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January 3, 2014

STAWAR: New year, old stories

It may be a brand new year, but you can be sure that we’ll continue seeing the same old familiar themes and plots in literature, television, and especially at the movies.

Writer Matthew Murray from the Whatculture.com website writes, “Hollywood often seems to make it look like there are no original ideas left in the world.”

He examined the 250 most popular 2013 movies from the Internet Movie Database and found that there were 30 sequels, three prequels, two reboots, four remakes, one spin-off and seven major adaptations. Overall, he calculates that 20 percent of current movies lack originality. When it comes to theatrical films, the percent is even higher. He says that Hollywood executives have learned one thing and that is that, “Familiar rubbish sells better than unique gold.”

While recently attending one remake — “The Hobbit” — my wife Diane and I saw the previews for another, “Godzilla,” as well as an announcement for another installment in the Spiderman franchise.

Peter Jackson’s three-part “Hobbit” is so impressive that it’s easy to forget that there even was a 1977 version. This animated Rankin-Bass production was directed by Romeo Mueller, creator of many familiar cartoon specials. Rankin-Bass assembled an impressive voice cast that included the talents of Orson Bean, Richard Boone, Hans Conried, John Huston, Otto Preminger and Cyril Ritchard. The film even featured the creepy Bother Theodore as the voice of Gollum. For me, this cartoon was the definitive version prior to Jackson’s films. Its imagery also may be one reason why seeing a dragon sitting on a golden treasure seems so familiar.

It’s hard to think of a cartoon as the definitive version of anything, but I also have to admit that for many years I considered Mister Magoo’s “Christmas Carol” (1962) as my definitive version of the Dickens’ tale. Digital entertainment maven Daniel Welch says, “Whether in black and white or full Technicolor, with puppets or in 3D, it seems every generation has its own definitive version of A Christmas Carol.”

I grew up with the 1951 Alastair Sim production and I always liked how he made his hair stand on end to look kind of crazy and scare his housekeeper. I thought the computer-animated characters in the frenetic 2009 Disney production were just plain ugly, and I’m sorry Mickey, but as much as I’m a fan of Scrooge McDuck, Jim Backus’ Ebenezer Magoo still wins.

Bill Murray’s clever “Scrooged” was more of a reboot than a true remake, but who cannot help but admire Patrick Stewart’s 1999 take on the Yuletide classic, in which you actually get to see Captain Picard say “Bah. Humbug!”

Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday feature “It’s a Wonderful Life” was remade only once into a 1977 television movie, “It Happened One Christmas.” In a gender reversal, it starred Marlo Thomas as the protagonist Mary Bailey and Cloris Leachman as the guardian angel, with Orson Welles playing the evil Mr. Potter. This production was well-received but is not currently available.

As for other holiday remake fare, there is the 1947 John Payne, Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood version of “Miracle on 32nd Street,” where in my opinion, Gene Lockhart and William Frawley (“I Love Lucy’s” Fred Mertz) steal the show as the long suffering judge and his cigar-chomping politicio.

The 1973 version with Sebastian Cabot and David Hartman is tolerable and some critics even believe the 1994 remake with Jurassic Park’s Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle and Matilda’s Mara Wilson as Susan is superior to the original, but not me. Where is Macy’s? and where is that annoying store psychologist? I suppose they keep remaking this move just to make money. They should remember Alfred’s line in the original, “Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it’s the same — don’t care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck ...”

In October, Kirsten Acuna, a writer for the BusinessInsider.com, discussed the remake of Stephen King’s movie “Carrie,” staring Chloe Moretz. Acuna said, “…it’s tough to top the Oscar-nominated performances of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.” I can vividly remember the bucket of blood and the final scene from the original, along with Joan River’s famous line, “Carrie had a better time at her prom than I did."

Reviewing for E!, Peter Paras echoes the opinion of most critics saying, “While Carrie (2013) does an admirable job grounding the story with teens that feel more relatable, we miss the ’70s thrills. As a result, the original is the still the true prom queen.”

Despite the new Carrie’s runner-up status, Acuna says that “… there are plenty of remakes that have improved upon the original.”

Based on reviews and ratings she provides a list of the most memorable remakes of all time. I never knew, for example, that “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Ten Commandments” and “The Little Shop of Horrors” were all remakes. Acuna also bravely argues that “True Grit” with Jeff Bridges and “Ocean’s 11” with George Clooney are both superior remakes.

In addition to visual media, it is not unusual to see classics from literature rewritten with a modern twist to appeal to new audiences. One common approach is to tell the story from the perspective of some minor characters, as Tom Stoppard did in his play based on Hamlet, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Jane Austen descendant, Joan Austen-Leigh, wrote “A Visit to Highbury in 1993,” which retells Jane’s classic story “Emma” through the eyes of Mrs. Goddard, the boarding school mistress.

Flavorwire.com’s literary editor Emily Temple says, “adaptation, cross-pollination and flat out stealing are nothing new in the literary world.”

She says that the trend of adaptation and readaptation is rampant and despite the high number of “cheap reincarnations of classic texts,” she also believes that there are a number of wonderful contemporary novels based on classic works. Temple recommends Frances Segals’s “The Innocents,” based on Edith Wharton’s classic “The Age of Innocence.” Laurie Sheck’s 2009 first novel, “A Monster’s Notes” is derived from Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” and Geraldine Brook’s “March” expands on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel “Little Women.” “The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood’s reiterates “the Odyssey” legend from a decidedly feminine perspective.

We have to recognize that everything is derivative to some degree. Also, when we find something we like, we want more of it.

Diane and I like to watch different productions of the same stories. Recently, we saw the various versions of all of the Mrs. Marple television series. We also compared the Stanley Kubrick version of “The Shining” to the Stephen King television miniseries. I usually hate it when a movie changes the original writing, but I have to admit that the Kubrick version was much superior.

At their worst, remakes are lazy and uninspired. At their best, however, they can be like new productions of ballets or plays, in which the setting, cultural sensibilities and characterization are reimagined and the action newly choreographed.

This may be to done to appeal to new audiences or to express the director’s individuality and creativity. If it all comes together, as it does in the Hobbit, it’s just like Jim Backus’ says, “You’ve done it again Magoo!”

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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