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Big deal on remake street: It's deja vu all over again

Critics may carp, but studios count on moviegoers' amnesia about the originals.

October 27, 2002|Kevin Maynard | Special to the Times

There are no new stories, goes the Hollywood adage. Joseph Campbell laid out a finite series of archetypes; Shakespeare stole from his predecessors and contemporaries. But this month, the studios have counted on audiences to become complete amnesiacs with six movie remakes.

While some critics carped, moviegoers haven't seemed to mind that "Red Dragon," the prequel to "The Silence of the Lambs" by Thomas Harris, had been filmed previously (by Michael Mann as "Manhunter" in 1986).

Audiences have already forgotten September's "The Four Feathers," in at least its sixth screen incarnation. Most young adults know that this month's "Tuck Everlasting" is based on Natalie Babbitt's novel about immortality, but a 1980 indie version might as well be dead.

"There's a presumption today's audience hasn't seen the original first," says film critic Leonard Maltin. "And that includes 'Red Dragon,' which was just made 16 years ago.... [Studios] count on general ignorance of the original."

In "The Truth About Charlie," Jonathan Demme's update of the 1963 Paris-set romantic thriller "Charade," the May-December pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant morphed into an interracial romance between Thandie Newton and Mark Wahlberg.Demme, who got original director Stanley Donen's blessing, says, "I thought it would be perfectly all right to take these characters and shake them up and change them around."

Demme took his film a step further by paying homage to the French New Wave with cameos from director Agnes Varda, actress Anna Karina and singer Charles Aznavour.

"It's true that When Stanley Donen and his fabulous cast were shooting 'Charade,' Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard really were right around the corner," Demme says.

Foreign films frequently fuel remakes. Throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, Hollywood ransacked French farces to make its own ("Three Men and a Baby," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "Cousins"). This month featured three imports. Two were based on Italian films: "Welcome to Collinwood," a update of the 1958 heist comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street," and "Swept Away," a new version of Lina Wertmuller's 1975 satire of sexual politics, starring Madonna and directed by husband Guy Ritchie. "The Ring," an Americanization of the 1998 Japanese horror film, opened last weekend.

In remaking "Madonna Street," "Collinwood" directors Anthony and Joe Russo transferred the action from the slums of Rome to Cleveland. Even so, they had their work cut out for them. There's already been a failed Broadway musical (Bob Fosse's "Big Deal"), a movie that flopped despite the presence of director Louis Malle and Sean Penn ("Crackers") and a couple of other films that shared its influence ("Palookaville," "Small Time Crooks").

"Honestly, this film might have been remade more than any other," says Anthony Russo. "I think that when people attempt remakes ... they were moved or felt some kind of connection to the original story."

Apart from Madonna being box-office poison, another factor in the flop of "Swept Away" may be that times and tastes have changed. The earlier version came out at the peak of the feminist movement, shocking observers with its story of a chauvinist sailor who turns a spoiled rich woman into his love slave. Ritchie's version "doesn't have the teeth the original did," Maltin says."The Ring" had significantly less of a marketing challenge. The original's cult status sparked interest across the Internet for its chilling hook: a videotape of nightmarish images followed by a phone call that foretells the viewer's death.

The premise spooked producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald enough to buy the rights to the original within hours of watching a second-generation VHS copy.

While they tried to stay true to the source, "the original is very abstract in the middle of the movie," MacDonald says, "and it kind of comes together. It's intriguing ... , but it would definitely be confusing to an American audience." More remakes are coming. Get ready for "Pinocchio" starring Roberto Benigni; "The Quiet American"; "Bob le Flam- beur" (as "The Good Thief"); "The Italian Job"; and "The Ladykillers" directed by the Coen brothers and starring Tom Hanks. If any of these makes you feel old, consider this: The teen genre, which has pillaged George Bernard Shaw ("She's All That") and Shakespeare ("O," "Ten Things I Hate About You"), has turned on itself. Warner Bros. is prepping an African American redux of the 1986 comedy "Can't Buy Me Love."

Even Hitchcock redid Hitchcock ("The Man Who Knew Too Much" in 1934 and 1956) with legions of fans still arguing over which was better. Is any source material fair game?

"Usually I cringe," Maltin says. "Frankly, I don't know if anyone who saw Adam Sandler's movie ["Mr. Deeds"] went out to get Frank Capra's movie ["Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"]. But you never know. I hasten to remind people 'His Girl Friday' is a remake [of "The Front Page"] and that's possibly the greatest American comedy of all time."

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