What a curiosity the remake is. It's a unique phenomenon in modern art and somewhat exclusive to the movies. I suppose you could argue that the theatre is built on remaking or recreating the play. Agreed. However, the play (or opera or dance) is immediate and then it is gone. A play happens in the present and in a specific space (the theatre) while film is something that is recorded and something that can be reproduced. In the reproduced arts - the painting, the photograph, architecture, and sculpture - the reproduction of the piece by someone other than the artist is considered moronic (with the exception of popular music - even then...).
Yet we have the film remake, and at times, the remake that follows the previous picture word for word or shot by shot. Gus Van Sant remade Hitchcock's Psycho shot for shot with few alterations, the exception of colour photography and a few additions including the unnecessary Norman Bates masturbation scene. I imagine the best way to view a remake is never to have seen the original. Psycho felt like a high school version of the original. It felt like a forced imitation with actors who seemed to be doing impersonation rather than acting. Don't get me wrong - Vince Vaughn has his own strengths but he totally lacked the uncomfortable asexuality that Anthony Perkins portrayed so effortlessly. Anne Heche, of course, was a flavour of the month and couldn't even compare to Janet Leigh. In the end the film's only success is reminding us how great the original was.
I recently put on the Double Indemnity Legacy Series DVD which includes a 1973 Television remake of the original Billy Wilder film. I've seen the original film enough times that I have a strong memory of it's rhythms and performances. The 1973 version (adapted almost word for word by the famous Steven Bochco) is a lot like Psycho where it feels like an amateur production of a classic work. Richard Crenna (of the Rambo fame) replaces Fred MacMurray as Walter Ness, and Samantha Eggar takes the place of Barbara Stanwyck. Lee Cobb, like Vince Vaughn, seems to be doing an impersonation of the great performance of Edward G Robinson. None of the performers seem to understand the emotions of the original characters and each one seems to be saying their lines without the strong intentions of the original material. It's a curiosity for sure but nothing more. Crenna may do his lines well enough, but his reactions to the other players lack any knowledge of how Ness feels about anything. Beyond the performances of the script, the lighting, music and art direction are exactly what you would expect from 1970's television. Despite the dark material, the scenes are over lit and flat. The music is often added to take up space. Again, very little understanding of the psychology of the characters.
It's fascinating to watch these films as it highlights the talent of the original filmmakers. It also highlights the absolute importance of casting and how great actors bring something special that is beyond the words of the script. Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course. John Huston's "Maltese Falcon" was the third attempt at retelling the Hammett novel. Yet, it got the casting right and it had a director that could bring the material to life. Was it a remake of the film or a new adaptation of the book? Steven Soderbergh's 'Solaris' is not a remake of the Russian film but a re imagining of the original material. Maybe that makes the difference.
I ask you - are there any great remakes in film? Scorsese might have done a terrific job with 'Cape Fear' and 'The Departed' but were these necessary? Were they any better than the originals?
Don't get me started on 'City of Angels'.