Preferred Citation: Horton, Andrew, and Stuart Y. McDougal, editors Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

Afterword: Rethinking Remakes

Rethinking Remakes

Leo Braudy

"Remake" is a term imported to academia from movie journalism and the movie business. It carries with it the atmospheric shorthand of deal meetings and script conferences. But is "remake" a useful interpretive or theoretical category? Does it tell us anything more than what it says on its face? If it is useful, what would be the most interesting ways to apply it?

More obviously than other forms of art, the remake—like its close kin, the adaptation and the sequel—is a species of interpretation. In pursuit of its nature, virtually all of the essays in this volume therefore emphasize questions of interpretive power and authority, legitimate (if you think it works) and illegitimate (if you think it doesn't). Depending on the different perspectives of these critics, the remake can exist anywhere on an intertextual continuum from allusions in specific lines, individual scenes, and camera style to the explicit patterning of an entire film on a previous exemplar.[1]

The remake summons up both the internal and the external history of film in its relation to past films and past audiences: a film was made and now it is to be remade, revised, or even extended. Along with this invocation of history, there is also often an implicit claim that the intertextual processes of film are aesthetically unique. Both film remakes and successive productions of a play are certainly marked by the era of their making. But different productions of a play, even across the centuries, rarely question the formal processes of theater history. The remade play is often referred to as a revival. Whatever changes in presentation have occurred—if the setting of Measure for Measure is shifted from Renaissance Vienna to Freud's Vienna—the purpose is still to revive. While the play thus remains defined almost entirely by its original text, the remade film is less frequently an homage or revival than an effort to supplant its predecessor entirely, as


John Huston's The Maltese Falcon supplants the previous two versions and, to a certain extent, the original novel.

Mentioning a novel brings up the other aspect of the remake—the external—in which the kinship with adaptation is stronger. If the invocation of remake is to imply something more than a tracing of local intertextual detail, it must make some claim to relevance not just within cinema but across the relation between cinema and the other narrative arts. An individual remake, like The Maltese Falcon, may situate itself historically in relation to previous films as well as to previous literature. The critical category of the remake should be relevant to both.

Although remakes thus derive from and are validated by history, the most apparent reason to remake is economic—the remake as "presold" property. But to conclude that remakes happen primarily for financial reasons obscures the way in which the remaker must also believe that this particular story still inspires what Ira Konigsberg here calls "another attempt to get it right." Beyond the specific circumstances of imitation and recreation, there must therefore also be a basic intuition that the audience will continue to buy this story in its new incarnation because the underlying fable is still compelling.

Such an assumption closely connects remakes to the processes of myth, of which the various avatars of Robin Hood, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes are only a few of the most obvious examples. At the 1992 Modern Language Association session on remakes, David Newman, the co-scriptwriter of Superman and Superman II and III, forcefully insisted that in those films he and his wife, Leslie, were only partially influenced by the history of the comic strip character, his friends, and his adversaries. Instead, they used the original as the keynote to a virtually Jungian narrative medley and allowed its theme to invoke a variety of myths and stories (even seemingly contradictory ones) to which the original version could resonate.

The importance of historical and cultural context was upheld at that session by both Robert Eberwein and Krin Gabbard, who have contributed essays to this volume. But they argued not so much against Newman's mythic reading as they did against a purely formal one, in the same way that Gabbard's essay favors Barbara Herrnstein Smith's view over Seymour Chatman's on the relative importance of intertextual versus contextual readings.

Yet Eberwein and Gabbard diverged, as their essays do here, on the issue of originality. Eberwein's argument for the determinative importance of historical context coincides with his effort to undermine the idea that there is any original—or at least an original with a fixed meaning—to which a remake refers and in terms of which it must be judged. Although just as committed to a primarily contextual reading, Gabbard is much more intent on finding an originatory text against which later examples should be mea-


sured. Extending Michael Rogin's analysis of blackface in American drama, he focuses on The Jazz Singer as a prime, even unique, source for biopics in which the main character embodies a conflict between his show business aspirations and his ethnic roots. All of these, he argues, should be called remakes—not just those obviously descended from the original Jazz Singer but also others (like The Benny Goodman Story and La Bamba ) that share similar narrative elements.

The question of history is therefore also a question of continuity and similarity. Whether the general emphasis is on formal, historical, or mythic elements, several of the essays here—including those by Eberwein, Gabbard, Harvey Greenberg, Andrew Horton, and others—stress the mediating perspective of the psychoanalytic, specifically the male generational patterns of Freudianism. Greenberg and Gabbard both sketch remake genealogies whose oedipal patterns are potentially analogous to cinematic (and to a certain extent social) history. But once again originality is at issue. The oedipal format, whether invoked literally or metaphorically, can hardly remain neutral. The central issue seems to be whether it implies either the superiority of the original—or its necessary supersession. Greenberg for one, as perhaps befits a practicing analyst, explicitly says that remakes are invariably inferior to their originals.[2]

Eberwein's kind of historicism emphasizes instead a deoedipalizing urge that has been called characteristic of postmodernist critical strategy. He denies that any text has priority merely becomes it comes first, and emphasizes instead the many ways the audience and history remake or reconstrue that text. As David Wills remarks about Jim McBride's remake of Godard's Breathless, "There can never be a faithful remake . . . because there can never have been a simple original." Some writers connect this opportunistic revisionism and appropriation to the processes of postmodernism, although it was the arch-modernist poet T. S. Eliot, rather than the ur-post-modernist filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who first laid down the credo: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."

