This week’s question comes from contributor Kyle Daly:
What’s something you wish could be remade or redone but is maybe too iconic or otherwise singular for anyone to actually take on the task? And how would you “fix” it?
I didn’t read any Tolkien until I was well into my 20s, which is odd, because I’ve been drawn to the actual Middle Ages as far back as I can remember. Once I finally got around to reading The Hobbit and then the three Lord Of The Rings books last year, I found exactly what had driven me to muddle through Sir Gawain And The Green Knight in college: the same rich language, the same foggy evocation of a past that never really was. I know this is blasphemy for plenty of Tolkien fans who (setting aside the Hobbit trilogy) feel Peter Jackson nailed it, but when I then watched Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings movies, I found that they missed the mark. The details are all there—the casting and costumes are unimpeachable, and the sheer act of getting the books on-screen is impressive—but the tone is not. Scenes that in the books are haunting, lyrical passages, alive with the centuries of European folklore, art, and literature Tolkien carried in his head, tend in the movies to last about 10 seconds and look like Thomas Kinkade paintings. If it were up to me, the Jackson movies would be stricken from the record and replaced with a limited-run TV series that would let the quiet moments breathe. It would be filmed in England and northern Europe, use minimal green screen, and have the feel of a wistful secondhand telling of a bygone era that perhaps never existed at all. Each Lord Of The Rings book would get its own six- to 10-episode season, and The Hobbit would be a brisk, 80-minute Christmas special, British TV-style, a one-off prequel capping off the series when it’s all over.
It’s there’s one thing that can be said about fans of The Goonies, it’s that they don’t just like The Goonies, they love The Goonies with a passion ill suited to such a messy film. Producer Steven Spielberg’s ode to childhood magic and the idea that imagination can change the world for the better has a devout following, one that the film doesn’t merit. The dialogue is cheesy (child-catering writer Chris Columbus’ handiwork is readily apparent), the set pieces comical (director Richard Donner doesn’t feel that invested here), and even if it sparks a warm glow of nostalgia (as it does for me), I can’t help wondering what it would be like with a sharper script and a new team behind the camera. This likely won’t happen—the film has achieved a bizarrely sacrosanct level of esteem in too many people’s eyes—but it’s a wonderfully evocative world, and I’d enjoy seeing someone else take a crack at it. Imagine what a gonzo and anarchic director like Joe Dante could’ve done with this material, and you may see where I’m coming from.
Unlike Stephen King, I love Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. But I do agree with King that the movie—alien and chilly and blackly comic as it is—is not an accurate representation of the novel. Which is fine for Kubrick’s movie, but it does leave me wishing for an adaptation of the original book that treated the plot with actual compassion and interest. Jack Torrance’s struggles with alcoholism, anger issues, abuse, and self-loathing were hugely important to me as a kid, and Kubrick’s movie jettisons most of the compassion and empathy that made the novel so effective. The story remains one of King’s best and simplest concepts, the cast is small, and given how elliptical Kubrick was with his (very effective) horrors, there are still plenty of mysteries for fans who never read the book to discover. Unfortunately, King himself scripted a crummy miniseries adaptation for television in 1997 and that, plus the iconic nature of Kubrick’s film, probably put the kibosh on any big screen takes for a while. Still, it would be nice to get a version of those hedge animals jumping that doesn’t suck.
