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Remake rule No. 1: Don’t

Special to The Times

In a business where imitation trumps originality, remakes rule. Desperate producers have regularly raided the vaults in a most-often futile effort to seize a sure thing. There have been multiple versions of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “The Prisoner of Zenda” and “King Solomon’s Mines,” to name just a few. But the coming months will see the largest number of high-profile remakes ever to hit theaters in one concentrated period.

The Coen brothers’ retooling of “The Ladykillers” opened over the weekend, with Tom Hanks as the ringleader of a band of thieves, a role that Alec Guinness savored in the 1955 Ealing comedy. The Rock kicks butt Friday in the revenge drama “Walking Tall,” which was a hit for Joe Don Baker in 1973. A slew of stars (including our governor) take cameo roles this summer in a new version of the 1956 Oscar-winner “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler and Matthew Broderick head the cast of “The Stepford Wives,” based on Ira Levin’s novel about suburban wives turned into robots, which was previously filmed in 1975. Sinister conspiracies threaten the republic in a remake of the 1962 brainwashing thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.” Jude Law reprises the role that helped turn Michael Caine into a star in “What’s It All About, Alfie?”

Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez star in an American remake of the Japanese hit “Shall We Dance?” Dennis Quaid takes on Jimmy Stewart’s role in a remake of “The Flight of the Phoenix,” an adventure about a plane that crashes in the African desert. Next year, Steve Martin steps into Peter Sellers’ shoes in a new version of “The Pink Panther.”

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Peter Jackson will follow up his Oscar-winning triumph on “The Lord of the Rings” by doing a remake of “King Kong” (which was already remade once, none too successfully, back in 1976). Director Bryan Singer has announced plans to remake the 1976 science-fiction fantasy “Logan’s Run,” and Adam Sandler takes over for Burt Reynolds in the football-in-prison movie “The Longest Yard.”

Prepare to be disappointed by this army of clones. If you look back at the history of remakes, you will come to the inescapable conclusion that they almost never work. Even Tim Burton’s remake of “Planet of the Apes” opened big but plummeted quickly.

Hollywood people have an amazing capacity for self-delusion, and many also have an overweening arrogance that leads them to scoff at the achievements of the past. While the young audiences studios court may not read reviews and may not remember the original movie that critics adore, overwhelmingly negative press can still cast a pall over a film that is tough to surmount. (And with the explosion in video and DVD, kids are becoming a lot savvier about the classics than they were even 10 years ago.) In any case, disgruntled directors can’t lay all the blame on the critics. Filmmakers often flounder trying to find the right approach. If they follow the first film too slavishly, they only remind viewers of what’s missing. If they veer too far from the original, they may lose the logic of the story.

Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” took the first approach, going so far as to present a shot-by-shot replica of Hitchcock’s classic. Yet the terror evaporated, partly because the actors Van Sant chose couldn’t find the perfect pitch that Hitchcock’s ensemble achieved. On the other hand, the makers of “A Perfect Murder” took far more liberties with Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder,” which was not one of the Master of Suspense’s greatest movies. But their changes only succeeded in diluting the cat-and-mouse precision that gave the first movie its charm.

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For all the filmmakers who are right now contemplating remakes, here are a few basic rules to bear in mind.

1. Never remake a film that forces you to recast an inimitable actor. “Charade” had a witty script by Peter Stone and stylish direction by Stanley Donen. But the key to the movie’s success was the chemistry between its peerless stars, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Even if the script and direction of Jonathan Demme’s remake, “The Truth About Charlie,” had been better than they were, memories of those two legends were bound to overwhelm any actors who dared to step into their shoes. Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton as the next Grant and Hepburn? Please.

Clouseau fever

Keeping this maxim in mind, Steve Martin should think twice -- or three or four times -- before taking on the mantle of Peter Sellers in “The Pink Panther.” Other actors -- including Alan Arkin, Ted Wass and even Roberto Benigni -- have already tried and failed to play Inspector Clouseau. Sellers’ peculiar brand of lunacy will never be duplicated, even by a comic as gifted as Martin.

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Jude Law’s remake of “Alfie” is also a very iffy proposition. Law is one of the finest actors of his generation. But “Alfie” was a career-making movie for Michael Caine, one of those magical cases in which a role fit an actor like a glove. In such a case, the presence of anyone else is bound to be jarring. There’s another problem with a new version of “Alfie” (whose character also resurfaced in a less well-known 1975 film called “Alfie Darling”). The 1966 movie was a perfect reflection of its time; it was set in swinging London during its heyday. It’s going to be devilishly hard to make the story fit present-day New York, where sexual attitudes are so notoriously different. This brings us to the next maxim:

2. Never remake a movie that seems inextricably tied to a specific era. If you try to reconceive the tale for a brand new world, you may end up shattering all of the story’s underpinnings. A prime example of this wrongheaded approach was Bette Midler’s “Stella,” an attempt to update the quintessential 1930s soap opera about maternal sacrifice, “Stella Dallas.”

