Next week sees the release of The Mummy in theaters, and no, this article is not coming to you through some kind of time portal to 1999, Starring Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis and Sofia Boutella (plus, New Girl’s Jake Johnson. Interesting…), this is the fourth film to bear that title, and close on the twentieth to give us a resurrected Egyptian mummy on the rampage. Screenwriter and producer Alex Kurtzman, of Transformers/Fringe/Scorpion fame, takes the director’s chair, attempting to give us a new take on a story that goes back all the way to 1932, to the Boris Karloff attempt of the same name that film nerds now consider a foundation member of the legendary, cult-favorite Universal Monster Films series.
Do we really need a new version of The Mummy? Perhaps. After all, the Brendan Fraser/Rachel Weisz trilogy we best remember was a campy, zippy but withal pretty forgettable romp, and the two sequels were increasingly zany — and even more forgettable. Kurtzman’s film appears to be darker — it is part of the new, much-vaunted Universal Dark Universe, after all — and who doesn’t want to see Tom Cruise chased by a mummy? But aren’t we all just a little bit over remakes?
Sure. But re-adaptations are an entirely different proposition.
For example, in 1995, Sylvester Stallone starred in a film adaptation of British comic strip Judge Dredd. The basic concept, ripped from the pages of venerable weekly 2000 A. D., was that in the future law and order will be maintained not by a phalanx of enforcement officers and a myriad of agencies, but by single individuals – Judges – who have the power to arrest, prosecute and then sentence wrongdoers, including carrying out their executions. This dystopian vision, first printed in 1977, has made Judge Dredd one of his home country’s most beloved comic characters (though, oddly, the tale is set in America), and he is assuredly the ongoing publication’s most valuable draw card.
Worldwide, however, and especially among the non-comic book minded, the honorable Judge Joseph Dredd was once synonymous with that aforementioned Stallone film adaptation… which was really bad. The acting: bad. The direction: bad. The cheap costumes and garishly appointed “future”: bad. But more than that, and in that peculiar way of many such attempts, in trying to condense a complex, arcane world explored in decades worth of material into two hours, and to therefore supposedly make it accessible to everyone, the film changed so much about the original story as to make it anathema to longtime followers—meaning that the end result pleased no one. It’s a familiar complaint with adaptations, and especially those of comic books (Daredevil, Catwoman, V for Vendetta, so many others), but what is heartening to the comic fan is that, despite this early disappointment, almost twenty years later our stone-faced, deadpan, duty-bound lawman was back on the big screen again, all fresh and new.
2012’s Dredd 3D is, at the time of writing, rated as 78% Fresh on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (though the ever-more admonitory MetaCritic gives it score of only 57/100). Compare this, however, to the first movie’s mere 16% approval, and it’s clear that the remaking of this tale was a far better idea than many gave it credit for when first it was announced.
Of course, Dredd 3D should not truly be considered a remake, nor even a reboot or re-imagining. Instead, it is a competing adaptation of the same source material; a re-adaptation, if you will. These are all very different things, but have been perhaps loosely defined, and certainly used somewhat interchangeably. Let’s sort that out right now, shall we? Let the official definitions read:
REMAKE: A new edition of an existing work, keeping most of the details from the original intact, and often the only reason for which is to showcase the latest hot teen actors; cf. Friday the 13th (2009), for example.
REBOOT: A new origin story, or at least the ignoring of chronologically later works in a series; cf. the entire DC 52 universe, or the way Superman Returns (2006) pretended that Superman III and Superman IV hadn’t actually happened—which might have been the only good thing that movie did.
RE-IMAGINING: Taking an established work and giving it a unique, often out-of-left-field twist; cf. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
RE-ADAPTATION:A different attempt to convey the same source material on screen; cf. H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine in 1949, 1960, 1978 and 2002, etc.
It is principally with re-adaptions, then, that we are dealing here. To further explain: in the same vein, we had Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and then Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005); just as we had Planet of the Apes (1968) and then Planet of the Apes (2001); much like we had Alice in Wonderland (1951) and then Alice in Wonderland (2010) – and that’s just a few from Tim Burton’s resume.
The main difference between the three above-named and Judge Dredd, however, is that the classic, beloved movies made of those books were unqualified successes; it was, therefore, no surprise that they would be greenlit for new, updated versions, reinvigorating them and bringing them back for a new generation. (Though certainly the call for for these new versions can be questionable – of which, more anon.) But what’s more interesting is when the original adaptation was a critical or financial failure, and yet somehow the property still manages to get itself a Do-Over; where a studio feels the fan base, unsatisfied with the first attempt to immortalize their written or drawn heroes in live action and yet with hope still in their hearts, has more cash to spend and so tries, tries again—with often mixed results. Probably the two most notable examples of this phenomenon are, like Judge Dredd, much adored but misrepresented on screen comic book characters: The Punisher and The Hulk.
The first movie made about Marvel’s ultimate anti-hero, The Punisher, starred Dolph Lundgren as tortured, good-cop-turned-vigilante Frank Castle, and was released in 1989. Much despised by critics, it nevertheless gave a decent showing at the box office, though it was considerably outperformed by the next Punisher outing, in 2004. This iteration, an origin story starring the astoundingly pretty Thomas Jane, was particularly disdained by the comic’s fans – mostly, it seemed, because Thomas Jane was so very pretty. So in 2008, Frank got himself a new look in Punisher: War Zone, a brutal, shoot ’em up film that might be termed revenge porn, and while it performed the least well of any of the three in terms of revenue, it is worth noting that Ray Stevenson, as that movie’s Punisher, is universally considered by fans to be the most convincingly authentic. (Although Netflix’s Daredevil may beg to differ.) So maybe fourth time’s the charm?
