If it ain’t broke…
News today that Stephen Spielberg plans to produce a remake of The Grapes of Wrath for Dreamworks. His company already has a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca in the pipeline. The film of John Steinbeck’s novel was made in 1940, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford (right). Hitchcock made his film from Daphne du Maurier’s novel in 1940. Both films from novels. Both made in 1940. Both screen classics.
Spielberg earned his well-deserved reputation by making original movies from original scripts. Although not averse to sequels—franchises are there to be milked—he has only once made a film that could be considered a remake: War of the Worlds, better known in its 1938 radio version than for the earlier film from 1953, which is largely forgotten. So why now?
Remakes of classics are a conundrum. They acknowledge that the original is a great film but effectively assert that the new version will be better/more up-to-date/more accessible or all the above. Implication: don’t bother watching the original. Remakes may be more up-to-date (by definition) and possibly more accessible, but they are rarely—probably never—better. The originals, because of their classic status are still available, albeit only on DVD or television, so they are being insulted by the hubris of the remake merchants.
Perhaps if more cinemas showed more classic films the urge to re-make would be diminished. But maybe not. Remakes also signify an absence of new ideas, without which cinema will die.