Back in the late 1990s, I was working on a pilot rewrite for CBS with a group of writers. There were four people in the room with me: the head writer, a young writer from The Simpsons, and two older writers whose careers had started back in the 1960s on The Dick Van Dyke Show and later The Monkees.
There are few people I enjoy meeting more than old comedy writers. They have a million great stories, which they will eventually get to once they finish complaining about their prostates and the pastrami they’re serving at this deli. That day, we were stuck on a scene and couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. We needed a piece of action to kickstart the scene—a bit. I pitched something and the room laughed. As the head writer started to type it up, the young writer stopped us.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Isn’t this kind of familiar? I mean, haven’t we seen this before?”
To which one of the old guy writers responded: “Did it work? Well, then…”
Today we’re going to take a look at how this principle, “Did it work? Well, then…”, has applied to the movies in the form of remakes. Specifically, we’re going to look at movies that have been remade several times. And you know what? Almost all of them worked!
In 1930, the great mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett published a noir thriller novel. It was a big bestseller and was immediately made into a movie. The first version was originally called The Dangerous Female but later was renamed The Maltese Falcon (1931). It starred Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Dudley Digges, and Otto Matieson. Never heard of any of them? There may be good reason. This version was pretty bad, and Warner Brothers realized they had bungled the job of turning a perfectly excellent book into a movie. Five years later, they tried again, this time with a version called Satan Met a Lady (1931). In this version, the character of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart’s part later on) was cut. This version does have the benefit of Bette Davis, but again, a failed project.
Finally, in 1941, Warner Brothers ordered another remake—a third version of this story. This time they got it right. One could almost say they got it perfectly right. The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a fabulous movie. Directed by John Huston from a script he wrote, this version is made luminescent by Humphrey Bogart. This is the Bogart we love: cynical, dark, brooding, and unstoppable. Filling out the stellar cast are Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. I recommend renting all three, and watching them in sequence. It’s a fascinating example of Hollywood reworking things until they get it right. And boy oh boy did they get it right on the third try.
George Romero was a 28 year-old B-movie writer and director when he managed to round up a little bit of money to crank out a horror movie he had written with a friend, John Russo. It was about a group of people trapped in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, menaced by “the living dead,” or zombies as we now call them. This original is a classic. Granted, it was cheaply made (the budget was less than $115,000), but it is as entertaining (and sorta scary) as a horror movie can get. I love the original.
A series of sequels were made in the ensuing years, including Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and several more. In 1990, the movie received the most loving tribute a movie can get—a shot-for-shot remake of the original (Night of the Living Dead (1990). This one was directed by Romero’s makeup and stuntman and general jack-of-all-trades, Tom Savini. I highly recommend the original and the 1990 remake. The rest are fun to watch, especially if you like zombie movies as I do.
You would think that the original would be the best, but you would be wrong. I know I was. The original starred Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, so how can you go wrong with that? You can. Not a fan of Garson’s performance here, and Olivier’s Darcy is a bit campy, to be honest. But it’s a great story, so go for it.
There have been six television adaptations of the movie, mostly as mini-series. The best of these are the 1980 BBC version that stars Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul, and don’t forget the 1995 BBC version starring Jennifer Ehle and a very young and very beautiful Colin Firth. In 2005, a film version came out that many people didn’t love, but I just simply adore it. This time, it’s Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy. Honestly, any one of these versions is worth watching. Even more honestly, the book really is better than any of them.
There have been three versions of this movie released, and the fourth is now here. The original from 1937 is a real gem. It stars Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and was co-written by one of my favorites screenwriters of all time, Dorothy Parker. It’s the same story every time—innocent farm girl comes to Hollywood and becomes a star after many trials and tribulations. The first remake—and probably the best version—was in 1954. Directed by the legendary George Cukor off a script by the brilliant Moss Hart, this one stars Judy Garland and James Mason. If you don’t like this version, you don’t like movies. And that’s a fact.