Once history or even sequence enters the field, originality or the original becomes a central question. "Original" of course has the double meaning of both unprecedented and basic. In 1759 Edward Young, initiating the modern preoccupation with aesthetic originality with Conjectures on Original Composition, asked the question, "Born originals, how comes it to pass that we die copies?" To be in history is in a sense to be remade, to be copied. Jorge Luis Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is frequently invoked in these essays as a classic of meta-remaking. But it should be remembered that the heart of Pierre's remaking is to recopy Don Quixote word for word. The language, the chapter divisions, the punctuation, everything is the same. Only the historical moment has changed, and that, according to Borges, makes the text completely different.


To frame the tension between originality and history, varying theories and metaphors are possible. Luca Somigli's essay on comics intriguingly formulates the question in terms of the problematic status of the original in translation theory. Chris Holmlund suggests the analogy between celluloid and plastic surgery (which might make Frankenstein more an ur-text of remaking than Dracula ). Peter Lehman finds inspiration in Nelson Goodman's distinction between the "autographic" arts (like painting), in which the original has a special value, and the "allographic" (like music), in which there is no significant distinction between the original and a copy.

But just as the text exists in history, so does the audience. David Newman can detail the many stories he and Leslie Newman drew upon to create their scripts. But we need to distinguish between stories that the audience truly savors and stories that are merely opportunities for those whose greatest pleasure is to catch allusions and write articles about their discoveries. Similarly, reading Gabbard's intriguing foray into the oedipal structuring of generational narrative, I wonder why he stops with The Jazz Singer as the progenitor text? Why not trace the line back in intellectual and psychological history to John Locke's argument for a paternal and parental authority to replace the patriarchal power of the monarch? It is, after all, the generative political theory for the founding of the United States, and a pattern that makes its way into many American stories long before that of Jakie Rabinowitz. Why, in other words, pick on The Jazz Singer, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Superman, when these metaphors are embedded in the history and culture of this self-made and self-remade country?

If the intertextual-mythic approach has the problem of knowing where to stop in its search for forebears, the contextual-social construction approach threatens to dissolve the individual work in the same cultural soup that seeps into everything else. Just as every narrative invokes other stories and every new work is a rereading of the past, every audience brings its own context to what it sees—coming upon each film through a web of significant metaphors, images, semiotic fields, and preexisting tales.

What, then, makes the situation of the remake different from that of any other film—or any other cultural production? What is distinctive about the remake as a film form, and how might it be distinguished from genre and adaptation? All these essays have acute things to say about the particular remakes they consider and often about remakes in general. But I miss a theory of significant meaning that would allow us to say which comparisons are central and which are clever but finally local insights.

Ira Konigsberg's essay on Dracula suggests the affinity of the remake with genre at large. He complicates the distinction between the intertextual and the contextual views of change by suggesting that similar stories are not so much retold for a new period, but that the new period allows another step


in what is otherwise an internal evolution of the story. In this spirit, Krin Gabbard asks us to consider a television version of The Jazz Singer to be a remake of the original, while the essays by Elisabeth Weis on the evolution of M*A*S*H from film to television, by Peter Lehman on Stagecoach from film to radio, and Luca Somigli on comics afford a similarly healthy under-mining of cinematic exceptionalism.

Their discussions indicate the way the concept of remake can become independent of medium, without even the underlying story necessary to the mythic-intertextual assumption. Is it more interesting, in other words, to consider Fritz Lang's The Human Beast a remake of Jean Renoir's La Bête Humaine than to consider both as remakes of Zola's novel? Are James Whale's Frankenstein and Tod Browning's Dracula originatory texts for the many versions that follow, or are they themselves remakes of the preceding plays, which are in turn remakes of the original novels of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker? And what are we to conclude when W. R. Burnett's novel The Asphalt Jungle is first made "straight" into a crime film and then remade as a western (Badlanders, 1958), a caper film (Cairo, 1963), and a blaxploitation film (Cool Breeze, 1972)?

Such examples impel me to wonder if remake might with more clarity and cogency be distinguished from adaptation and then treated as a subcategory of genre, perhaps as Umberto Eco has sought to distinguish seriality from repetition. Later Frankenstein s and Dracula s are conceivably remakes, for example, but all share elements of plot, character, mood, theme, motif that we usually refer to as horror.

