“Ben-Hur” Begs The Question – When Is A Remake Actually Worth Making?

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I have a friend with whom I go to the movies fairly often. He’s a fellow of simple tastes, so we mostly see movies he wants to see, which means lots of special effects and stuff blowing up, because I can’t generally get him to sit through some of the indie fare I enjoy. Also, for reasons he can’t really verbalize, he hates Meryl Streep, but somehow we’re still friends, anyway.

Yesterday, I reached out to him to see if he’d like to go to a movie this morning, and he, of course, was eager to do so. I asked him what he wanted to see and, after I assured him that, No, I would not be willing to sit through Suicide Squad again, thanks very much, I started going through the list of films opening this week, and asked if he wanted to see Ben-Hur.

“What’s Ben-Hur?” He asked. I told him it was a remake of a 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston that won a lot of Oscars about a Jewish guy who lived during the time of Jesus Christ, was sold into slavery, and then got first his freedom and then his revenge, and that the original was about three-and-a-half hours long, but also had a killer chariot race scene about two-thirds of the way through that George Lucas used as a model for the pod race in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

There was a long pause after I finished talking.

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“You’re gonna make me sit through a three-and-a-half hour movie?” To say that his tone was in a plaintive whine probably doesn’t do it justice. I think it was actually the Platonic Ideal of a plaintive whine, the one against all others should be measured. I reassured him that I was pretty sure the new version was only about two hours, whereupon there was another pause. At length, he finally spoke up again. “I really don’t want to see that.”

Which was fine, because I didn’t really want to, either. Judging from the tracking numbers I’ve seen, that’s not an unusual attitude towards the film. Initial predictions have the $100 million project not even breaking $15 million its opening weekend, a result that would be a major disaster for its distributor, the embattled Paramount Pictures, which is already having a pretty tough go of it lately.

As my friend and I kept going through the other choices, he stopped me after I mentioned War Dogs, I thought to tell me that this one sounded good. Instead, he asked, “Why would they remake that Jesus one?”

It was an excellent question.

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In fact, it’s one I’ve been asking a lot lately, especially after I saw that trailer earlier this summer for the new version of The Magnificent Seven. That the movie actually looks sort of interesting is beside the point, because it still begs the question as to what it was that made people think it was something audiences would want to see in these days when the movie western appears to be dead. Of course, the first version of the film, released 56 years ago, was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, so maybe that makes it fair game.

I could likewise argue that one should never remake a movie that starred Steve McQueen, as the initial Magnificent Seven did, but I’ve been proven wrong with that before, too, back in 1999 with a little movie called The Thomas Crown Affair, a project that far surpassed the original.

Good thing they’re remaking Thomas Crown again, then, this time with Michael B. Jordan. Good thing, too, that there are also remakes of The Cincinnati Kid and Bullitt in development, as well as Papillon, which is actually going before the cameras next month with Charlie Hunnam in the McQueen role and Rami Malek filling the part previously embodied by Dustin Hoffman.

This made me wonder about what other titles are being considered for re-dos, and not just the ones that have been in the news recently in one form or another, like the Ronda Rousey version of Road House, the Dwayne Johnson iteration of Big Trouble in Little China, the Dwayne Johnson iteration of Jumanji, the Channing Tatum-Jillian Bell gender-switched Splash, the Colin Farrell-Nicole Kidman-Kirsten Dunst edition of The Beguiled, Bradley Cooper’s take on A Star Is Born with Lady Gaga (the fifth time this movie is being made), or the “action-adventure,” franchise-starting effort of Clue that was announced just this week.

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Now, sacrilegious as I find all of those to be, I was more interested in some of the other titles being developed, the classics that might make one scratch a chin in wonderment. Do we really need a remake of Guys and Dolls? Is there a great clamoring for a new version of All Quiet on the Western Front? Or High Noon? Or The Searchers? Or West Side Story? (Yes, really.)

I mean, sure, I can see why now might be an appropriate time to once again tell the story of Soylent Green, and a horror movie like Rosemary’s Baby is pretty much evergreen, but why on earth would anyone want to take another shot at How to Marry a Millionaire or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? What actress would ever want to step into the shoes once occupied by Marilyn Monroe? Isn’t that the very definition of a fool’s errand? If it’s not, it certainly should be.

