Canonical remakes

The 1939 version of classic The Wizard of Oz was a remake of a 1925 silent film. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

About a decade ago, director Todd Haynes attempted to rework James Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce into a TV mini-series. Mildred Pierce had already been made into a highly successful film noir in 1945, and it is one of Joan Crawford’s best roles in her long career. A student of film, Haynes had a different visual style and emphasis to the original film. It is a serious piece of work in its own right. Mildred Pierce set a pretty high bar for those who reworked classic films, and many have been made recently. Some films In this recent trend have been highly creative and stand in their own right. Mank looked at the development of Citizen Kane (1939) and the role of Herman Mankiewicz.

While the 2020 BBC TV mini-series of Black Narcissus is firmly based on the Rumer Godden novel, the mini-series will almost invariably be compared to the 1947 film. The mini-series is the most recent production looking to reinterpret an entrenched member of the cinematic canon. The creators have aimed high; the combination of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is British directorial royalty. Black Narcissus (1947) is one of the pair’s most celebrated films. Indeed, it was ranked 44th by the British Film Institute in its top 100 films – and many would argue that position is a modest one.[1]  The team made this highly atmospheric thriller with a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between the two central characters of Sister Clodagh and Mister Dean.  It is set high in the Himlayan mountains, where Christianity is utterly foreign. It is beautifully made with the magnificent work of cinematographer Jack Cardiff and deserves its accolades.

The visual style of the TV series Black Narcissus closely resembles the film, reproducing this famous matte shot of the bell tower. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The immediate impression with this reworking of the film is that the set and the cinematography are so similar. It is almost as if the creators are seeking to re-establish the look and feel of the film. It is only when the flashbacks begin, that the creators dare to vary the visual style. It is a really difficult question of how far creators should stray from the confines of the original. In one extreme example,  Pyscho (1960) was remade as a virtual shot for shot tribute. The critic Roger Ebert noted: “Curious, how similar the new version is, and how different. If you have seen Hitchcock’s film, you already know the characters, the dialogue, the camera angles, the surprises. All that is missing is the tension–the conviction that something urgent is happening on the screen at this very moment. The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”[2] The clear lesson was that if you are going to take on a canonical work, you need to have something to say, or a new approach.

Black Narcissus avoids this trap and takes its own path. The temptation to repeat the unforgettable image of Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, filled with pale psychopathic rage moving to strike at Sister Clodagh, must have been strong. The new series employs a different set of images and approaches. Some of the changes work, and some do not. Overall, it is a skillful production with some powerful features and good acting, but it cannot compete with the original at the end of the day.

Rebecca (1940) was a highly successful film, and it is still regarded as one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

A film that has already established itself in the film canon has entrenched defenders, and any filmmaker must be aware they are fighting an uphill critical battle to rework it. Some remakes have been disastrous. Rebecca (1940) was a highly successful film, and it is still regarded as one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films.  Rebecca has been popular with producers: it was remade into a moderately successful version by the BBC in 1979; and it was a 1997 British-German television drama directed by Jim O’Brien. It was a creditable remake, but like many TV shows, it disappeared without a trace. In 2020, a new remake of Rebecca was made, but this time the reviews were disapproving. The New York Times writer A. O. Scott was scathing about the 2020 remake for Netflix: saying it lacked an emotional centre and was more interested in clothes than in the story. [3] When you are being compared to a centrepiece of the cinematic canon, the faults of a new film or TV series are only magnified.

Rebecca has been repeatedly remade, but none have threatened the canonical status of the Hitchcock film. Image courtesy of emovieposter.

With the pressure for new content from the streaming services, it is an obvious prediction that we will see more canonical remakes. They have a ready-made profile and an audience. Those who choose – or are compelled – to remake classic films will find the odds stacked against them. Yet a remake is not always inferior. It should also be recalled that John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941) was a remake of a 1930 film. The same can also be said of Wizard of Oz (1939), originally made in a silent version. But it should also be remembered that every production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream is, in a sense, a remake, and we have no qualms about seeing classic theatre being retold indefinitely.

[1] BFI 100 Top British Films, accessed at on 26 April 2021.

[2] Roger Ebert, “Pyscho,” 6 December 1998, Chicgo Sun-Times, accessed at on 25 April 2021.

[3] A. O Scott, “Rebecca’ Review: A Classic Tale, but There’s Only One Hitch,” New York Times, 21 October 2020, accessed at on 22 April 2021.

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