The Sequel, Remake, Redux Edition

So often I hear a great many people complain about “Sequel-Mania” or the number of remakes being made of movies that aren’t even old (at least to the person making the statement).  Even the Washington Post wasted ink on the subject ; believing it is detrimental to the creative world.  The elitism can be heard in a great many of these arguments.  People just don’t have fresh ideas and aren’t as creative as they “used to be.”

Bahhh.  I don’t buy it.  In fact, I remember watching the first X-Men movie when it came out and I knew that I only enjoyed it as much as I did because I knew there would be sequels.  If X-Men 1 was all there would be, I would have been deeply disappointed.

As Thomas Foster  reminds us, there is only 1 story it and keeps getting retold time and time again.  So the fact that sequels are abundant is not entirely surprising.  More importantly though, I think the Washington Times and others miss the point.  Yes, studios and even publishers look to launch series and a strong influence is the financial benefits.  Yet, such arguments undermine the fact that the audience wants more.  No matter how much we enjoy a story, we look forward to the next installment.  We want to know what happens next.  We can accept “happily ever after,” but we never seem to want to put it to rest.  And this is nothing new!  This is why L. Frank Baum wrote so many books about Oz; why Sir Conan Arthur Doyle had to bring back Sherlock Holmes; it’s why the Illiad followed the Odyssey which was later followed by the Orestia and then the Aeneid.   We are drawn towards serial storytelling and some films (not nearly all by any means) can offer that.

It’s also why we see so many alternative tales; stories about previously written stories told through the eyes of different characters or retold in new ways.  We get The Dracula Tape as Fred Saberhagen’s attempt to recast Dracula as a good guy.  Gardner’s Grendel providing the contemplative monster due to be killed by Beowulf.  Tad Williams delivered Caliban’s Hour to show us what The Tempest looked like through the monster’s eyes.  Wicked gets to the heart of the Wicked Witch’s dilemma in the Oz books.  That’s the tip of the iceberg.  We also have authors who have written sequels to older books such as Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships as the sequel for HG Wells' The Time Machine or Dacre Stoker’s sequel, Dracula the Undead to his great grand-uncle’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  We love continuum; getting to know characters and finding out where they go from there.  This explains the extensive publishing of Star Wars books, Twilight, Spenser, and Inspector Poirot.

Recapturing the Past

This desire for recapitulating our characters into new settings is also at the cornerstone of the remake industry.  Indeed, remakes are very akin to those twice-told tales through different viewpoints; only it’s the director’s different viewpoint instead of the character’s.  We’re always curious to see what will be the new way the old information is re-presented.  I’ll admit I can be pretty harsh in this regard; I’m still doubtful about seeing the recent remake of Nightmare on Elm Street.  After all, I grew up watching Freddy Krueger (now paging Dr. Freud!), for anyone but Robert Englund to be Freddy is sacrilegious.  But the remake is a solid deal for creators and viewers alike.  Creators work with what is likely to be a guaranteed money-maker (in addition to the film, merchandise will be substantial for most remakes—I’m sure this Halloween, they’ll be more Freddys’ out than there have been in a while).     But also, because of the insular audience, directors/writers have an opportunity to be playful, provocative, think out of the box about what they want to do with it.  It’s kind of like getting a replacement car that is the same make and model but can be customized very differently.

The Intertextual Existence of Beowulf

One of the more successful and appealing examples reworking a text is the 2007 CGI Beowulf.  Now, while many see this as an abysmal film (which was me at first), I came to appreciate the dynamic influence and development that created this film. There’s this intriguing mixture of influence that produces the film and to lack this knowledge, often means you miss out on its significance.

Background:  Beowulf was an ancient epic poem written sometime in the later half of the 1st millennium.  In modern times, Beowulf was often criticized for its overabundance of monsters in its 3-act poem.  Along comes J.R.R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame—though before he wrote that) who delivers a speech call  "Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics"   The speech revolutionizes how the monsters and the entire text is understood within modern literary circles.

JRR Tolkien - Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics

Given his extensive knowledge of Beowulf, it becomes clear that Tolkien is indeed influenced by Beowulf, invoking some of the battle with the Dragon into his book, The Hobbit.  Fast forward to the late 20th century.  Neil Gaiman, English creator/writer of fantasy has inevitably been influenced by both Beowulf and Tolkien.  Gaiman is given to write the script for the CGI version of Beowulf and sure enough, he plays around with the plot in different ways, but at key times in the film, actually evokes Tolkien’s influence.  But not his fantasy influence, but his influence on the importance of monsters in Beowulf.

