddle the issue) and just kept re-writing it with some changes to the characters’ gender and other minor details. For that matter, JAGGED EDGE is pretty much a re-make of the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case (fictionalized as THE LAWYER and later dramatized as a TV-movie with George Peppard). Is there any end?

Posted By robbushblog : April 11, 2014 8:47 pm

Some movies are untouchable. Not all, but some. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Posted By gregferrara : April 11, 2014 11:42 pm

By the way, I think Joe Blow’s symphony #17 is actually his best work.

Posted By gregferrara : April 11, 2014 11:43 pm

Rob, I like your story. I’m remaking it.

Posted By gregferrara : April 11, 2014 11:48 pm

Anybody remember the CASABLANCA tv show with David Soul? I watched it (all five episodes) but can’t remember anything about it. I would kind of like to see them again. Here’s video essay on the five episodes.

Posted By george : April 12, 2014 12:27 am

I remember the ’80s TV version of CASABLANCA, although I never watched it. There was also a CASABLANCA series in 1955-56. It was updated to the ’50s and had little in common with the movie, aside from the setting. Rick Blaine (played by Charles McGraw) reportedly appeared in only one episode!

Posted By david hartzog : April 12, 2014 7:47 pm

The Casablanca tv show with David Soul is available on DVD.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : April 13, 2014 3:31 am

The biggest mistake in the Psycho remake was casting Vince Vaughn. He can be threatening and physically imposing (see Clay Pigeons). Norman Bates needs to be scrawny.

Posted By gregferrara : April 13, 2014 5:02 pm

I didn’t know there was another CASABLANCA tv show. Honestly, it actually seems like a great idea. It could easily be anthology style where a different story is told each week, where Rick’s cafe plays an important role.

Posted By gregferrara : April 13, 2014 5:03 pm

I agree, by the way, Vince Vaughn didn’t work at all for me.

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