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Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin attend the premiere of their film The Great Gatsby. Image via Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com

What’s wrong with remakes?

by Julia Chasman

Let me get to my point – nothing is wrong with remakes; we’ve been remaking films almost as long as we’ve been making them! What makes a remake special or timely is when it captures something of the zeitgeist of its own time.

With The Great Gatsby opening this past weekend (and coming in a strong second to Ironman Trois), the discussion of remakes, as well as adaptations of classic literary works is revisited. I heard a pundit on NPR pondering the issue of whether his tween-age daughter, who hasn’t yet read the book, will see the movie first, and be picturing Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire in the main roles, or perhaps the Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim, when she finally reads it. She probably will – it’s unavoidable, but I had to laugh at his concern. There have been five film versions of The Great Gatsby so far. She will be picturing the actors of her generation’s film version, and that’s as it should be. Maybe the film will even make her want to read the book.

Why is it necessary for new versions – whether in 3D or the old-school standard – two dimensions? Well, would you ask that question about the “talkie” versions of Ben-Hur, Stella Dallas, The Three Musketeers, Beau Brummel, The Mark of Zorro, The Great Train Robbery, The Last of the Mohicans, Peter Pan, The Merry Widow, or Robin Hood? All of these titles were first made as silent films, some of them quite notable. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that the answer is obvious. There were critics at the time who felt that talking pictures would mark the death of cinema art.

The first version of The Great Gatsby was in fact a silent film – now lost, alas – made in 1926, a year after the debut of the novel (which was not a bestseller, by any means) starring Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson and William Powell. Reviews suggest that it may have been the most faithful adaptation of the story. The director was Herbert Brenon, an Irish-born director of many silent films including some other literary adaptations, such as Peter Pan, Beau Geste, and the first version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The 1949 version of Gatsby starred Alan Ladd, Betty Field and Shelley Winters, and is rarely seen today, apparently because of copyright issues. The 1974 version was heralded with a similar fanfare and expectation to today’s film, with a script by Francis Ford Coppola, and beauty stars of the day Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston as the sensitive Nick Carraway. The reviews were quite mixed, and in hindsight, one can see the more prominent role of the remake police starting to take effect already, even though there had not really been a fine version committed to film yet. Director Jack Clayton was a strong dramatist, tasteful, good with actors, but no auteur. He was best known for his British realist dramas, like Room at the Top in 1959 and The Pumpkin Eater in 1964 with Anne Bancroft. All these works were markedly British, and it’s a curious question why he was chosen for that most American of great books: Gatsby. It suggests the nervousness of the producers (read: studio) about the handling of a “classic.” The film did end up with two Oscars, for Theoni Aldredge’s costumes and Nelson Riddle’s score, which was essentially based on the Irving Berlin song “What’ll I Do.”

I’m guessing that whatever we think of Baz Luhrmann’s film, it won’t be accused of being timid. And in today’s international climate it’s a non-issue that the director isn’t American.

In the area of music, Luhrmann has always been an innovator, and perhaps the high grosses have something to do with Jay-Z’s rap contributions to the score. The high point for me musically, though, was the use of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” music which was entirely in period, having been written in 1924, the year before the publication of the book.

Sometimes the early versions of classics are hard to beat. Great Expectations comes to mind, with David Lean setting the bar incredibly high. But still, Alfonso Cuaron’s adventurous, stylized “modern” version gave new life to the story, and I fully expect the door is open to further interpretations.

Wuthering Heights has inspired many versions, some in foreign or reimagined settings, despite the indisputable and well-deserved popularity of the 1939 William Wyler directed version, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. The 1992 version, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, included the later section of the book where we learn the fates of the children of Cathy, Heathcliff and Hindley. Maybe there was a good reason that has been left out of other versions? Still, the 1954 Luis Buñuel film Abismos de pasión set the story in Catholic Mexico, and was thought to be a highly successful transposition of the story which somehow remained true to Emily Bronte, while offering a unique auteur’s vision, incorporating Buñuel’s magical tone and leanings at the same time.

Jane Eyre is another revered literary work which has enjoyed a few different film interpretations. My own feeling, not shared by all, is that the most recent version directed by Cary Fukunaga succeeds where others failed, in capturing the painful austerity of the story’s Yorkshire setting and world, while giving voice to Charlotte Bronte’s intense lyric romanticism, all without the usual anachronistic nods to contemporary styles in costume and make-up. One reason to redo some of these stories might simply be to exploit our ability to recreate a period today with matchless accuracy. Think of all the crazy 1940s-style wigs we’ve had to ignore in period stories like Meet Me in St. Louis, or Little Women.

Little Women is worth its own little chapter: the 1933 George Cukor version with Katharine Hepburn had star power to burn, but that didn’t stop them from remaking it in technicolor in 1949 with . . . June Allyson, if you please! And for my money, the 1994 all women version (written by Robin Swicord, produced by Denise di Novi, directed by Gillian Armstrong, released by Amy Pascal) is easily the best, and the first with a truly stellar Beth, the young Claire Danes. So, there are often good reasons to redo.

Sometimes a new version tries too hard. Such was the case, I think, with the 2012 version of Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, and offering a wonderful cast (with maybe one notable exception in the miscasting of Vronsky), and a strong script by Tom Stoppard. So, what happened? I think the director got cold feet about going up against the Vivien Leigh version. At what I gather was the last minute, he opted for a reimagined setting . . . the whole story played out within the walls of a decaying theater (decaying, get it? Like the society.). This highly stylized visual conceit was painfully at odds with the otherwise faithful and naturalistic screenplay which could easily have shone through in a straightforward interpretation. The result was a critical and financial dud. No zeitgeist there.

Still, I hope that writers and directors keep imagining and reimagining these classic stories. Without their creativity we’d have no West Side Story, or Baz Luhrmann’s own landmark Romeo and Juliet, no Clueless, or Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (a direct lift of The Postman Always Rings Twice).

In order to keep making art, we have to keep remaking it sometimes. “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts . . . ”

Julia Chasman

About Julia Chasman

Julia Chasman is a veteran film producer, with more than a dozen features to her credit. A resident of Downtown LA's Arts District, she heads her own production company, RubberTreePlant, and travels as much as she can to her other two hometowns -- New York City, and London, England, where she went to high school. A graduate of UCLA's Film of Theater, Film and TV, she's a secret cinema studies nerd, and hopes to complete a masters in Italian one day. Julia is a member of AMPAS, BAFTA, the PGA, and Film Independent. Her favorite film is THE APARTMENT by Billy Wilder. Her proudest accomplishments are her two daughters -- singer/songwriter Johanna Samuels, and Becky Samuels, a junior at Bard College. IMDB

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