When I say that I haven’t seen The Princess Bride, it’s not entirely true. In late 1987, maybe early 1988—it was screened at a Corinella party at the Town Hall in Melbourne. Corinella, defunct since 2013, was a children’s page published in the Herald Sun, and I was a seven or eight-year-old party guest. My memories dress me in a garishly hot pink taffeta monstrosity, and include the then premier John Cain behind a microphone addressing a sea of needlessly zhuzhed-up child ratbags. Almost every other detail is lost to the ravages of time, including whether I watched any of the film or just busied myself with shenanigans (probably the latter).
I remember nothing of The Princess Bride and nearly every single detail of seeing Dirty Dancing at the same age. Including exactly where I sat in the long-shuttered Greater Union cinema on Russell Street. Because, evidently, even as a child, I’d always pick—and would always be most moved by—forbidden fornication in the Catskills over dungeons, dragons and Peter Falk in any role other than Columbo.
Like every story ever told, The Princess Bride has recently been mooted as a possible vehicle for reproduction. Cue outrage from The Internet!
Over the past few years, I’ve been residing in the world of screen remakes. Watching them, reading reviews of them, perusing every scholarly analysis of them, and eventually writing two books on the topic myself.
I began my inquiry in the aftermath of the 2016 Ghostbusters brouhaha, although I’d dipped a toe-in-the-water the year prior. At the announcement of the sex-swapped reproduction, I wrote about the film as seriously problematic. Not because of the destruction of anyone’s childhood, not because of the besmirching of a sacrosanct supernatural crime-fighting legacy, but rather, because when you remake a film as adored as the 1984 Ghostbusters, you’re setting up the new incarnation to crash, to burn. It’s almost guaranteed to fail to compare to its predecessor: maybe in reality, sure, but most definitely so as related to audience memories. And my predictions, alas, panned out with the 2016 film flopping and another do-over slated for 2020.
While my initial apprehensions of a Ghostbusters do-over have stood the test of time, thinking so much about remakes as a production category has refined my views a little.
Today I see such projects as simply a foregone conclusion. Having written a quarter of a million words on the subject, I’ve long grown weary of the good vs bad debate. I say this not only because one of the most influential films of all time The Wizard of Oz (1939)—previously filmed in 1925—is commonly my answer to allegations that all remakes are travesties, but because the whinging and wringing of hands matters little: remakes are inevitable. And just as films will keep being remade and television series rebooted, the reimagined material will keep being complained about. Social media after all, encourages kvetching. And the more beloved a predecessor—the more canonical, the more ardent the fans—the more brutal the breast-beating. The Princess Bride is tailor made for such a rumpus. There’s a generation who saw it, loved it, nurtured that fervour in the decades to follow, and unwittingly positioned it as central in their personalities. I might not be a Princess Bride person, but I’m most certainly a product of having watched Grease on video most afternoons in primary school. If I believed in pop culture sacred cows—which I don’t—a 33-year-old Stockard Channing playing a high-schooler is mine.
Recurrent in the negative remake rhetoric is the idea that something from the past gets altered. That in remaking a film we loved, the original story is somehow smeared. Apparently the idea of having to couch reference to, say, The Lion King, with ‘original’ or ‘remake’ is a soul-sapping indignity.
Furore, though, is no bad thing. Twitter outrage in fact, is just pre-publicity buzz: it’s fans doing the marketing legwork for the studio, and rarely does it jeopardise a new production (unless Scarlett Johansson is part of the casting announcement, but I digress). After all, if every protest about a new remake actually manifested in audiences resisting seeing such productions, remake manufacturing would stop. But we rarely do this. We keep returning to the cinema and the production cycle continues. And it doesn’t matter if we go along to hate-watch, if we go ironically, if we go to compare and contrast, or just reminisce about those titles we wore out on VHS, the box office has our money and the production schedule of studios is validated.
By most measures, a remake will be a better film. It will look slicker and shinier and invariably have a better-looking cast with much fancier special effects. And yet, critics and commentators and the hardest-core fans will always consider it a failure. As pointless, soulless, as uninspired. No matter how good the do-over is, nothing new can ever compare to the pleasure of experiencing something for the first time. So, as inevitable as remaking is, equally so is the widespread belief that Hollywood is creatively barren, greedy, and that remakes are testimony to all that is wrong in the media marketplace. It’s so much more complicated than this—a story for another day—but it’s the tale we cling to.
And that’s okay. That’s nostalgia. And nostalgia isn’t rational and scarcely makes sense emotionally, let alone logically.
But for the same reasons that nostalgia has fans considering Princess Bride as untouchable, studios ache to get their grubby mitts on it. There’s a built-in audience who’ll go along to see what’s done with the material. To reminisce, to complain, to be part of the cultural chatter. The new film is a time-travel portal to the old, and notably one that a studio can actually get you to part with cash to see.
Add to this is the new generation audience who never saw the first film. Studios rarely re-release old titles because audiences simply won’t pay to see them. The numbers, in fact, of young’ns watching old films is miniscule. Audiences today expect films to look new, that are populated with familiar faces, with fresh soundtracks and fast editing, and which provide an entertainment experience that justifies us putting on pants and physically going to the cinema rather than just staying at home with the dog and the remote.
And so of course, Hollywood will remake old titles. And of course they’ll be predisposed towards stories that have already proven themselves in the marketplace. They’ll announce them with promises of woke tweaks, audiences will whine, and yet will somehow find themselves inside the multiplex with a box of popcorn. And so are the days of our pop culture lives.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and currently a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University, USA. Her eleventh book—Why We Remake: The Politics, Economics and Emotions of Film Remakes—will be published in 2020 by Routledge.