Hollywood loves bringing back cherished black and white classics, giving them shiny new casts, a fresh coat of lacquer, and popping them into movie theaters (or more likely now, streaming them to your local cable/satellite provider). As if they had an expiration date, every movie, from Spiderman to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is just waiting to be remade. It’s common practice to take previously successful ideas and “re-imagine” them for new audiences. It has existed nearly as long as the big studios themselves—but why?
Long after Fay Wray charmed the heart of a clay-mation beast in 1933’s King Kong, Jessica Lange and an animatronic beast starred in the 1976 remake of the original masterpiece. With the art of filmmaking beginning to take shape, the 1933 film was itself an undertaking mirrored in the plotline: a group of filmmakers set out into uncharted waters to capture a spectacle never before seen on screen. Later, amidst an energy crisis in the mid-70s, director John Guillerman departed from the original story by using big oil as the rotten antagonist attempting to exploit Kong for profit.
Twenty-nine years later, Peter Jackson presented with nostalgic whimsy yet another reboot of the film, with Naomi Watts slipping into Wray’s role of beauty to the beast. Although Jackson borrowed heavily from the original story, the remake was most notable for its advanced computer animation. Yet even though millions of dollars were poured into the production, it received mixed reviews and garnered average box office returns. But damn, didn’t that gorilla look a lot cooler than that clay-mation thing? The original film and the surprisingly deep character of the clay-beast is apt to be forgotten by younger generations who are more likely to think of Jackson’s slick computer-animated ape at mention of “King Kong”.
So why don’t major studios let their triumphs of the past live as milestones for the future? Quite simply, it’s easy for Hollywood to skip creating new ideas; it saves the time and money in development costs, and it minimizes risk. That’s capitalism; that’s show business. For their part, filmgoers still pour into theaters for the newest takes on old ideas—even poorly reviewed remakes can make millions simply because we’re curious to see how it’s done this time. Our culture is nostalgic. We want to be reminded of a time we swear was better than today—and we’re willing to pay for it. From there, an important distinction can be made; cinematically, stylistically, and in level of discourse, there’s a difference (though not mutually exclusive) between art and entertainment—between films and movies.
Entertainment is fast food for the mind: it’s engineered to taste good and to fill you up, but in the end it is empty calories. Art is quinoa. Like the nutritious food, it fuels your mind and enhances performance. Trouble is, fast food is easy to find, while you generally have to search out a natural foods store for healthy options like quinoa. So America has become obese with recycled reels from Hollywood, leaving many longing for the days of Ms. Wray’s King Kong when filmmakers set sail into uncharted waters, determined to capture something never seen before.
There are, of course, remakes that are better received and more critically acclaimed than the original films they recreate. Case in point, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. But you can only have so many variations of one idea before you over-saturate. It’s like going to an ice cream parlor with 31 flavors of vanilla…everyday! You’ll try all the offerings, and there’s bound to be a best one, but wouldn’t you be curious why the parlor doesn’t offer chocolate?
“People buy vanilla,” the clerk says. “I don’t know that people would by any other flavor.” But take a chance on a stroll down the street to that independent ice cream parlor on the corner and there are dozens of flavors to choose from. Some are amazing, some are terrible, some taste like they look, and some completely surprise you. There’re big ice cream makers testing out new flavors; there’re former big ice cream parlor workers trying their own recipes; there’re people who hand you an empty cone and tell you the ice cream exists inside your mind…—And there’re people just handing out their ice cream hoping that you give it a try. More than just vanilla is on offer. Where would you go? In the end, it’s your choice.