Originality, Part V; the Reboot
When I was young, a million years ago, the only franchises that existed sold fast food. Back in the early 1960s there used to be Peppy’s Hamburgers—Peppy was a smiling clown about to consume a hamburger that would undoubtedly soon make him a sad-faced clown. The food was intended to be uncomfortably eaten in your car, without the nicety of a window tray, like another early franchise, A&W Root Beer. Soon thereafter McDonald’s came along, and soon they too had a clown mascot, which seemed like a rip-off to my young mind. Another rightfully long-forgotten fast food franchise was Lum’s Hotdogs that were “Cooked in Beer,” turning them the unappetizing color of green.
But now movies have become franchises, which everybody but me seems to think is perfectly OK. It somehow seems old-fashioned of me to not want my favorite art form sold to me like green hotdogs or greasy hamburgers, but that’s just how I am; an old curmudgeon.
I had a conversation recently with an extremely bright, twenty-three-year-old, pre-law student named Alex. For my own amusement I was giving him shit, in a good-natured way, about the appalling state of the arts and the severe lack of originality therein. Alex began to take umbrage and stated, “Get on the internet and you can find music that sounds like anything: The Beatles, prog rock, punk, anything.”
“Can I find anything original?” I asked flatly.
Alex frowned, like a sad clown, and admitted, “No.”
Kevin, the intrepid, thirty-three-year-old movie-fan who runs my website, wrote me today, “If you like Pee-wee's Big Adventure, you're gonna love Pee-wee's Big Holiday. They totally nailed the road trip spirit of the first movie and Paul Reubens bromance with Joe Mangeniello is hilarious. I just hope you don't feel compelled to bail on it.”
To which I replied, “I saw Pee-wee's Big Adventure, I don't need to see a new version of it, certainly not with an aged, embittered, Pee-wee.”
And I have no doubt that Kevin’s right, and for what it is Pee-wee's Big Holiday is good, and it certainly has to be better than the horrendous sequel, Big Top Pee-wee. But I’ve already seen Pee-wee's Big Adventure several times; I’ve got it.
I have no doubt that Paul Reubens wants to revitalize his dead career and can’t figure out any other way to do it except resurrecting Pee-wee, but that’s not my problem. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a truly inspired, funny comedy when it came out over thirty years ago. It cannot be inspired now; that’s not possible; not when they’re following a formula.
Jonas Salk was undoubtedly inspired when he invented the vaccine for polio; the manufacturer that produced it was never inspired. They may well have gotten rich, but they were never inspired.
Yes, there are exceptions to the rule: The Godfather Part II, The Road Warrior and Aliens. But the exception is not the rule. For the most part, if you’re attempting to repeat a previous success by making something extremely similar, or exactly the same but with a new cast, your entire goal is money. Which isn’t to say that Paul Reubens and Tim Burton didn’t want to make money with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure back in 1985, but I have no doubt that wasn’t first and foremost on their minds. I’ll just bet they were thinking, nobody’s ever seen anything like this before. There’s no possible way they could be thinking that the third time around.
I’ve had a running discussion going for a number of years with my good friend Paul, who is an intense movie fan, about the terms: remake and reboot. He seems to believe there’s a difference and I don’t. If it was made before, and they’re making it again; it’s a remake. This supposed difference came into contention regarding True Grit. Apparently, in Paul’s mind, because Joel and Ethan Coen went to the trouble of reading the book, as opposed to just watching the movie (which there’s no doubt they’ve seen), they’re version is somehow not a remake, even if it’s extremely similar. Yes, there are a few differences: first, the little girl was returned to the age of fourteen, as in the book, instead of seventeen, as she is in the 1969 film. Honestly, folks, the whole story is more believable with a seventeen-year-old—she goes off travelling across the country on horseback, buying and selling horses, shooting a man, wrestling with rattlesnakes, flirting with a Texas ranger, not to mention dealing with an old drunk like Rooster Cogburn—even at seventeen that’s a lot to handle. Second, the opening scene in the earlier film version has was added by the screenwriters—the bad guy kills the little girl’s father, which she only hears about in both the book and the second version. Well, it’s better to see it than hear about it; that’s an old adage in screenwriting: show it, don’t tell it. As they say to screenwriting students: visualize. In any event, both movies are based on the same book, and as far as I’m concerned the second version is a remake.
Here’s an interesting example of what could well be considered a reboot, except the term didn’t exist in 1984 when the film was made—The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. The first film version of this true story in 1935, based on the book by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (father of the great, two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, Conrad Hall), with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, is by far the best film version (winner of the Best Picture Oscar). The second film version in 1962, also based on the Nordhoff-Hall book, with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, isn’t all that good but nobody at the time doubted that it was a remake, even though it’s not exactly the same as the previous version, and I have no doubt that the exceptionally talented screenwriter, Charles Lederer, read the book. Then, in 1984, the brilliant screenwriter Robert Bolt (two-time Oscar-winner for Lawrence of Arabia and A Man for All Seasons), re-envisioned the story of the mutiny of the H.M.S. Bounty, and the subsequent film, The Bounty, also not as good as the 1935 version, is still highly watchable. Since the word reboot didn’t exist, this film was referred to at the time as a “retelling.” OK, in this case I’m good with that.
Now there’s a new version of Ben-Hur. Since it’s not a true story, it must be based on General Lew Wallace’s book, previously filmed in 1907, 1925 and 1959 (winner of eleven Oscars, which was a record for many years until it was finally tied by . . . get this, Titanic). I just watched the trailer and other than the addition of digital effects, unimpressive young lead actors, and the colorblind and ethnicity-blind casting of Morgan Freeman as the Arab horse trader, it looks exactly like the same story as the previous versions. Is this a reboot, a retelling, or a just a plain old remake?
Any which way you cut it; it’s not original. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad, but from what I saw that’s inescapable possibility.
And is it just me, old curmudgeon that I am, or does anyone else feel that when stunt men’s lives were legitimately on the line, as they clearly were in the terrific chariot race scenes in the 1925 and 1959 versions, as opposed to the non-stop use of digital effects instead, it’s just more exciting? Stunt men actually got injured in both of those chariot race scenes. What’s the worst that could happen to a digital effect technician? He might have to work overtime.