The most direct and levelled criticism of Hollywood studios today is their lack of originality. Creatively, though, the struggling artist working his way through the system would disagree. We’re lost amidst a forest, every road leading to the inevitable lifeless sequel, the tone deaf remake or the umpteenth reboot. We’ve had to create a new term for riffing on the familiar: the dreaded “requel” is both a reboot and a sequel, a film so lazy it fails to redress past wrongs, but rather just glosses over them with retroactive continuity.
But reboots, remakes and sequels are nothing new. Even in the silent era, there were numerous retellings of classic stories. Years before Boris Karloff donned greenface and neck bolts, Frankenstein was adapted into a since lost silent film. F.W. Murnau’s unofficial Dracula adaptation Nosferatu predates the Lugosi classic.
But perhaps the biggest joke on the audience is when seemingly new material is derived or lifted from foreign or older works. Here now are just some of the examples of films you may not have known were remakes. Be sure to drop these in conversation with your film geek friend for added nerd street cred.
15. Three Men and a Baby
It’s unimaginable to think the charming duo of Steve Martin and Michael Caine could ever be topped. The two played off one another with such ease and wit in Frank Oz’s 1988 comedy as two con men looking to swindle the same heiress.
However, the original pairing of Marlon Brando and David Niven in 1964’s Bedtime Story proved to be a tough act to follow. Brando had long established himself as the working class everyman with A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront. As for Niven – like Michael Caine – the man can class up a room merely by passing through it. Unlike Scoundrels, however, Bedtime Story was a commercial flop.
13. 12 Monkeys
It’s understandable that regular theatre patrons weren’t aware the Terry Gilliam‘s mind-bending sci-fi thriller was a remake. The original, after all, was French, 28 minutes long, and comprised almost entirely of still photos.
But Chris Marker’s 1962 La Jettee is remarkably similar to Gilliam’s retelling. The film borrows numerous significant elements from the plot (“Jettee” refers to airport Jetty where flights are visible arriving and departing, the exact setting of Monkeys’ pivotal scene). Even with full knowledge of the events of 12 Monkeys, Marker’s film is well-worth seeking out. It’s amazing what a lack of Bruce Willis can do.
12. House of Wax
Whether referring to the 1953, 3D spectacle with Vincent Price or the 2005 Paris Hilton-impaling version of this creepy story, both owe a debt to 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. The Price version sticks more closely to the original, which tells the story of a deranged and deformed wax museum owner whose sculptures start becoming a little too lifelike. Mystery starred a young Fay Wray just before she took on the iconic role of a giant ape’s love interest. Price’s version featured a young Charles Bronson as an Igor-like figure.
The 2005 version, starring it-girl of the era Elisha Cuthbert, takes a different, more literal path with its source material. Less a mystery or a thriller, the wax house of the title is exactly what it sounds like.
11. The Thing
John Carpenter‘s 1982 paranoid sci-fi thriller has become a cult classic after the initial critical bashing it took upon release. Today, it’s well regarded as one of the best of its kind. With a stellar cast lead by Kurt Russell, the film features a recently-thawed, shape-shifting alien that slowly begins to take over an isolated Antarctic research centre one person at a time.
Director Carpenter has never hid his affection for Howard Hawks’ classic westerns – hell, half his filmography consists of reframing the siege events of Rio Bravo in other genres. His love extends to Christian Nyby’s 1951 monster flick The Thing From Another World – secretly co-directed by Hawks. Carpenter even included footage from the original in his seminal film Halloween.
The Thing, however, hews more closely to the original source material; the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., was the inspiration for both versions. However, the giant carrot monster of the 1951 film uses little more than the setting and the concept of an alien attacker. The 1982 film reads nearly verbatim the novel, minus the severe homoerotic subtext.
10. L.A. Story
Steve Martin may have began as an absurdist stand up comic/amateur magician/banjo enthusiast, but his career took several sharp turns throughout the 80s and 90s. His first major leap was an understated dramatic performance in the flop-cum-cult-hit musical Pennies From Heaven. He stayed the course through the 80s, writing several successful funny comedies until he began reworking classic literature into modern day love stories. Roxanne (1987) was a modern adaptation of Edmond Rostandt’s play Cyrano De Bergerac.
Martin continued modernizing classics with L.A. Story, his scathingly funny take on Los Angeles in the late 80s/early 90s. Behind the jokes about open season on the L.A. freeway and the very specific orders the elite make at restaurants and those “damn wrong number dialers” lies a thinly disguised adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a traffic condition sign playing the role of the fairy Puck.
9. Scent of a Woman
Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman marks a turning point for the great actor Al Pacino. It is the first role for which he won an Academy Award. It also ends the period of what we like to call “sane Pacino.” The days of sane Pacino include some fine, quiet, understated performances in films like Frankie and Johnny and Dog Day Afternoon. After going crazy learning the Academy was only interested in roles in which he shouted like Huey Long on a Mint Julep binge, he decided never to act any differently.
The role that led to the award comes from a 1974 film of the same title, in which the lead blind character literally uses his nose to sniff out attractive women. Most of the storyline from the original remains intact in the American remake, despite adding a convoluted subplot involving preparatory school pranks that go too far.
8. The Last House On the Left
No, we’re not discussing the 2009 remake of Wes Craven‘s 1972 exploitation flick. Craven was an English professor at Westminster College in Pennsylvania when his friend Sean Cunningham (future Friday the 13th director) and he decided to put together the violent, low-budget original that we are still horrified by today. Many read it as a direct reaction to the horrors Vietnam.
