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They're 'Reworkings' Not 'Remakes'

Hollywood isn't out to copy old movies, it's just looking to 'adapt' and 'update' some cult favorites.

May 09, 1999|BILL DESOWITZ | Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

After Gus Van Sant's ill-fated karaoke impersonation of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" last year, you won't find too many direct remakes for quite a while. This year the prevailing trend is reworking cult favorites instead of classics, among them "The Thomas Crown Affair," "The Winslow Boy" and "The Haunting."

In fact, don't call them remakes anymore--the latest buzz words are inspirations, adaptations and updates.

"I call this a variation on a theme," says action director John McTiernan ("Die Hard") about his reworking of "Thomas Crown." "I wouldn't have touched it if it was too close to the original."

There's even a remake--er, reworking-- of a Buster Keaton silent comedy. No problem in sticking too close to the original there.

In some cases filmmakers are bypassing the earlier film altogether and going back to the original literary source for inspiration. It's cheaper than obtaining the film rights, and it provides a lot more creative freedom. That's what Mel Gibson and company did with "Payback": adapting the Richard Stark novel with a slam-bang retro spin while ignoring the stylistic bravado of John Boorman's 1967 film "Point Blank" that starred Lee Marvin in the Gibson role.

It's also what DreamWorks has done with a new adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House." Then again, if you're following a film as scary as "The Haunting," you'd better go back to the novel for inspiration because it's going to be very hard to top Robert Wise's horror classic from 1963, which perfectly captured Jackson's quietly cumulative psychological terror in black-and-white and Panavision.

Yet the makers of "The Haunting" update (coming in July) are well aware of the challenges in satisfying the "Scream" generation as well as fans of the novel and earlier film. "I want to invigorate the genre with adult horror once again," proclaims action director Jan De Bont ("Speed," "Twister").

"But how do you make a house come to life today? With complex visual and sound effects. That's how you scare people. We're manipulating the imagination; connecting events in the mind with reality. Who you are can be visualized in such a way that you can be made to believe what's inside your mind."

At its core, the "Haunting" is still a simple tale about an experiment to out the ghostly inhabitants of a gothic mansion, who then focus their scary visitations on the vulnerable protagonist Nell (Lili Taylor).

This latest version, not surprisingly, has a very contemporary sensibility, despite its supernatural aura. The interior of Hill House is way over the top: large, dark, dense, ornate and full of menacing gargoyles. And the setup is new: Liam Neeson plays a cynical psychology professor who lures his subjects--the other two being Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson--into a sleep study about their fears before springing the ghost story on them.

"There's a real fine line here between being true to the book, yet giving contemporary audiences the thrill ride they expect," explains co-producer Susan Arnold. "You have to be more dramatic today, which is why we make these [gargoyle] faces come to life, and why we explain more directly the strong psychic connection between this woman and Hill House."

The key will be showing the painful difficulty people have connecting with one another--the true essence of Jackson's novel. And in its own piercing way, that's also the heart of Terence Rattigan's popular 1946 play "The Winslow Boy," which David Mamet has brilliantly adapted into a new film that opened April 30.

Mamet couldn't have chosen more wisely, since this is Rattigan at his craftiest: "If 'The Browning Version' is my passport to heaven," he once said, "then 'The Winslow Boy' is the leather wallet that contained it." Thanks to Mamet--who is actually more faithful to the original text than the playwright's own 1948 screen adaptation--we now have a much clearer view of Rattigan's brilliance.


The latest version of "The Thomas Crown Affair," coming in June, presents a different set of problems. There's no way of competing with the glamorous pairing of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, the Oscar-nominated romantic music of Michel Legrand ("The Windmills of Your Mind" won best song) and a cool multiscreen caper involving a bundle of cash in the 1968 version directed by Norman Jewison.

Which is why Pierce Brosnan and company have refashioned everything for the '90s without a trace of kitsch. This Thomas Crown is a self-made millionaire from New York who steals a breathaking Monet not only for the fun of it but also because art is the only love he can possess. The equally elusive Rene Russo, who's trying to catch him, represents his last chance at falling in love; they are like a couple of moths drawn to the flame.

So it makes perfect sense to discard the seductive chess match and stylistic kiss from the original film in favor of some dirty dancing and steamy sex.

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