There are two key scenes where this plays out. The first scene is after Beowulf has (to his belief) killed Grendel.  Grendel’s mother attacks Herot Hall and thus, Beowulf is told he must slay the mother.  His response is:  “How many monsters must I slay? Grendels mother, father, Grendes uncle? Must I hack down a whole family tree of demons?”  The second scene occurs in the final third of the film when they flashforward 50 years when Beowulf and his army are fighting the Frisians.  One of them tries to attack him but is subdued.  Beowulf responds with “You want your name in The Song of Beowulf? You think it sould end with me killed by some Frisian raider with no name?.”  These two quotes taken together serve as the lynchpins of Tolkien’s discussion on the nature of Beowulf and its relevance.  The first being that once Beowulf fights a monster, he must continue fighting monsters for the epic to work.  The second, reinforcing the first in that, the “Song of Beowulf” would not be a song if in the final act he is slayed by some no-name warrior.  It needs to be a monster.

The other added influence here is that the presentation of Grendel (and you’ll have to watch this in full to get it) is highly invocative of Smeagol/Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films.

So what does all this mean?  The easy answer:  a whole lot of nothing.  The more relevant answer is that retelling tales is not a simple act of getting more money or people being lazy.  It’s a creative process in itself that can be influenced in a variety of ways that are just are curious and creative; often paying homage or evolving from the original source material but also adjusting and responding to the times in which the newer version is being delivered to.


What are some of the ways sequels, remakes, new-vantage point stories that successfully develop/adapt/retell their story?

What other reasons are there for these reconfigurations/sequels?  What else are we drawn to with regards to sequential storytelling?

What are other some great examples of the mixing influential pieces that have gone in to making a particular sequel/remake?

How do we evaluate the creativity of an author/creator who has utilized a previous text into an different-point of view piece or sequel?  Examples?

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  1. It is not necessarily the mark of a creative genius to make a sequel or expound upon a story already begun. However, for that sequel to be worth reading/watching, it must be in the hands of a creative genius. In my opinion, there are several films which did not need a sequel for the viewer to feel satisfied after having watched it. One such film is Donnie Darko. The plot, while entrancingly confusing, is seemingly resolved by Donnie's death. The story comes full circle, and I for one felt that it had an appropriate ending. The film was hailed by critics and remains a cult hit today. Why anyone would create a sequel for this masterpiece is beyond me, but last year someone thought it would be a good idea to do so. Enter S. Darko, an awfully-written trainwreck of a movie that centers around Donnie's younger sister Samantha and the discovery of her "powers," which are the exact same as Donnie's. To be fair, even if it were a well-made film I'd be angry that there was a sequel at all; but honestly it was shit.
    That aside, I have nothing against an appropriately- and well-made sequel. I think that skilled filmmakers should be the only ones allowed to touch them, but I do enjoy seeing what happens next or a different character perspective. The trick is for the author/creator to make good on their promise. To deliver the resolution that audiences/readers want to see.

  2. Movies and film these days are a constantly changing medium, improving year by year with the effects they can accomplish and how they affect the audience. Using visual media, any story can be adapted or re-told and yet still be interesting because of what they can do with these new tools. One way that adaptations of stories can bring more meaning to the work in visual form rather than their original form is through visual effect. A book must rely on many words to create a melancholy scene, but a sad scene in a movie can be accomplished in only moments through the right lighting, a blue screen tiny, and sad music.

    Sometimes, there are pieces of literature or stories which are just too long to tell, completely. An entire novel of information could take weeks for someone to read, who might not have that time. Movie reconfigurations of such tales cut that plot line down into 1-2 hours, making it convenient and easy to share the same information with larger groups of people at the same time. This is the full advantage of story sharing. By having sequels, you can get more extensions of that story to the same group of people, while not trying their patience by having the movie go off for more than an a certain amount of time.

    Some of the greatest “remakes” of the movie era, have mixed influential pieces from many stories by compiling all of them into one comedic movie: a parody. A parody is essentially a mixed remake of many stories, put together with one continuing plot in a creative fashion. Every “scary movie” takes plot points from many well-known horror movies to create one plot, using their influence to sell their own now original plotline.

