Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

(Re)made in America

More by coincidence than by design, during the past week I happened to see two different American movies that were based on Japanese films. This raises an interesting question. Why was one remake a major success that became a classic in its own right, and why was the other pretty much destined to always exist in the shadow of the original?

The Japanese originals (The Seven Samurai, Shall We Dansu?) were made 42 years apart. The American versions (The Magnificent Seven, Shall We Dance) followed their predecessors six and eight years later, respectively.

The easy, general explanation for why one remake works better than the other is in the relative talent and competence of the people involved in each project. (It is worth noting that the director of the “American” remake Shall We Dance was actually an Englishman, Peter Chelsom.) But why, specifically, does The Magnificent Seven live on in the memories of movie fans, while Shall We Dance is just one of an endless horde of chick flicks on the video store shelf?

For a start, I cheated by referring to both The Magnificent Seven and Shall We Dance as remakes. In the loosest and most liberal sense of the word, every film is a remake. There isn’t any coherent story that cannot be traced to an earlier version of the same story. Before West Side Story, there was Romeo and Juliet. And before Romeo and Juliet, there was the Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare wasn’t the first, last or only writer to recycle plots. Virtually every storyline comes from an earlier one. But in the strict sense of the word, a remake is specifically a movie that more or less uses the same screenplay as an earlier movie. Chelsom’s Shall We Dance clearly qualifies as a remake. It has the same title as the earlier film, and while it does not follow the original as slavishly as, say, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, it does follow the original pretty darn closely. There is no doubt that Masayuki Suo’s film and Chelsom’s are two versions of the same movie.

While John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven openly declares its creative debt to The Seven Samurai and is faithful to the plot and spirit of Akira Kurosawa’s classic, it is not really a remake. It’s a new version of the same story, in the same way that West Side Story is a new version of Romeo and Juliet. But just as Robert Wise’s 1961 movie musical cannot technically be considered a remake of, say, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet (but Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet can—or can it?), Sturges’s classic western is a film in its own right that happens to owe a creative debt to an earlier movie.

So how do we know if we are watching a “remake” or merely “a new version of a classic story”? Well, the title can be a clue. Often remakes have the same title as the original. But not always. Leo McCarey’s 1939 movie Love Affair (with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer) was remade by the same director in 1957 (with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant) with the title An Affair to Remember. It was remade again in 1994 (directed by Glenn Gordon Caron), starring producer/co-writer Warren Beatty and his wife Annette Bening. Despite the title change in the 1957 version and the varying names of characters in all the versions, it is clear that all three are versions of the same movie. But Nora Ephron’s 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) may make numerous references to McCarey’s films and even appropriate the famous ending at the Empire State Building, but it is not a remake. It’s a different story that merely appropriates and pays homage to the earlier films.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if we are watching a remake or not. Never Say Never Again, in which Sean Connery reprised the James Bond role after 12 years, could technically be considered a remake of Thunderball, since it was a loophole that allowed different producers to remake that movie as a project separate from the “official” Roger Moore 007 movies of the time. But, since every 007 movie has more or less the same plot and characters, isn’t every James Bond movie since Dr. No technically a remake? That is certainly arguable, but reasonableness dictates that we indulge the studio’s line that every James Bond movie is a different story. To do otherwise, would oblige us to regard so many Hollywood movies as remakes as to make the term meaningless. Especially when you consider that sequels are invariably, in effect, de facto remakes of the films they are sequels to. (And, speaking of sequels and remakes, I know that summer is season for such things, but has there ever been a summer where seemingly every major Hollywood release is either a sequel, a remake or an adaptation of a television show? When I walked into a cinema a couple of months ago, of the numerous movie posters on the walls, I could literally find none that didn’t fit into one of the aforementioned categories.)

Another tricky area regarding remakes: is a movie necessarily a remake if it is based on source material that has previously been adapted for the movie screen? The answer is, no, not necessarily, although it can be a fine line and perhaps one not worth the bother of trying to draw. For example, is it really important to decide whether Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon should be considered a remake of Michael Mann’s Manhunter (which had Brian Cox playing Hannibal Lecter), which was based on the same novel by Thomas Harris. (I’d say it isn’t.) And would anyone seriously argue that Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, even though both are inspired by the same true-life multiple murders. Hooper, however, is no stranger to remakes, having co-produced one to his own 1974 shocker, directed by Marcus Nispel—having also personally helmed to two sequels to his original.

While we’re on the topic of remakes, why does Hollywood do so many remakes of other countries’ films? The simple answer is that the U.S. is a huge market. The American movie industry is a behemoth that sucks up creative ideas wherever it can find them. But do filmmakers in other countries ever remake American movies? Sometimes. One recent successful example that comes to mind is Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which was a remake of James Toback’s Fingers.

So, we’ve established that Shall We Dance is a remake and The Magnificent Seven isn’t. Does this explain why one is more successful than the other? Partly. After all, it is the rare remake that matches, let alone outshines, the movie it is based on. Does it ever happen? Occasionally, the 1959 version of Ben-Hur might be an example, but mainly because the original was a silent movie. Randal Keiser’s 1980 remake of The Blue Lagoon (with Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins) certainly was more of a pop culture phenomenon than the 1949 original (with Jean Simmons and Donald Houston). The 1959 of Imitation of Life (with Lana Turner and Sandra Dee) is probably more remembered the 1934 version (with Claudette Colbert and Rochelle Hudson). Ditto the 1954 version of A Star Is Born (with Judy Garland and James Mason) vis-à-vis the 1937 version (with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) but not the 1976 version (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson).

So Chelsom’s film started out with at least one strike against it, if it was going for immortality. There is just something about the creative process that it only truly flourishes when it is, well, creating. Following someone else’s good idea for a story and merely substituting American names and American locations and adding American twists is a creative straitjacket. Taking a classic story but starting fresh with it, as did Sturges and his screenwriter William Roberts and the uncredited Walter Bernstein and Walter Newman, offers at least a chance of coming up with something not just inspired but inspirational.

-S.L., 24 August 2006

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive