Depending on your sources, there are apparently only six basic plots in storytelling. Repetition, then, is only inevitable. Familiar narratives reappear, parallels emerge. After all, how many times have we seen a film where the hero struggles in the second act, only to find their happy ending by the story’s conclusion?
In a mainstream movie culture that treasures profitability above all else, repetition has gone into overdrive. Remakes and “legacy sequels” of beloved classics are a regular occurrence. Movie stars are dying, intellectual properties are thriving. It’s not like the appetite for these regurgitations isn’t there, of course. Spider-Man’s third iteration is one of the most successful trilogies ever – and fans are already making their cast predictions for when Tom Holland hangs up the suit.
Nevertheless, we don’t have to be completely cynical about the current state of Hollywood. They’ve been remaking films for almost as long as the film camera has been around. The best remakes take their plot’s pre-existence as a challenge. They play around with the parameters they’re stuck in and discover how to break free, reinventing themselves as their own singular works of art. They may not necessarily be an improvement, but there will always be something fascinating about a film that interacts with its own history. With that said, here’s a guide to some of the very best remakes out there.
Little Women (2019)
Little Women adaptations are as inevitable as the Earth orbiting the sun, and yet Greta Gerwig’s take on Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel feels completely fresh. By making the connection between Alcott and Jo March more explicit, the 2019 version stands as more than just a tale of unbreakable sisterhood, transforming it into a rumination on authorship, work and women’s financial independence.
The Parent Trap (1998)
Nancy Meyers’ charming remake of the 1961 film about long lost twins reuniting was a personal childhood obsession of mine. I’ve seen it dozens of times, committed Lindsay Lohan’s famous handshake to memory, and became completely transfixed by a luminous Natasha Richardson. And it’s not difficult to imagine that many more 90s kids dreamed of fencing at summer camp and residing in rustic California mansions.
Autumn de Wilde’s delightful adaptation of the Jane Austen classic benefits from its delectably bright colour palette and exquisite framing – unsurprising for a director who first found acclaim for her striking photography and portraiture. But Emma is also driven by an infectious energy that breaks free from its period drama trappings. Few on-screen love confessions are as memorable as Anya Taylor-Joy suffering from an untimely nosebleed.
The best remakes are categorised as such in name only, and make themselves wholly distinctive from their source material. To that end, Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of the cult giallo horror truly carves its own identity. Suspiria replaces Dario Argento’s candy-coloured aesthetic with a murky, grimy palette, and expands on the lore of the original for a thematically richer, gorier and scarier depiction of a ballet school run by witches.
Denis Villeneuve’s take on the sci-fi classic claims that it isn’t a remake of David Lynch’s misfire, but a new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking novel. Still, comparisons are unavoidable. While Lynch’s version attempts to stuff a brick of a book into one film (complete with some dodgy special effects), Villeneuve’s film takes its time by dedicating two and a half hours to the first half of the plot alone. It was a wise decision, as Dune slowly cultivates the immersive, sand-filled world of Arrakis, while also planting the seeds for the story’s themes of power and colonialism that will (hopefully) be at the forefront of the upcoming sequel.
The Beguiled (2017)
Like her debut feature The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film details how the intrusion of men can burst the bubble of feminine harmony. This is, of course, the more sophisticated way of saying that The Beguiled is about teenagers vying for Colin Farrell’s attention, but the point still stands. Coppola’s film is ostensibly a dainty Gothic drama, but that description belies just how entertaining it is, culminating in Nicole Kidman’s iconic line: “Bring me the anatomy book.” If nothing else, the upgrade from Clint Eastwood to Farrell as their object of affection should be convincing enough.
The Departed (2006)
It’s not surprising that the tests of loyalty and criminal underground setting of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs appealed to Martin Scorsese. And while the English-language remake may not surpass the original, it’s still Martin Scorsese. The Departed is just as tense and intricate as its predecessor, while a stacked cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson rises up to the bar set by Hong Kong’s finest, Tony Leung and Andy Lau. Formally, Scorsese is also at the height of his powers, exemplified by some striking low angle shots that will make you long for the drama of a flip phone.
A Star is Born (2018)
There could be 100 remakes in a room, but only one has Shallow. The titular nascent darling has been portrayed by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand in the past, but the arrival of Lady Gaga’s Ally through a magnetic rendition of La Vie En Rose is one of the most electrifying character introductions in recent memory.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Sure, this is not quite a remake, but an English-language adaptation of the hit novel. Nevertheless, the source material is perfectly aligned with David Fincher’s detached, clinical sensibility. Brutal and beautiful, this masterfully composed thriller is led by an astounding Rooney Mara in a feat of casting that’s just as perfect as Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version.
The Thing (1982)
It’s a hallowed tradition of horror: unsuspecting victims picked off one by one by a gruesome monster. John Carpenter’s adaptation of 1951’s The Thing from Another World stands apart thanks to disgustingly gory practical effects that still hold up to this day (think chests ripping open). But the cult classic is also something of a relentlessly bleak whodunnit, as the shape-shifting alien capable of mimicking the human form fuels paranoia and distrust in a group of researchers left for dead.