Warren Beatty’s remake of “Love Affair” failed for exactly the same reason, which was disappointing because Beatty was one of the few people ever to bring off a successful remake when he transformed “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” into “Heaven Can Wait.” But “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” was an ingenious, whimsical fantasy about cheating death -- a timeless theme that tickled audiences in the 1970s just as it had in the 1940s. On the other hand, the contrived romance of the original 1939 “Love Affair” and the 1957 remake, “An Affair to Remember,” didn’t play in 1994, when Beatty and Annette Bening went to sea.

Beatty may also have underestimated the widespread affection for the two prior versions and for their stars: Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in the first, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the second. That leads to the most basic rule of all:

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3. Never, ever remake a movie that has a passionate following. This is why no one has seriously suggested remaking “Citizen Kane” or “Casablanca.” But they’ve tampered with a lot of other movies that are almost as memorable, including “Lost Horizon,” “Diabolique,” “Sabrina” and “Breathless.” “Breathless,” energetically directed by Jim McBride, was actually not a bad movie, but it got terrible reviews, simply because you can’t win when you try to redo the seminal movie of the French New Wave.

For this reason, I wouldn’t be betting on the new version of “The Manchurian Candidate,” a remake brazen enough to break all three of the rules I’ve cited. When he was asked recently about John Frankenheimer’s 1962 movie, director Demme, who apparently didn’t learn anything from his experience remaking “Charade,” blithely responded that he didn’t remember it well. Unfortunately for him, critics do remember the first “Manchurian Candidate” vividly -- it ranked No. 67 on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies.

The second danger in remaking this movie is that “The Manchurian Candidate” was so electrifying in its time. It raised the then-unthinkable subject of political assassination (a full year before the assassination of JFK). It was also one of the first movies to examine McCarthyism and take some satiric swipes at the Red baiters of the Cold War era. I doubt whether the new version (updated to the Gulf War) will come close to achieving the same shocks of recognition.

Then there’s the third problem of casting. Denzel Washington may be a finer actor than Frank Sinatra, but Sinatra gave the most heartfelt performance of his career in “The Manchurian Candidate,” so Washington has a bit of a mountain to climb. So does Meryl Streep, who plays the villain, the domineering mother of the brainwashed soldier played by Liev Schreiber. Streep is a superb actress, but Angela Lansbury owns the role of the diabolically cunning Mrs. Iselin.

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If filmmakers add a fresh twist, a remake can make sense. The makers of the 1954 version of “A Star Is Born” added music and retooled the 1937 original as a vehicle for Judy Garland. The Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson remake of 1976 was inferior to the two earlier versions, but the rock ‘n’ roll backdrop hooked audiences all over again.

In a different way, the American remake of the Norwegian film “Insomnia” found a fresh slant that made the return trip worthwhile. The stories of the two movies were remarkably similar, but the American film, superbly directed by Christopher Nolan, added a layer of social content -- a more penetrating dissection of police corruption -- that was not in the original. (And it didn’t hurt that the Norwegian movie was a fairly obscure opus rather than a cherished landmark.)

On a different level, Zack Snyder’s remake of the cult horror movie “Dawn of the Dead” recently illustrated there was still life in George A. Romero’s zombies.

Room for improvement

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It can also be worth remaking a movie that missed the mark the first time. Steven Soderbergh recognized that the first “Ocean’s Eleven” was a leaden caper movie that could easily be improved.

Similarly, “The Stepford Wives” could be ripe for a remake. The premise behind Ira Levin’s novel was delicious, but Bryan Forbes’ execution of the 1975 movie left a lot to be desired. One looks forward to the splendid new cast, as well as to the satiric slant that screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz have reportedly brought to their rendition.

“Logan’s Run” is another movie from the ‘70s that fell far short of its potential; the pedestrian direction and lackluster cast (including Michael York, Jenny Agutter and Farrah Fawcett) leave this futuristic tale wide open for re-imagining.

And now that musicals are back in fashion, how about new versions of movies -- such as “Guys and Dolls” and “Mame” -- that were derailed by bizarre casting of actors who couldn’t sing?

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It’s always possible that one or two of the upcoming remakes may confound the cynics and take their place in the pantheon. But most of them will do absolutely nothing to dispel our memories of the originals. I have three little words of advice for writers, directors and actors the next time they are tempted by a lucrative offer to desecrate a classic: Just say no.


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