Judging by the outcry from Hollywood stars over a Sony executive’s vaguely floated notion this week of remaking “The Princess Bride,” you’d think that the idea wasn’t to make a new film but to alter or destroy Rob Reiner’s 1987 original. Among the most over-the-top of the fretters, for instance, was the movie’s co-star Cary Elwes, who tweeted this riff on one of the movie’s famous lines: “There’s a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to damage this one.”

It seems self-evident that no film is literally damaged by a remake—and that if any damage results it’s of a psychological, not a cinematic, nature. There are people who think that Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of “Breathless” is better than the original; some viewers find Brian De Palma’s 1983 “Scarface” superior to Howard Hawks’s 1932 version. They are wrong, of course, but their critical delusions don’t prevent anyone from enjoying the originals. That’s why I’d like to make a modest proposal to the film industry in response to the “Princess Bride” outcry: namely, remake everything, or, at least, anything, and see whether a filmmaker, a screenwriter, a producer, and a group of actors have the insight and the imagination to meet the challenges and the inspirations of the classics.

In the case of “The Princess Bride,” which is based on William Goldman’s adaptation of his own novel, I’d say that the door is wide open—not least because it’s far from a perfect movie. Much about it is rooted in the dated standards of its times and, thus, is ripe for reimagination. To begin with, its title character—the princess Buttercup (Robin Wright), who wants to marry a commoner named Westley (Elwes) but is betrothed to the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon)—is written and directed, for the most part, like a sack of gold rather than a sentient person. The one time she raises a hand to her oppressors, she’s utterly incompetent and has to be rescued by Westley, as she is at every turn—protected from flames in the “fire swamp,” pulled from a pit of “lightning sand,” protected from the ROUSes (rodents of unusual size). Her only recourse in the face of her impending forced marriage to Humperdinck is to plan her suicide—an act from which she is again saved by Westley, who protests, “There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in this world.” It’s worth recalling, too, the severe test to which Westley, disguised by the mask of the Dread Pirate Roberts, subjects her: it involves his bitter and derisive skepticism about the truth—the fidelity—of her love, and culminates in his raising his hand as if to hit her and declaring, “Where I come from, there are penalties when a woman lies.”

Another underlying relationship in the film, while set in modern times, is as crude and old-fashioned as the faux-medieval tale: the one that frames the story, between the boy (Fred Savage) and his grandfather (Peter Falk), who is reading him the book version of “The Princess Bride,” a novel (by the fictitious author S. Morgenstern) that was already around when the grandfather was a child. The boy is a sports-loving, action-craving, kiss-cringeing cliché, who expresses surprise that Buttercup is willing to marry Humperdinck rather than Westley “after all that Westley did for her.” It’s one of the many notions that might, in a remake, elicit some illuminating discussion between the grandfather and the boy—or, perhaps even more illuminating, between a grandmother and her granddaughter at their story time.

“The Princess Bride” could do with revisions in other ways. It’s a movie of clever banter but little visual wit (beyond the nimble early fencing scenes between Elwes and Mandy Patinkin), and some lumpy lines and performances that appeal to children as they are seen in the condescending eyes of adults. Yet far be it from me to gainsay the delight that many viewers take in “The Princess Bride.” The point isn’t to suggest that fans renounce the pleasures, such as they are. But it’s reasonable to expect a remake to tell a fuller story, to offer different perspectives on its characters and situations and, in the process, to deliver different pleasures while nonetheless honoring the achievements of the original.

There are enough examples, recent and historical, to dispel any skepticism that this is possible. When it comes to masterworks, F. W. Murnau’s 1924 drama, “The Last Laugh,” is one of the supreme ones in the history of film—and the Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s 2010 remake of it, “A Screaming Man,” marshals the power of the original’s story and themes to illuminate his own place and time. Peter Bogdanovich remade and honored Hawks’s “Bringing Up Baby” in his 1972 comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” Spike Lee improved on Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” in his 2013 remake of it. Kimberly Peirce’s remake of “Carrie,” also from 2013, improved on Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. And, of course, classic-era Hollywood ate its young with extraordinary speed. Hawks remade “The Front Page,” from 1931, for his classic 1940 comedy “His Girl Friday”; and, for that matter, he remade his own films quickly, improving “Ball of Fire,” from 1941, in 1948, as “A Song Is Born,” and wreaking modernist twists on “Rio Bravo” (1959) with “El Dorado” (1967). Alfred Hitchcock remade, at two decades’ remove, his own “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and improved on it greatly. Douglas Sirk’s supreme last film, “Imitation of Life,” from 1959, is a remake of John M. Stahl’s 1934 version. George Cukor’s remake of “A Star Is Born,” starring Judy Garland, improves on the 1937 William Wellman version with Janet Gaynor, which was itself a remake of Cukor’s own 1932 original, “What Price Hollywood?” The list goes on.

Of course, if we started to enumerate remakes that fall ridiculously short of the originals and feel grotesquely misguided and misbegotten, we’d be here for hours. But pessimistic remarks like Nev Schulman’s regarding the “Princess Bride” (“Here’s an idea: Don’t spend any money making a new movie that will suck and just re-release the original,” he tweeted) are equally misguided: plenty of money is spent producing awful movies that aren’t remakes. Rather, the greatest harm threatened by remakes is unavailability: the possibility that, in order to promote or extort interest in a remake, a studio or a distributor may be tempted to take the original out of circulation. (The critic Farran Smith Nehme has cited several such cases, including Thorold Dickinson’s 1940 version of “Gaslight” and even John Ford’s 1939 masterwork “Stagecoach.”) Yet availability is a problem endemic to movies, regardless of whether they’ve been remade. The lack of access to the classics of cinema seems often like a calculated erasure, a planned oblivion that forces viewers to consume new movies and effaces the kind of knowledge that would sustain critical thought about them. Remakes, by inevitably evoking earlier movies, serve them better than the studios and services that don’t serve them at all.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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