The tentative formulation these essays inspire is that the remake resides at the intersection of the genetic and the generic codes. In even the most debased version, it is a meditation on the continuing historical relevance (economic, cultural, psychological) of a particular narrative. A remake is thus always concerned with what its makers and (they hope) its audiences consider to be unfinished cultural business, unrefinable and perhaps finally unassimilable material that remains part of the cultural dialogue—not until it is finally given definitive form, but until it is no longer compelling or interesting.

The remake is intriguing because it intensifies basic critical conflicts between the intertextuality of film meaning and its contextuality, between the uses of taxonomy in grouping films and the renewed look at the individual text, between artistic intention as a gesture of originality and artistic intention as a gesture of mediation. It is suggestive that the various versions of Dracula, say, including the recent one directed by Francis Coppola, flirt with the question of fidelity to the original text, while the remaking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is less significant than its revision into so many different formats: the sharing of identities between a white man and a black man, an


older woman and a younger woman, a human and an alien, to mention only a few. Even Superman might be seen as a version of the basic Jekyll and Hyde format, while the remakes of Dracula seem doomed to remain stuck in the repetitive urge to assert their "purer" origin.

The implications of gender for the remaking process also need to be addressed more directly, as Lucy Fischer and Chris Holmlund have done in their essays, in order to question the male bias explicit in the oedipal metaphors used to analyze the remake generations. Krin Gabbard does make the interesting suggestion that A Star Is Born takes on the Jazz Singer format with a female hero rather than a male. Yet there are few if any genealogies of female remakes to compare with the male versions. Our cultural sense of individual combat is large enough to include male/male, female/female, and male/female pairs. But when we imagine a combat of generations that reflects the tides of history, it seems invariably male/male, in a kind of masculine cultural parthenogenesis. No wonder then that so many remakes are concerned with generational (often father/son) contests of meaning, and conflicts over the proper uses of authority and power—a tendency particularly present in family narratives such as the various Jazz Singers and Godfather s. In her intriguing effort to establish an alternative genealogy, Lucy Fischer considers the relation of Almodovar's High Heels to Sirk's Imitation of Life . But the subject also cries out for an exploration of the connection of remake and melodrama, particularly through the cycle of female generations focused on in fiction, films, and plays such as East Lynne, Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce, Back Street, and Madame X .

Our time is particularly heavy in remakes, perhaps the most so since the studio system was cannibalizing novels, plays, and its own past for new material. It is a time of dissatisfaction with the single story and yet a growing uneasiness with heartless and endless referentiality. It is also a time of hyperconsciousness of film history, fed by the availability of old films on cable channels and in video stores. How then does a filmmaker accomplish something personal that will attract an audience and assert the continuity of his or her own career? The two main ways seem to be the much-less-traveled road of originality and the crowded highway of genre and remaking, where the filmmaker's individual moral and aesthetic sensibility is defined by its meditation on the works of the past.

To remake is to want to reread—to believe in an explicit (and thematized) way that the past reading was wrong or outdated and that a new one must be done. One aspect of rereading often present in films but only tangentially considered in these essays is the figuring of generational change and the passage of authority through casting—as Martin Scorsese remakes The Hustler as The Color of Money, rotating Paul Newman from the younger to the older role, or as he remakes Cape Fear, rotating both Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck from the previous version. Is this a species of


quotation that is characteristic of the remake, or is it the stylistic device of a particular filmmaker and, perhaps, his generation?

There is also some distinction to be made between remaking under a studio system, with its high premium on a "product" simultaneously familiar and yet distinguishable by its house style, and remaking in a poststudio film world, where the relation between the time-honored and the innovative takes very different forms. Robert Kolker argues persuasively that Scorsese's Cape Fear is also in some important way a remake of Hitchcock's Stage Fright, I Confess , and Strangers on a Train . His conclusion suggests the central role of remakes in an ongoing personal or general history of aesthetic self-consciousness that experiences periods of both expression and repression. Stuart McDougal traces the same process within Hitchcock's own career as expressed in the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much . Similar analyses could be made of such self-remakers as Frank Capra and John Ford, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, or those many film-makers who, like Jean Renoir, have said that their entire careers consist in making and remaking the same film. Scorsese as remaker thus focuses some intriguing aspects of the remaking process—principally the way it highlights a narrative tradition in the act of interpreting itself.[3]

Finally, remaking partakes of the cultural nostalgia so marked now as the century ends and we have passed the one hundredth anniversary of the Lumière brothers' first shows. Like genre itself, remakes emphasize the clash between principles of continuity and principles of innovation in film history—the constant interplay between the desires of artists and the desires of audiences. We're all well schooled in thinking retrospectively and nostalgically, but few if any can translate that into predicting what is to come. Unlike Harvey Greenberg, I think that remakes can easily be better than their originals. And unlike Krin Gabbard, I don't think it's much of a paradox that the "unreproduceable" Jazz Singer became godfather to so many other films. It is the audience, or the audiences, that decide what is variable and what is unchanging in art, what vanishes and what lasts, what can be revived and what remains dead. Only one member of that audience is the remaker, and only one is the critic.

Afterword: Rethinking Remakes

Preferred Citation: Horton, Andrew, and Stuart Y. McDougal, editors Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.