    There are right and wrong ways to create a movie version of any pre-created story. Unfortunately, this is a very thin line that is easy to cross. To evaluate the creativity that makes the different viewpoint successful or not, one has to look at the bold choices made in the film. Did the choices for the re-make honor the original storyline? Did the additions to the plot line or new ideas add meaning or take away meaning from the film as a whole? Did the parts of the original story they had to cut out not take away any meaning the original story had? And for sequels, did the additional plot points forward the previous movie’s ideas or did it negate all that the first movie had worked hard to set up? Do characters develop further, or is all their development halted? One example of a creative re-make is “The Cat in the Hat” with Mike Meyers. This took an original story line with a very loose children’s plot to it, complicating it by adding more plot points but still keeping the zany feel of the story and adding in plenty of references for fans of the first story to enjoy. The new choices placed in were creative and successful, because it expanded a story without negating any of its major plot points.

    Sarah King - Making Monsters

  3. To be successful in retelling or adapting an already existing story, such as sequels to movies, the new versions must have elements of the previous story as well as adding in something new and exciting. Part of maintaining aspects of the first version is keeping the same characters, if this is what made the original successful. An example of a sequel that altered the characters from the original is Sandlot 2. If the audience falls in love with Smalls or Squints, and expects to see them in a sequel, their absence can be disappointing and cause a bias against the characters that took their place from the start. Paranormal Activity 2 worked just as well as the original because it incorporated the original characters as much as it could, and, while having similar structure, introduced new ideas that concluded the open ends of Paranormal Activity.

    We are drawn to sequential story telling because in a lot of cases, the original film isn't concluded or resolved. It's similar to TV shows like 24 or Lost. They purposefully leave the ending unresolved in order to draw the viewer back for another installment the following week. By having cliffhanger endings, a hype is built up in the audience's mind that makes them want to watch the sequel even more. The audience can usually tell when a sequel will be made by the way a movie ends. When leaving one of these movies, the viewer walks out of the theater telling themselves, "there's going to be a sequel". If the movie was good, then add onto this statement, "and I'm gonna see it". If the movie was bad, then it can be followed with, "I wouldn't waste my time" (as in the case of Shyamalan's Avatar).

  4. A large part of the allure of sequels and remakes lies within the audience. Even though films are a world of unreality and fantasy, we as spectators cannot help but identify with the characters. We spend roughly two and a half hours seeing the highs and lows of a character’s life, feeling the sweet satisfaction when their goal is finally reached or the heart break when it is not. We imagine ourselves as the character and therefore invest ourselves into the fantasy. Therefore, it is understandable that we would want to continue this journey into new territories of new challenges as we see the characters not only as versions of ourselves but of our potential. While I am not saying it is realistic to want adamantium knives to come out of one’s knuckles , we all want to be as tough as Wolverine and get into a new setting to see how we would fair.

    On the topic of other mediums influencing modern remakes, there is something to be said on the presentation of Hyde in the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Whereas the previous incarnations of Hyde had been of a grotesque but relatively realistic horrid little man, this Hyde was a blatant Hulk rip-off. It was effective to the modern audiences because they are more oriented with a Banner/Hulk complex than the conventional Jekyll-Hyde complex, and making Hyde visually sympathetic to the Hulk helped fit him into a modern day perception.

  5. I also have been hearing for years about how Hollywood is nothing but a bunch of lazy freeloaders capitalizing on the original ideas of generations past and recreating them in boring and uninspired ways (mostly from my parents, who will always think that everything was better in the 70s). But I've never agreed with this assumption just because there's so much evidence to the contrary. One of the first great remake film series that pops into my head to disprove this theory is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though never made into films before the Peter Jackson film series, it's technically a remake of Tolkien's novels, and are some of the best films I've ever seen. The remake of the Thing was also really good, and the style of John Carpenter made it almost an entirely different film from the original.

    As far as serialization goes, I'm a total sucker for it. I love shows like Lost and getting to know characters better than you can from one two-hour installment. I'd love for somebody to remake Lord of the Rings, if for no other reason so I could go back and revisit the characters that I remember so fondly from those flicks. I wish people would be more open to remakes, just so that at the very least they'd be able to rediscover their love of the source material, and appreciate the familiarity of an old story told in a new way.

    Comment by Jake Gilbertson


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