Since Zack already opened the door for it, I’ll take my own shot at the master: Doctor Strangelove is my favorite of Stanley Kubrick’s films, and it’s not his fault that so much of the imagery he relied on to evoke the movie’s fear-tinged laughter has been neutered (Freudian implications very much intentioned) by 50 years of shifting global politics. I was born in 1984, and for people in my generation (he said, generalizing furiously), nuclear war just wasn’t very scary—it was something people used to be scared of, not something to waste nightmares on, especially when Africanized bees were just waiting to come sting me to death in my sleep. So, while I can laugh at Strangelove—even if it drags in places, from my hyper-stimulated point of view—it doesn’t scare me. But that unease is central to Kubrick’s film, which aims to horrify and amuse in equal parts. Changing out bio-terror for nuclear weapons is an easy fix, creating that feeling of slipping helplessly past the point of no return. But there’s also a central idea that needs to be shifted: The horror of Kubrick’s movie comes from good, rational men finding themselves in a situation where they end up destroying the Earth for what seemed like good, rational reasons. In the new Strangelove, though, the primary principle will be adherence to ideology, and the central conflict not between nations, but political parties. I can just imagine the film’s climax now, as someone—Alec Baldwin, maybe?—prepares to ride the dirty bomb down toward its target, while the bill authorizing the military to shoot him down gets blocked by a filibuster and the last-minute addition of a worthless pork belly amendment. Sticking firmly to party lines, legislators vote the bill down, and the bomb starts to fall… Yaaaaaaaaa-hoooooooo!
Beyond my personal lack of interest in remakes for their own sake, I’m struggling to come up with something that would be considered too iconic or singular for a redo—from an executive point of view, I mean (in a weird way, comics characters are now the safest from remakes, because even the most derivative reiterations of Spider-Man, Batman, and so on will usually have a nominally “new take” on the character and accompanying plots). But I’d be theoretically interested in, someday, new filmmakers taking another crack at adapting the Harry Potter books—which of course would cause uptight nerds like me to point out that they’re not really remakes, just new adaptations of old material. It’s not that I wept for everything that had to be cut from the books on the way to the screen, or even disliked any of the movies after Chris Columbus got through with them. I’d just love to see someone work through that enormous amount of material with less of an eye on fan satisfaction, and perhaps the freedom to switch around the timeline of some of the plot if needed, cut more characters, and maybe even make up some new stuff. I like the Harry Potter movies, but I might have loved a series that ran with the style and invention of the best moments from The Prisoner Of Azkaban, The Half-Blood Prince, and The Deathly Hallows: Part One—even if that resulted in one of the movies turning into a bawdy road movie where Dobby gets handcuffed to Kreacher for some reason. Okay, especially if that happened.
Like a lot of people I was blown away by Catching Fire, which elevated an okay book into a surprisingly elegant action film. Unfortunately, that’s made it almost impossible for me to go back and enjoy The Hunger Games, which I found flawed but entertaining on its release, but now just pales in comparison to its sequel. The strongest elements of Catching Fire and Mockingjay—Part 1 focus on the power and danger of the media. Looking back, the first film misses the mark by failing to emphasize how aware the tributes are that everything that happens in the Arena is being broadcast on TV. Katniss grew up watching the Hunger Games and the way she uses her understanding of “reality TV editing” to survive is one of the most compelling parts of the book. The idea that she’s alternately manipulating the media to her advantage (by faking a romance with Peeta) or rebelling against it (by showing compassion to a fallen comrade) doesn’t register as strongly as it should on film. The tricky thing is I don’t want the series to be remade because I don’t want to see another version of Catching Fire. I just want to go back in time and tell the filmmakers to take a little more care with what will soon become one of the biggest film franchises in the world.
It’s hardly a controversial idea that the Star Wars prequels were awful films. But lurking in the margins of those terrible films was a great story wanting to be told. For me, that story hinges on one line: “I thought I could teach him as well as Yoda. I was wrong.” Instead of a towheaded moppet, Obi-Wan should have found an orphaned, abused teenager, full of potential and anger in equal measure. Yoda sees the danger of a resentful, traumatized boy going bad, but Obi-Wan defies him and trains Anakin in secret. He looks on helplessly as Anakin’s ability, arrogance, and anger grow in equal measure. Padmé, becoming afraid of Anakin, confides in Obi-Wan, but Anakin reads too much into that. He becomes jealous, confronts her, and the first time we see him choke someone with the force, he’s murdering the woman he loves. Once he’s done that, there’s no going back. The good man who was Anakin Skywalker is dead, and only Darth Vader remains. Finally, after being seen as a nonentity, then as a vessel for the Jedi’s hopes and fears, then as a mechanical monster, Anakin’s redeemed by the first person who sees him simply as a human being—his son. That’s the story arc one of cinema’s greatest villains deserves.