Film remakes: Better than the real thing

Paul Haggis and the Coens are the latest Hollywood directors to retool existing films in their own image. Kaleem Aftab celebrates the fine art of the remake

Whenever a remake is released at the cinema it is usually followed by loud whispers that it's not as good as the original, or that it is preposterous to remake a movie, especially when it is so easy to see the original on DVD. There's also a commonly held belief that remakes are proof that Hollywood has run out of ideas.

This year begins with the release of The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis's remake of the 2008 French thriller, Pour Elle (Anything for Her), and the Coen brothers' take on the John Wayne western True Grit. Recent remakes include the Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie vehicle The Tourist, based on the 2005 French thriller Anthony Zimmer, and Matt Reeves' Let Me In, an American take on the Swedish horror hit Let The Right One In.

The Next Three Days is about a woman (Elizabeth Banks) who is accused of killing her boss after a fight. When she is sent to jail, her husband (Russell Crowe) becomes obsessed with breaking her out. Haggis says: "I love the fact that we can do that and it's not just the Americans taking European films. It's now Europeans taking American films and redoing them. As the saying goes, a hundred different artists can look at the same film and a hundred different paintings will come out of it. I thought, 'This is a really lovely film, but I think I can ask some questions that they didn't ask.'"

In his film, Haggis allows the possibility that the wife may have committed the murder. "In the French version it was quite obvious that the wife was innocent," he says. "You see God's point of view. I thought, 'No, I don't think life is that easy, it's more complicated.' And you have to pay a terrible price for what the husband is doing, in breaking her out of jail."

Haggis is right that Hollywood is not the only player in the game. Im Sang-Soo recently remade one of the most famous Korean films, The Housemaid – a 1960 Kim Ki-Young classic about an aristocrat who has an affair with a servant. A 2009 Chinese remake of Blood Simple, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, by Yimou Zhang, suggests that the Coen Brothers are as happy for their own films to be revisited as they are to remake those of others. In France, in 2007, Alain Courneau took on Jean-Pierre Melville's Le deuxieme soufflé. Bollywood often remakes hit films.

Remakes are big business and filmmakers know that brand awareness goes a long way to making a film a success. Last weekend, True Grit (a remake of the 1969 film by Henry Hathaway) became the Coen brothers' biggest hit at the American box office, taking $86.6m in its opening 12 days.

It is clear that audiences do not share critics' aversion to remakes. Perhaps they understand that it is churlish to berate all attempts to remake films just because the results can sometimes be awful. Remakes, however, often find themselves in the firing line because it is so easy to compare them with the original.

Take, the Coens' biggest flop to date, their 2004 remake of The Ladykillers, with Tom Hanks in the Alec Guinness role. But the failure of that movie had little to do with the fact that it was a remake – the directors completely misjudged the comedy. What is interesting about their version of True Grit is that it carries their signature. It is played for laughs, with an emphasis placed on quirky characterisations – and it works.

Box office returns are not the only reason why revisiting films is as necessary to cinema as restaging plays is to theatre. Film-makers have been exploring the art of the remake since the dawn of cinema. In 1921, DW Griffith made Orphans of the Storm, an update of a now lost silent drama, The Two Orphans, from 1915. In 1928, the director of The Birth of a Nation remade one of his own films, The Battle of the Sexes, that had been made 14 years before.

These early remakes often came about thanks to technological advances that allowed filmmakers to do things that they had not been able to before. Cecil B DeMille's second stab at The Ten Commandments, made in 1956, 33 years after his first, is just one example of a director taking advantage of new gadgets.

Once such work was simply a case of moving from silence to sound, but there have also been remakes that have updated a film from black and white to colour, such as Kon Ichikawa's 1985 remake of his 1956 children's tale, The Burmese Harp. More recently, the popularity of 3D has provided an excuse to revisit and update classics or cult hits, as in the case of the new horror spoof Piranha 3D.

To see an artist looking at a story anew is to experience one of the joys of cinema. New technology and new casts help a director to use a similar palette to create something new. Alfred Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much, claiming: "The first work was the work of a talented amateur, the second was made by a professional." Gus Van Sant made a shot-by-shot update of Hitchcock's Psycho; Michael Haneke did the same with his own Funny Games. Critics lambasted both directors but they did not take into account how much movies can be of their time. Revisiting them can be an interesting exercise in social history; that's why Im Sang-Soo decided to remake The Housemaid.

"I wanted to adapt the story to highlight present-day values and different perceptions of relationships," he says. "It's interesting to look at how the social mores have changed." In the new film, the wife seems far less accommodating and understanding of her husband's adultery then she did 50 years ago. Things do not always develop as we expect.

Snobbery plays a large part in the damning of remakes. The common line is that foreign films are remade in English in order to appease less sophisticated audiences. But American filmgoers are simply more likely to see a film made in English – and cinema is a business, after all. Sometimes the nuances of a movie are also changed, to make it more accessible, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. When Matt Reeves took on the task of adapting Let The Right One In, so soon after the success of the Swedish movie, he knew that he was taking a risk.

"If I didn't think it was possible to do a good remake, I wouldn't have tried," says the writer-director. "If they are not good they usually fall into two categories: one is the soulless retread, which is where you by-the-numbers follow the original, and the second runs roughshod over it, using some sort of notion from the original movie but literally violating everything that the original movie was about. I think to do a remake there has to be some passion, something you can connect to."

Reeves took a sensitive approach, and it paid off. "The real reason that I did this, strange as it may sound, is that it was a way for me to do something that I felt very personal about. I related to that coming of age story, the boy being bullied. I was bullied at school and I related to that confusion and isolation you feel when your parents are going through a painful divorce."

One of the best films of the last decade was the French director Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a remake of Fingers, by the American James Toback. Audiard's movie made me seek out the original, increasing my appreciation of cinema and prompting me to find a film I may otherwise never have seen. I also saw two artists tackle the same story in their own unique fashion. The remake, instead of making the original redundant, made it more relevant.

David Fincher's new version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is still filming and already the internet is alive with criticism of Hollywood daring to remake the recent hit Swedish thriller. But how can anyone fail to be intrigued by the prospect of one of America's greatest directors, who with Zodiac and Se7en proved himself a master of the police procedural, adapting Stieg Larsson's bestselling books? Fincher's film is one of my most anticipated movies of 2011 – all the more so because I will be able to compare it with the fine film that was made by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009.

'The Next Three Days' is out today; 'True Grit' is released on 11 February

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