Theory Teacher's Blog

The Ideology of Hollywood Remakes

For the spring semester of 2011, I’ve been asked to teach an introductory undergraduate class on film, and what I’m imagining is teaching the class by looking at various remakes. My idea is that the students can learn to critique film by discerning the subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences between two versions of the same story. So, if anyone has any suggestions for movies I might use, please let me know.

For instance, Hairspray originally was a witty, satirical, transgressive movie directed by John Waters in 1988. Then it was made into a Broadway musical in 2002, and then into a new movie in 2007. What struck me when I watched both the 1988 and the 2007 movies back-to-back is that the original, independently-made movie was satirical and the big-budget, Hollywood re-make was sentimental. The changes in the story were often very slight — just a sentence or two deleted here, a scene added there, a different choreography for some of the dances and songs — but the effect of these slight changes in tone and content was that the original was transgressive, smart, and interesting while the remake was conservative, confused, and boring. Something similar could be said about the new version of Shaft starring Samuel Jackson that came out in 2000 compared to the original Shaft that came out in 1971. The original is smart; the remake is stupid.

One might ask, “Are remakes always worse? Are they always conservative versions of earlier progressive or transgressive stories?” It would seem so, because I can’t think of an exception . . . except for the Cohen brother’s movie version of No Country for Old Men, which is more witty and less racist than the novel it’s based upon. Perhaps what’s more interesting than remakes are homages or new films that deconstruct old genres. For instance, Quentin Terantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) is a wonderful homage to the career of Pam Grier and her early 1970s films Coffee, Foxy Brown, and Sheba, Baby. I’m glad he didn’t simply remake an old film but instead created an entirely new film with more mature characters. Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968) is a brilliant deconstruction of the classic western that quotes entire scenes from earlier films but does so in a way that reverses their meaning (or, “flips the script.”)

Recently, I just taught the movie Real Women Have Curves (2002) alongside the play of the same title by Josefina Lopez that it’s based upon. The difference between the two is striking and indicates the power of Hollywood’s conservative ideology. The play is set in a maquiladora in East Los Angeles in 1987 immediately following President Ronald Reagan’s new immigration reforms that incited racist violence against Latinos. The characters are the women who work there, including the owner (Estella), her mother (Carmen), and her younger sister (Ana) as well as Pancha and Rosali. Estella is clearly being exploited by the powerful company for whom she makes expenses dresses and is afraid to confront the company for fear that it will retaliate by getting her deported. Ana is hoping to go to college the next year. At the beginning of the play, Ana’s progressive feminism and sense of sexual independence conflicts with the conservative sensibilities of the older women, but by the end of the play, they all learn from each other and come together in solidarity. They decide to pool their resources and start their own business in the manner that has become very fashionable these days after Muhammad Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace prize for his highly successful work on microfinance. (Note that artists such as Josefina Lopez and progressive activists were imagining such microfinance projects many years before the mainstream community of economists and Pope Benedict XVI finally appreciated Yunus’s work.)

The movie, on the other hand, focuses almost entirely on the character of Ana, her frustration at working in the “sweatshop,” and her desire to go to Columbia University in New York. Cut entirely from the movie are the political issue of undocumented workers and the solidarity of the women. Added to the movie are Ana’s romance with a wealthy white boy from Beverly Hills, the efforts of her teacher to help her get into college, and the doting love of her father and grandfather. Noticeably, while in the play, all of the women come together in solidarity, in the movie Ana’s relationship to all the women (including her mother) is outright hostile. Instead, Ana is repeatedly helped by the men in her life who give her money, appreciate her appearance even though she is a little plump, and call her their “gold” (suggesting a creepy equivalence between her person and money.) While the play carefully explores different versions of feminism (liberal feminism, working-class feminism, and ethnic feminism), the movie is ideologically patriarchal — sneakily slipping its paternalistic changes and additions into a formerly feminist plot.

In addition, while the play celebrates community, the movie champions the ideology of individualism. The final scene of the play is the women creating their new factory together. In contrast, in the movie, the women all disperse, and the final scene is Ana leaving her family behind for bright lights of New York City.

Certainly, Hollywood’s decisions to change the story so much are in part due to its desire to appeal to a broad, movie-going teenage audience. As one of my students suggested quite correctly, the average teenager in America would probably relate more to Ana’s alienation from her family, her dating for the first time, and her going to college than he or she could relate to solidarity among factory workers. But, in my view, this is precisely how ideology works. Why wouldn’t a movie about a community of workers be more fun to watch than a movie about teen angst? For example, as Jonathan Kim says in this YouTube restrospect on the 1979 movie Norma Rae, why hasn’t there been a pro-union movie for the past twenty or thirty years?

Norma Rae won awards, as have movies such as Erin Brocovitch and North Country, so apparently people did (and still do) find this kind of story interesting. Personally, I find movies about resistance to oppression much more interesting than movies about embittered teens. Might we ask (as the movie Josie and the Pussycats does) whether young teens today have been brainwashed by a conservative Hollywood establishment about what they should enjoy? Might we ask whether the choices to change this film were not just about ticket sales (since it’s very likely that the movie would have made more money in the long term if it had tackled the tough questions), but were instead ideological?

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November 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. Hi, Steve! Great post. I’ve always wondered why remakes are so bizarre, and your take on the phenomenon seems dead on. I hope you’re having a great time teaching wherever you are these days!

    Comment by Lesley | November 30, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks Lesley. What’s your favorite remake snafu?

      Comment by steventhomas | November 30, 2009 | Reply


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