While writing the film, Craven drew inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring. Set in medieval Sweden, the basic concept of two innocents being brutally killed and their attackers taking refuge in the home of the victim’s parents transfers quite well to the 70s lost generation.
7. Casino Royale
The James Bond franchise has been running for over 50 years and even longer in book form. Ian Fleming’s signature character has been played by five different actors if you only count what is considered as cannon. Of those, Daniel Craig‘s work in 2005’s Casino Royale has been said to best approximate the novels’ blunt instrument of a killer agent.
However, if you go beyond the traditional cannon, and we aren’t just talking about including Never Say Never Again, Bond has been played by 12 actors – six of them in one film. The 1967 spoof of the franchise featured Bond as portrayed by the likes of Peter Sellers, David Niven, Ursula Andress and Woody Allen.
However, that’s the film you were expecting us to talk about. What most people are unaware of is that it was the second time Fleming’s novel was filmed. In 1954, CBS staged a one-hour broadcast adaptation of the novel for their Climax! series in which Barry Nelson plays not James Bond, not even Jim Bond, but Jimmy Bond. Peter Lorre also features as Le Chiffre, the character Mads Mikkelsen eventually played in 2005.
Heat is notable as the only film on this list remade by the same filmmaker. This is nothing new. Hitchcock made both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much generations before Michael Mann reworked his 1989 film L.A. Takedown into Heat. Takedown was originally shot as an unsuccessful pilot for NBC. At the time, Mann was riding high after the success of Miami Vice and had played around with other shows including Crime Story.
The plot of both films is verbatim, with only the most cosmetic as changes. The most notable difference is that Heat‘s stellar cast (though Takedown included excellent work from character actors Michael Rooker, Daniel “Fat Alec” Baldwin and Xander Berkely) elevates the simple crime story into a two-and-a-half hour plus drama. It was also notable for the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared a scene together. They’ve done it since, in the likes of Righteous Kill, but we like to remember the days when such a delicacy was rare rather than embarrassing.
5. I Am Legend
The Will Smith-led last-man-on-earth sci-fi thriller was made twice before. First as, well, The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964. Penned by notoriously drunk sci-fi pioneer Richard Matheson as the novel I Am Legend, the story has been told three times cinematically – though never quite right.
All three versions end with the lead character Dr. Robert Morgan dying as a martyr (as the Price and Smith versions do) or going out in a blaze of glory as with NRA-lover Charlton Heston did in The Omega Man.
Oddly, the Smith version almost came the closest to the true ending in which the good doctor learns that the creatures he’s been attacking and experimenting on have emotions and fear him – the “legend” of the title is the ironic fact that the last man on earth is seen as the last pure evil. However, due to poor test scores, the ending was re-shot, fidelity be damned.
4. Drag Me To Hell
Drag Me To Hell was cult director Sam Raimi‘s long awaited return to the genre he helped re-invigorate with Evil Dead in 1980. The result was a bleakly funny, frightening tale in which a young woman is cursed with a demon that in three days will take her to the underworld.
Surprisingly unmentioned in conversations surrounding Raimi’s excellent contribution to the genre is the British 1957 film Night of the Demon. Like its acolyte, Demon features a character racing against a three day-curse which will end his life as well as an intense séance scene. In both films, the character goes to desperate lengths to pass the curse on to another. With that said, both films climax at a train station.
3. True Lies
The 90s were truly a different era – when political correctness extended only so far, Arnold Schwarzennegger was not an elected official, Jamie Lee Curtis was a bizarre sex symbol and Tom Arnold was considered a credible comic relief. All of these ingredients added up to James Cameron‘s 1994 action-comedy True Lies.
The inspiration for the movie in which Schwarzenegger launches a terrorist attached to a missile into more terrorists is the 1991 French comedy La Totale!, a fitting title for a Cameron property, as there’s little that man directs that couldn’t benefit from an exclamation point. Lies’ zany subplot in which Curtis nearly engages in an affair with a man (Bill Paxton) pretending to be a spy is taken directly from its French counterpart.
2. You’ve Got Mail
Nora Ephron’s irritating, bleating goat of cuteness that is You’ve Got Mail got its start as a charming Jimmy Stewart romantic comedy known as The Shop Around the Corner. Ephron made no secret about the connection (Meg Ryan‘s bookstore is named after the original film, for God’s sake), but the repairing of Tom Hanks and Ryan couldn’t have been more disastrous.
As two pen pals who openly hate each other in real life, Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are a joy to watch. Hanks and Ryan are a cruel pairing. Worse, the film is overstuffed with longing for the days when books mattered before the days of the computer, while still touting the amazing at the time instant messaging features of AOL instant messenger.
Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon famously said that he didn’t steal from anyone when writing what turned into Ridley Scott‘s classic haunted-house-movie-in-space, he stole from everyone. The film is a mishmash of various older sci-fi thrillers, most notably Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and Edward L. Cahn’s It! Terror From Beyond Space.
Bava’s film contains some notable similarities, including a scene in which space travellers marooned on a desolate planet explore an alien ship only discover the skeleton of a giant alien (the famous space jockey from Scott’s film), and one in which an attempt to kill the creature is made involving an airlock.
Recently, director Nicolas Winding Refn held a screening of Bava’s film in which he ranted about the various story beats Alien directly lifted from it. In terms of artistic theft, it’s fairly blatant. But at least it’s honest about it.