In defense of remakes, reimaginings, reboots, and adaptations.

With the recent release of the second Watchmen trailer, and the release this weekend of the Star Trek trailer, I’ve been hearing a disappointing amount of grumbling about certain choices being made, etc in these two prominent examples of the recent heading back to the well mentality of Hollywood.

Sometimes remakes/adaptations/reboots work. As in The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, Sin City, Batman Begins, Battlestar Galactica, The Office, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Sometimes they work, partially. I’m thinking here of V for Vendetta, Superman Returns, the two Hulk movies, the various adaptations and remakes of adaptations of Dune.

Sometimes they fail miserably either in quality or in representing the original work at even the most basic level. I, Robot, Almost every Clancy film since Hunt for Red October, Galactica 1980, The Clone Wars CG movie, Many a Stephen King movie such as the Shining remake, IT, and The Stand.

In each of these cases previously I’ve always held a fanboys strong opinion of what should and should not be done, what is and is not ok in regards to canon. The two things that really cleared my mind of that bias are the Lord of the Rings movies and Sci Fi’s outstanding Battlestar Galactica. Each took significant liberties with the source material. Each altered some very fundamental sequences, characters, or events. And in the process made the soul of the original work much more accessible for one, and capable of being stretched and deepened.

The fundamental sense of a living breathing mythology that Tolkien labored for is clearly present in the films, and the underlying dark paranoia of the reality of Galactica’s rag tag fugitive fleet is more present and more real. Who cares if the Cylons look human? That only deepens the dilemma already present in the source material.

Adaptations and remakes that work partially usually fail because they took a left turn from the source material. For instance, the end of V for Vendetta the graphic novel was a second chance for the populace to seize, but the book ends before you truly know if they will seize it. Thus the underlying point is completely missed in the movie which stages an unlikely and clumsy rebellion where a paranoid totalitarian government would completely miss the sudden mass ordering in the tens of millions of the very getup the number one wanted terrorist in the country wears. It’s a mystifying and unnecessary change that very much feels like a producer wanted a more emotionally satisfying ending.

Sometimes an easy test of whether an adaptation or remake worked partially is when people who never saw/read the source leave the theater and go "well it was good but I don’t understand why people think it’s great"

And of course when the efforts fail it’s almost always because the resulting work is either stupid or silly or bears no resemblance to the original source material’s spirit while claiming to advance it.

I bring all this up because it’s a fine, fine line to walk. What do you change to bring a work to a new medium, and what do you leave intact?

In watching the trailers for Watchmen and Star Trek I can see easily within them the changes they have made to bring things around, but I also very deeply see that the spirit seems to be intact. The Watchmen wanted to explore, as a graphic novel, a number of things. But the soul was the moral quandary of the ends justifying the means.

Likewise Star Trek was not originally a high minded philosophical environment where the fundamental nature of humanity was given to us in the sometimes stilted lectures of Captain Picard. If anything the original series and movies were about hoping we could rise above the very flaws that often drove the narrative. The original Trek had fist fights, space battles, sex, humor, a tiny bit of camp thrown in for good measure. The new Star Trek trailer has me more excited about Star Trek than at any time in the past two decades. 20 years of Next Generation have made us expect a big morality tale. Don’t get me wrong, I think TNG is still the best of Trek, but it lost some of the umph along the way.

[EDIT: It’s been pointed out to me that First Contact and Insurrection and Nemesis all added action etc to the TNG formula. Let me take these one by one:

First Contact loses out because they violated the spirit of TNG in general by fundamentally changing an enemy well established in the mythos simply for the sole purpose of giving Picard a bad guy…girl…it? to fight. The Borg were a collective, not a Hive. It was partially successful in many ways, and I love the Enterprise E. But it’s like if in the middle of Matrix 3 you find out the machines are actually aliens. It’s a head scratcher. The borg were terrifying enough without a queen. No need to mess with it.

Insurrection had action sure, but tried to again give us the big morality tale. Plus how many times can you write yourself into a narrative corner and then try to solve it by kicking the shit out of the Enterprise? Geordi’s "We’re fresh out of warp cores" seemed to even acknowledge how dumb the plot was. Insurrection is the Star Trek Five of TNG films.

Nemesis? Could the movie more blatantly plead with its audience to close their eyes and pretend it was Star Trek 2?

Again don’t get me wrong, I love TNG but my point is about the source material and its soul. If they were rebooting TNG I would have a different opinion, but they are rebooting TOS and I think they may have possibly nailed it.]

Now, trailers do not a movie make. I still have doubts they can even effectively tell the soul of Watchmen in a two hour film. I worry that there might not be quite enough Star Trek in the new movie, and maybe a little too much Star Wars (especially the recent crap). But I’ve seen the rather visceral reactions from my fellow geeks and, well, I remember railing at length at how Battlestar Galactica was going to utterly fail. Now I think it could very well be the best Science Fiction show television has produced.

I’ve since tried to give up on predicting when a reboot might work. What I have changed is being sure to give it a good chance to grow on me.

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