10 Remakes That Were Better Than the Original

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The Coen Brothers’ Christmas remake of True Grit hits DVD and Blu-ray today (finally), flush off the success off 10 Oscar nominations and a domestic box office haul of over $170 million (making it, by a long shot, the Coens biggest hit to date). Its runaway success and high quality gave us pause, since we spend quite a bit of time deriding the overload of remakes in the moviemaking business today — yet another example (along with the endless stream of sequels, TV show adaptations, and even board game movies) of nervous suits who are only comfortable giving the green light to the familiar. But every once in a while, a remake comes along that not only matches its predecessor, but tops it. After the jump, check out our list of ten remakes that were better than the original.

(And before we get started: yes, semanticists, some of these were based on movies that were based on books, so they’re technically another adaptation of the book, rather than a remake of the movie. But c’mon. Last fall, nobody was saying, “The Coen Brothers did another adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel!” They were saying “The Coen Brothers did a remake of a John Wayne movie!”)

True Grit

Film fans were hesitant when word got out that the Coen Brothers were working up a new take on True Grit. After all, the original was one of John Wayne’s most iconic films, the one that had finally won him an Oscar, and their only previous attempt at a remake had been their 2004 adaptation of The Ladykillers — which has its defenders (this writer among them), but was certainly no match for the original Ealing comedy. But the Coens were ultimately a good fit for the tale not only because of their eyes, but their ears; Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn may be one of the Duke’s most recognizable characters, but as imagined in their adaptation (and played, expertly, by Jeff Bridges), he’s the latest in a long line of the Coens’ wonderfully loquacious heroes. Their films have always revealed a love of language, of its poetic possibilities and expositional powers; they are partial to men, from H.I. McDonnough to Charlie Meadows to Everett McGill to Professor G.H. Dorr, who take pleasure in the mere act of conversation — who talk, as it were, to hear themselves talk. Their True Grit gives Cogburn the freedom and the space to be weird and a bit more comic than the original did, and if Bridges matches Wayne (which we think he did), the 2010 version consistently tops the original in its supporting roles; Hailee Steinfeld stomps through the proceedings with force and gall, a tougher and more engaging heroine than Kim Darby, while Matt Damon plays the background with alternating notes of irritation and amusement that are more keenly underplayed (and thus more effective) than Glen Campbell.

Ocean’s Eleven

There’s no questioning the cool factor of the 1960 original: it starred the five original members of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop), after all. Trouble is, it works better as a movie poster than as a movie: the gang’s half-assed cinematic aspirations and director Lewis Mileston’s glacial pacing keep the picture from ever truly taking flight. No such complaints with Steven Soderbergh’s snazzy, elegant 2001 remake. Adopting a similar all-star cast approach (Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Cheadle, Roberts, Garcia, etc.), but sharing little beyond that, the title, and the general plot — a big heist in Sin City — Ocean’s redux benefitted from a clever, intricate screenplay by Ted Griffin, the ingenuity of Soderbergh’s direction (it was his first film off the triumph of his Best Director win for Traffic, a contest in which one of his competitors was himself, for Erin Brokovich), and the whiz-bang chemistry of its cast (Clooney and Pitt bat around their rat-tat-tat dialogue like a vaudeville duo). Critics raved and audiences agreed; it begat two sequels, which were also superior to later Rat Pack movies like Robin and the Seven Hoods and Sergeant’s 3.

Little Shop of Horrors

In all fairness to Roger Corman, who made the original 1960 film, Frank Oz had a few more resources at his disposal when he made the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors: things like a studio budget, and real sets, and a shooting schedule with more than two days on it. Yes, Little Shop was one of Corman’s “weekend specials,” shot in a compressed timeframe (often with multiple cameras in long takes with a general lighting wash), thrown together quickly to take advantage of a pre-existing set that was about to be torn down. That set became the film’s primary location, a Skid Row flower shop where Seymour pines for Audrey and develops a plant which he names after her — a plant which, come to find out, requires human blood to thrive. Corman’s low-budget horror/comedy gained some cult success in the years that followed — partially because of its admittedly clever script, partially because of the presence of a very young Jack Nicholson in a small role, and mostly because it fell out of copyright and into the “public domain,” so television stations and revival houses could run it for free. In the early 1980s, composer Alan Menken and book writer/lyricist Howard Ashman saw the film and adapted it into an off-beat musical comedy, which ran Off-Broadway in 1982 and then, in a nice bit of circularity, was adapted into Oz’s feature film. The music is memorable (Ashman and Menken went on to write songs for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, among others), the performances are terrific (Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene were never better), and the comic turns are uproarious (in addition to Steve Martin as a sadomasochistic dentist, the film also includes appearances by Bill Murray, John Candy, and Christopher Guest).

