Hitting cinemas in early 2022, the latest instalment in the Batman franchise, The Batman (starring Robert Pattinson), calls attention to the frequency of film remakes and reboots in Hollywood.
While the industry continues to release the latest films, many of them are produced without constructing a new story, and instead, they rehash old ideas and capitalise on pre-existing characters.
Both remakes and reboots fall into the same grey area. Over the years, the lines have blurred when outlining what differentiates the two. A remake is a preservation of the original story, and includes a new cast, crew, and subsequent production methods. For example, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was adapted seven times from 1935 to 2009, therefore, keeping the original story but changing the cast classifies it as a remake.
Jon Watt’s reboot of Spiderman: Homecoming and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman diverge from the remake. While these films do not carry the original storylines of Sam Raimi’s 2002 original (starring Tobey McGuire), Peter Parker is still the main protagonist.
Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University, Constantine Verevis, explained the history of film remakes and how they have transitioned into modern cinema.
“Film remakes go back to the earliest days of cinema,” Verevis said. “In the first decade of filmmaking…they were still trying to work out how to copyright films, so things were pretty loose.”
Due to the absence of copyright laws during the early filmmaking period of 1895 to 1905, US filmmakers would often take one-reel films created by French producers and distribute them as their own.
“This was called duplicating or ‘dupes’,” Verevis said.
After the copyright laws were set in place, the attitude was to create new versions of an already successful film.
“That was the first kind of instance of remakes as we understand them now.”
Verevis spoke of his own definition of the term, regarding that the idea of a remake is a “dynamic concept” that ultimately changes with the progressing viewership.
Film studies lecturer at RMIT, Dr Djoymi Baker, has a similar view on the fluidity of film remakes - particularly the frequency of ‘serial characters’.
“We have this intergenerational attachment to a figure such as Batman, so it feels like it's part of our cultural heritage,” Dr Baker said.
Dr Baker referred specifically to the way Hollywood recycles characters when new audiences emerge.
“[Remaking] is the return to origins, so that each generation has a new origin story,” she said.
New origin stories allow filmmakers to take beloved characters down new avenues, with the reappearance of iconic protagonists and antagonists becoming highly popularised.
Take the character of James Bond for example. Those familiar with the popular films of the 1970s may attribute their favourite or most authentic James Bond to Roger Moore, but someone born in Generation Z may have only seen Daniel Craig as 007.
This implies that each movie-goer has their own experience with the film, and therefore may have a differing attachment to the character.
Verevis suggested that when it comes to movies with serial characters, “it’s harder to call these things remakes”, as they are more aligned with “serial film practices”.
“[It’s] the way in which we continue to provide new scenarios and new situations for existing serial characters.”
Often film remakes are solely known as a duplication of a westernised and English-speaking production, but in reality, many films have been adapted from other countries and cultures, much like The Departed’s adaptation of the Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs.
So, where does this fascination come from?
“There’s always been an opportunity to make films in different territories,” Verevis said. “Particularly where films haven’t circulated.”
Transnational film collaborations permit the blend of different cultural backgrounds and instil an interest in broader societal knowledge.
The “economic imperative” is what seems to drive the relocation of these original stories, fleshing them out to newer audiences that may be unfamiliar with the type of cinema.
“It’s often been characterised as a cultural imperialism in the US, but I think what that ignores or doesn’t understand is that the process actually goes in both directions,” Verevis said.
Verevis described how countries ultimately go through the process of “exchanging” their film content, as with the Lionsgate project, GlobalGate.
The GlobalGate initiative attempts to seek out versions of films that could be transitioned and produced in adjacent territories.
“This shifts our perspectives a bit because there’s kind of this sense that remakes have always been a Hollywood thing,” Verevis said.
In reality, film remakes have been an international concept dating back to the early eras of filmmaking.
With Disney capitalising off of their live-action remakes, there is no stopping Hollywood from continuing to do the same. Reimaginations and revivals have always been a valuable and recurrent part of the industry, what matters now is which stories and characters deserve to be retold.