In the 1976 version, Hollywood gave the story another treatment, this time with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. This one is not as good, but to be fair, I have a personal reason for not loving it. My college girlfriend made me go see it with her and she had a huge crush on Kris Kristofferson. I spent the whole movie looking at her while she looked longingly up at Kristofferson, and I realized our relationship was doomed. I’ve seen the movie since, and it’s actually not bad.
Believe it or not, this Will Smith drama was the third version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel. The first version is something of a B-movie classic: The Last Man on Earth (1964). We’ve all heard of the “Spaghetti Western”, a series of westerns made in the 1960s by Sergio Leone that starred Clint Eastwood. The Last Man on Earth is, for lack of a better term, a Spaghetti Horror Movie. It was distributed by American International Pictures, a legendary B-movie house that cranked out dozens of cheap horror and slasher movies directed at a teenage audience.
The idea was to release two movies at a time in a double feature. Once this formula proved successful, other companies started to copy the double feature format, and AIP started to teeter. They saved themselves by importing cheap movies from Italy. This movie was one of them.
It stars Vincent Price, and was set four years into the future in 1968. Price’s character is seemingly the last man on Earth, a survivor of a terrible plague. When you think of all the horrible things that happened in 1968 with assassinations, riots, and disruptions leading up to the election of Richard Nixon, you kinda wonder if maybe the entire planet being wiped out might not have been a better version of 1968. It’s a lot of fun, to be honest, mainly because of Vincent Price, who chews scenery better than just about any actor ever recorded on film.
In 1971, Warner Brothers released The Omega Man, which is the same story, but set in Los Angeles—always a good city for a post-apocalyptic saga, I think because the traffic in L.A. has an end-of-the-world feeling to it. This version stars Charlton Heston, and is definitely creepier and, well, better. Now I’m not saying it’s a good movie. I’m just saying it’s better. Guess what? I like any movie that commits to its story and its world, regardless of the overall quality. Earnestness of intent always ranks high with me. Both The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man are just fine with me. This isn’t art; it’s just good clean fun about the end of the world.
Finally, in 2007, Warner Brothers released a big budget version starring Will Smith as the lonely scientist. He’s living alone in New York City, and the images of the deserted, overgrown, dangerous Manhattan are startling and breathtaking. The first time I watched I Am Legend, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, look at all the open parking places!’ Will Smith is outstanding, and the film is genuinely terrifying. All three of these versions are worth renting.
I have always argued that the mother-daughter relationship is among the most complex ecosystems on the planet. The Freaky Friday movies perfectly illustrate this point. On a Friday the 13th in 1976, Disney released the first film version of Mary Rogers’ 1972 comic novel about a mother and daughter switching places.
Now here’s the fun part of the 1976 version: it stars a young Jodie Foster as the rebellious daughter, and she is fabulous. Barbara Harris plays the stick-in-the-mud mom. In 1995, the Disney Channel version stars Shelley Long as mom and Gaby Hoffman as daughter Annabelle. My favorite part of this is a cameo by Sandra Bernhard as a snooty store clerk. Wonderful.
The one most people know is 2003’s version that stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, and was just fantastic. Here’s what you do, Mom: rent all three of these, grab your daughter(s), kick the men out of the house and settle in for a Freaky Friday marathon.
This masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest movies of all time. The tale of seven avenging samurais hired to protect a small mountain village in rural Japan from a group of bandits is gripping. Sure, you don’t speak Japanese. I don’t care. Read the subtitles. I urge you to watch this if you’ve never seen it. It’s magnificent. Hey, that would make a good adjective for a remake! And in 1960 United Artists did just that, and released a western remake of this story, set in rural Mexico. Talk about a tough act to follow! But The Magnificent Seven pulls off one of the greatest feats in cinema history by doing a more-than-respectable remake of a classic. Starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter, James Coburn, and Horst Buchholz, this bunch really is a magnificent seven.
In 2016, MGM and Columbia decided to give this story yet another try. And they succeeded. This 2016 remake is particularly notable for its racial, ethnic, and gender-diverse cast. Denzel Washington is the lead here and is joined by Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Martin Sensmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, and Haley Bennett. These are all violent action pictures. But, man, are they good. Especially the original.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and theBBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.