The Thomas Crown Affair

Norman Jewison’s original 1968 film certainly has its virtues: Faye Dunaway at her sexiest, Steve McQueen at his Steve McQueen-iest, that hot chess game, and some fun sequences. But it uneasily mixes studio shimmer with gritty antihero leanings, and throws way too much split-screen and Michael Legrand music into the mix (both of which date the picture pretty severely). John McTiernan’s 1999 remake, while sharing the same central conflict, is closer to Hitchcock than Jewison — specifically the elegance and grace of To Catch a Thief. McTiernan reimagines corporate titan and gentleman thief Thomas Crown as an art enthusiast rather than a bank robber, and amps up the considerable sexual tension with thicker psychological subtext (some of it thanks to Dunaway herself, this time playing Crown’s dry-witted therapist). Plus, he ends it with one of the great caper climaxes in all of film, a beautifully prepared, marvelously executed “reverse-heist.” You lean forward in your seat, the sequence — with its snazzy editing, slick photography, and sounds of Nina Simone warbling “Sinnerman” — is so deliciously done.

The Italian Job

This one may very well be blasphemy, but this writer finds the original Italian Job to be a pretty dry affair, though Michael Caine is fun to watch (as he always is) and the Mini Cooper climax is, as reputation has it, a crackerjack chase. But then again, so is the Mini Cooper chase/armored car heist in F. Gary Gray’s 2003 remake — expertly staged and cut within an inch of its life, the sequence plays primarily thanks to Gray’s insistence on old-school technique — stunt drivers, ingenious cinematography, and tight editing over bad CG. It’s thrilling, suspenseful, and smart, and (for the most part) the film is too. Sure, it’s slavishly faithful to the modern heist movie template, and Edward Norton is pretty much sleepwalking through his paycheck role, but The Italian Job has a sense of style, a sense of humor, and a rich gallery of supporting actors (including Mos Def, Jason Statham, and Seth Green) to keep things lively.

Cape Fear

This 1991 suspense thriller was Martin Scorsese’s first remake (his 2006 film The Departed , based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs , would’ve made this list had we not just talked about it), a twisted take on J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 Robert Mitchum-Gregory Peck picture. It’s a decent little potboiler, with a wonderfully oily villainous turn by Mitchum, but Peck is might stiff and the conflict is fairly cut-and-dried. Scorsese and screenwriter Wesley Strick took pains to color in the black-and-white story with many shades of grey — Nick Nolte, in the Peck role, is now a philanderer who concealed evidence to ensure his client (Robert DeNiro, in the Mitchum role) went to jail, and his wife (Jessica Lange) and daughter (Juliette Lewis) are all screwed up too. In reimagining the tale, Scorsese makes Nolte’s struggle against DeNiro infinitely more complex and more rewarding, while keeping much of what made the first film great (including Bernard Herrmann’s original score and the original stars, employed here in supporting roles).

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Several filmmakers have taken a crack at remaking Hitchcock (including, most notoriously, Gus Van Sant and his shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Psycho ), but there was probably only one man who was up to the task: Hitch himself. In 1954, well-established as Hollywood’s preeminent genre director, Hitchcock decided to go back and remake his 1934 British thriller. This time he had a bigger budget and one of his favorite leading men, Jimmy Stewart, to star; Doris Day co-starred, and sang what became her signature number, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera),” which won the Oscar for Best Song. So which was better? Let’s go to the filmmaker himself, from his wonderful book-length interview with Francois Truffaut: “Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

The Maltese Falcon

Along with Casablanca and To Have and Have Not , John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon is one of Humphrey Bogart’s most immortal roles; as no-nonsense private eye Sam Spade, Bogie is all tough cool in this taut, smart film noir. What few realize is that Dashiell Hammett’s book had been filmed not once, but twice before: in 1931, under its original title, and again in 1936 as Satan Met a Lady (all three versions are on the 1941 version’s special edition DVD). So not only was Huston’s film the third version of The Maltese Falcon — it was the third one in only ten years. But it was the definitive version; though the 1931 film has its charms (it was part of the so-called “pre-Code” era of looser content restrictions, and is therefore a bit more openly sexy than the latter version) and the lighter 1936 film has Bette Davis, neither can approach the gritty intensity and rapier wit of Huston’s adaptation.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The 1964 film Bedtime Story had a clever central idea (competing con artists working the French Riviera) and the great David Niven in its leading role, but it paired him with Marlon Brando — a brilliant actor, of course, but not exactly one renowned for his comic acumen. That issue was corrected in the 1988 remake Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, directed by Frank Oz (welcome back to the list, Frank), which placed Michael Caine in the Niven role and Steve Martin in Brando’s shoes. Working from a tightly plotted yet uproarious screenplay by Dale Launer (who was coming off the similarly clever Ruthless People ), Oz crafted a cheerfully rude, charmingly vulgar, and ultimately satisfying seaside caper.

3:10 to Yuma

Delmer Daves’s 1957 film was itself based on an Elmore Leonard short story that first appeared in (no kidding) Dime Western Magazine. It was a decent oater, with strong starring turns by Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, but James Mangold’s 2007 remake cast Christian Bale and Russell Crowe as the leads and locked the two notably intense actors into an intense yet nuanced psychological battle — as much about their consciences as about their six-shooters. That’s mostly subtext, though; one of the pleasures of Mangold’s workmanlike western is that it doesn’t seek to demystify the genre (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller) or turn it on his head (like Unforgiven), but to pay homage by doing the damn thing right.

Those are a few of our favorites — agree? Disagree? Which remakes do you think topped their predecessors?