The thing is, no one is really safe from this. Not even Alfred Hitchcock. They’re in the process of remaking three of his. While I’m not sure why anyone would want to remake Rebecca, or even To Catch a Thief, if I’m being honest, a remake of The Birds would be worth it if only to give a single good reason why the Tippi Hedren character enters that upstairs bedroom in the third act.

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Really, I don’t understand the thought process behind this. Who is the executive who decides that, well, since Hollywood is bankrupt of new ideas these days (or so they would have us believe), recycling a project like Ben-Hur is a good idea? With the same director who did Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by the way, and while we’re here, let’s give the lead role to a total unknown, but still spend $100 million on it! Sure, that sounds good, until nobody shows up to see it. I would venture that the same could be said of almost every other movie on the list, and ask those overseeing them if they have really taken the temperature of the public to see if these projects are welcome, or if they’re just pushing through these probable losers because it’s easy to do so.

If we’ve learned anything this summer, it’s that forcing unwanted sequels or remakes on an indifferent audience leads to a lousy box office. I think we’re seeing, too, that just because an older movie has a pedigree, that doesn’t mean the same audience wants to see a newer, likely lesser version of it. Some of them might turn out okay (my money is on The Magnificent Seven, with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt leading the posse), but at some point, you have to think that the people in the executive suites might see these projects are offering increasingly diminished returns. Then, perhaps, original ideas might once again come into vogue. Hey, a boy can dream.

Ultimately, my friend wasn’t interested in hearing my pontificating, much less in seeing any of the projects mentioned, so we decided on War Dogs and that was that.

I did, however, tell him we might need to spend some time together this weekend. I have some old movies to show him.


ProfilePic adjusted 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Viacom Drama: Dauman Finally Ousted, Shake-Up At Fox, Affleck To Remake ‘Witness For the Prosecution’, Leto Joins ‘Blade Runner 2′ | SSN Insider

  2. Here’s the thing. IMO, Hollywood, and by extension audiences, needs to do either one of two things: either look at remakes the way theater looks at stagings & restagings of the same play or accept that movie making is an increasingly expensive endeavor so anything that requires you to leave your home to see it is going to be a thrill park ride, and not art. Because Art doesn’t pay bills. There’s a reason there is not a Tavern on the Green on every corner but there is a McDonalds. And let me say, I am in NO WAY in favor of movies becoming like McDonalds (too late).

    I think we all should collectively reassess how we think about movies, that it’s “capturing” the one and only true take on a story. It is a story after all, even though screenplays are meant to be seen, and stories can be told differently. Hence why theater endures after hundreds of years. Same story, same characters, different stagings filtered through the times in which they’re produced. Often illuminating the “should be clear as crystal” happenings of our day. I think that can be a powerful tool for the common populace, as we learn quite literally we do the same crap over and over, regardless of era. THE PROBLEM comes into play when studios treat remakes as quick cash grabs. New technology for cool cg, but no new or deeper exploration of human behavior. Weak actors thrust into films because they’re the “it” actor of the moment. Choosing films they already either own the IP of (so as to eliminate licensing/optioning costs) or a shortcut in marketing. “You saw such and such as a kid and loved it then, love it again as an adult.” Big problem with that, is more often than not, is people loved things when they were young BECAUSE they were young. I LOVE Escape from New York. Always will. Not the greatest written or acted movie on the planet. A remake of that will probably, as you said, have increasingly diminishing returns. Or a movie that was great when we were younger may not have the same allure as adults because our point of view on life has changed. Breakfast Club, while still an awesome movie, encapsulated a time and era but the people who loved it then, and would be a huge part of the audience to see it for nostalgia sake, have kids now and may be turned off by whining snot nosed high schoolers complaining about being jerks. OR, and this is the kicker, a “name recognition” film remake that has almost nothing to do with the previous movie other than said name. We feel cheated, end up hating all film and stay home and watch tv.

    I think there is room for “restaging” a film but it entails guts and creativity, not just ingenuity at finding a way to sell the old fish from Friday on Monday as “the special” but real creativity in telling the same story; showing us something new that was always there just not illuminated. Ironically, that sort of creativity is also available in new material (which is in Hollywood, just not chosen), but that is quite a dicey sell to extremely risk averse shareholders.

    Oy vey, what’s a filmmaker to do?

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