Meanwhile, The Punisher’s fellow Marvel property, The Hulk, while first immortalized on film in the celebrated 70s TV series, first saw the big screen in director Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). Starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connolly, Nick Nolte and a whole lot of unconvincing CGI, the movie was a failure in every sense, definitely the worst on the Lee resume. (Ang, that is, not Stan… although, maybe, actually both.) So in 2008, after Iron Man but before Marvel Studios officially became the juggernaut of awesome it is currently considered in many quarters, The Incredible Hulk, starring the stellar Edward Norton, gave us a different take on this most problematic of superheroes. And when that didn’t emerge as an unqualified success? Hey, let’s cast Mark Ruffalo in the role for Bruce/Hulk’s return in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers! A move which may have seemed counter-intuitive at the time but can now only be considered to have been perfect genius, and an important addition to the wider MCU.
The lesson to be taken from the trials and triumphs of Frank and Bruce? There’s always a different way to tell a story, and hopefully one that will succeed where previous attempts have failed. But sometimes, even when the original adaptation did make money, was considered a good movie, did satisfy most (though, never, all) fans of the original work, a re-adaptation can be justified. No one can claim that Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall didn’t kick box office ass, but when the Len Wiseman version took a trip back to the same well, we were given a vastly different version of events, and one much more faithful to the original Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”—which was an undertaking both ambitious and, depending on how much you admire Kate Beckinsale’s shapely form, visually splendid. Whether it is a more enjoyable movie than the Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mars-based adventure is open for debate (and revenue-wise, it doesn’t hold a candle to the first one), but as a different cinematic take on the same written work, it was certainly worth the attempt.
In many ways, a remake is a thing to be despised, but a re-adaptation – especially when it comes to tales that were woefully misrepresented in their first live-action outings – can often come as a blessing. Oh, sure, we can be forgiven for asking if a new version needed to be made of The Manchurian Candidate by Robert Condon (2004) when the original (1964) was so excellent, ditto The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1975, 2004) or even The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1939, about a zillion times since – though the dystopian Zooey Deschanel edition is fun). And how many versions of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers do we really need? – For the record: the 1948 release, with Gene Kelly as d’Artagnan, is utterly definitive; the 1992 Brat Pack version has decent kitsch factor; the 2011 Orlando Bloom outing is horrible.
But there are times when a re-adaptation of a classic tale is certainly warranted: Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds did wacky things to its source material, but was certainly very different from the only-slightly-more-faithful 1953 film. And, look, there are even times when a modern remake is warranted: hell, even The Clash of the Titans (1980, 2010) was a good idea in theory, if not in execution. On the massively counterweighted flip side of that particular coin, of course, we have such disappointing awfulness as The Nutty Professor (1996), The Shaggy Dog (2006) and Prom Night (2008), along with the depths often plumbed by assorted Hollywood versions of foreign product, see – or don’t see – Godzilla (2000), or The Wicker Man (2006), or The Eye (2008). Plus, sorry, Peter Jackson, we love you, but a King Kong (1933, 2005) over an hour longer than the original? Was that entirely needful?
But a re-adaptation, be it ever so unnecessary, is inherently more justifiable than a remake, because the source material has so much more to offer the discerning filmmaker—an obvious exception proving that rule being that infamous nadir of re-adaptations, Gus Van Sant’s abysmal shot-for-shot recreation of the Hitchcock classic Psycho (1960, 1998), from the book by Robert Bloch. Pointless doesn’t even begin to describe it. And there have been other re-adaptation abominations, of course: I Am Legend (2007), based on the novel by Richard Matheson, had been done so much better as The Omega Man (1971); The Day the Earth Stood Still (2007), based on the short story by Harry Bates, was so much better in its 1951, non-Keanu form; and perhaps the less said about the 2007 Nicole Kidman-infused update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – based on the book by Jack Finney, and previously given to us three, far superior, times – the better. Still, so often what we think of as a reboot is actually merely a different take on an established work, like with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or the Sony’s lackluster rehash, The Amazing Spider-Man.
Twenty, thirty, forty years from now, will we see filmmakers wanting to revisit Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, to find new nuances and depths in the prose that they felt were left previously unexplored? Will The Hunger Games’ Katniss, Gale and Peeta be recast with future teen heartthrobs as yet unborn, and will The Avengers get a reboot some day, giving us yet another Hulk? Will the future bring a new Harry, a new Frodo, a new group of Pevensies? And what about those adaptations that didn’t succeed: will we someday see a new Lyra Silvertongue, a new Ford Prefect, a new alien-kid-who’s-name-we’ve-all-forgotten-from-I Am Number Four?
If Dredd 3D taught us anything (other than “Violence: yay!”), it is that we shouldn’t give up hope of seeing our favorites done right – or, at least, done better – on the big screen. So fingers crossed for The Mummy, right?
That said, though, if you’ve long been hoping for a new cinematic take on L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth… well, that may just be a bridge too far.