We say we hate reboots. We’ll happily go on and on about how we’d much rather have something newer, fresher, more original. And yet — remakes and re-dos remain reliably big business.
In fairness, it’s been this way from the beginning, with film producers mining books and plays for ideas more frequently than pursuing new ideas. It’s pure economics: Movies are expensive, and past success hints at the promise of future success. It’s easy to forget that that the 1939 Wizard of Oz was the fourth film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book; those concepts had been floating around for almost four decades before Judy Garland ever put on the silver ruby slippers.
It might not be in quite the same league as that classic, but the CW just provided details on the forthcoming reboot of the mid-aughts cult series The 4400, the new version being cleverly differentiated from the original by dropping the article. (The network has had success over the last few years rebooting shows from Charmed, to Walker, to Roswell and Kung Fu.) And then there’s the matter of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the second trailer for which just dropped, promising a much more dramatically satisfying version of the novel than David Lynch was able to manage in the ‘80s.
Why do we continue to revisit worlds we’ve already explored? It can’t all be chalked up to Hollywood’s lack of imagination — this is on us, too. And in fact, there are those reboots and remakes that are just about as good as the originals and, just occasionally, even better. Here are some of our favourites. What about yours?
His Girl Friday (1940)
The play on which His Girl Friday is based has been adapted several times, but never better than in this version from 1940. The first, a 1931 Lewis Milestone comedy (The Front Page) with Adolphe Menjou, is a classic in its own right, but Howard Hawks moved away from the staginess of that earlier version, creating something far more visually and emotionally dynamic. He also turned the central relationship between a hard-charging newspaper editor and star reporter on its ear: originally two male characters, Hawks brought in fast-talking Rosalind Russell to play the reporter, now also the ex-wife of editor Cary Grant (the nascent internet dudebros of 1940 must’ve flipped out). The result is one of the zippiest and smartest of all the great screwball comedies, with off-the-charts chemistry between the brilliant leads.
A Star is Born (1954)
Look, the 2018 Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper version is perfectly fine, but it wasn’t the first remake of the 1937 original, and it probably won’t be the last: it seems that almost every generation gets its own. The best version is also the weirdest: George Cukor directed Judy Garland and James Mason in this epic 1954 take, packed with over-the-top emotions, brilliant musical numbers, and truly bizarre moments of characters busting into song for no good reason. It’s a nearly three-hour-long emotional rollercoaster and, though every Star movie is worthwhile, no other features Judy Garland doing the best work of her entire career, a performance that stands with the great Oscar snubs of all time.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Hitchcock considered his 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much to be the work of a “talented amateur, and the second was made by a professional.” They’re certainly very different films, albeit along similar lines: the early version, which casts Peter Lorre as a kidnapper, is the tight, fairly brutal thriller that cemented Hitchcock’s reputation. The 1956 version, though, has charms of its own. It’s more leisurely, with bigger stars and even a hit single in Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” But for all that polish, the twists of the knife are every bit as effective, and Day proves she’s a much more impressive performer than her chipper reputation sometimes suggests.
The Wiz (1978)
Nothing could ever top the 1939 The Wizard of Oz for sheer impact, but the 1978 reimagining (based on the stage musical, which itself took as many cues from the film as from L. Frank Baum’s novels) brought a new energy and a new style to the story. The all-black cast is certainly an important and obvious addition, with Diana Ross matching Judy Garland’s star power as a lead and performer. The change in setting is key as well: by the 1970s, America had become more diverse and less rural. For those of us who didn’t grow up on midwestern farms, this version’s ability to make a fantasy world out of grimy city streets is its own special kind of magic.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Remakes and reboots work best when they unwrap an old premise and examine it in the light of the present day — which is exactly what happens here. The 1956 version, based on the Jack Finney novel, expertly mined cold-war anti-Soviet paranoia for thrills. By the ‘70s, ideas of conspiracy and social isolation were much more dominant in the culture, and this update runs away with those themes. It also adds some genuinely layered performances and a chillier tone, making for an extremely effective sci-fi film, reboot or no.
The Thing (1982)
Directed by golden-age Hollywood giant Howard Hawks, The Thing from Another World was as close to a prestige picture as monster movies got in that era, and spoke to fears of communist infiltration. Fast-forward to 1982, and not much had changed: the Soviet Union was still seen as the biggest threat, and Ronald Reagan had swept away the cynical ‘70s by promising the restoration of an imagined golden age (i.e., the aforementioned 1950s). Into this relentlessly cheerful moment of forced optimism, John Carpenter brought a thoroughly paranoid and gruesome thriller that suggests the threats from without are no greater than the threats from within. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a complete critical and commercial failure. A disaster, really — but one to which time has been incredibly kind.
The 1932 Howard Hawks Scarface was a particularly disreputable gangster classic — ostensibly a story about how crime doesn’t pay, the movie ultimately revels in the exploits of its lead character, played by Paul Muni and loosely based on Al Capone. It inspired dozens of gangster movies along the same lines. Likewise, the ultra-violent 1983 Brian DePalma-helmed remake, for all of its problematic elements, has been at least as influential; it’s widely quoted, and Al Pacino’s Tony Montana has become an unlikely hip-hop icon (and a familiar presence on dorm room walls everywhere).
The Fly (1986)
The Thing wasn’t the only 50s-era sci-fi horror film that got a gory ‘80s remake. The Vincent Price Fly remains a classic of the horror/sci-fi genre that was at its zenith in the 1950; smarter and a little gorier than many of its contemporaries, and even spawning two sequels. Thematically, though, it doesn’t go far beyond the bog-standard lesson that “man mustn’t meddle in god’s handiwork,” which is among the ways in which David Cronenberg’s 1986 reboot excels. Though intended as a more general take on ageing and dying, the timing of its release led viewers to interpret the film through the brutal lens of AIDS, and it takes a great deal of power from that comparison. It’s also a visual triumph, and particularly effective as a squirmy bit of body horror that reminds us to “Be afraid…be very afraid.” …and also a little skeeved by Jeff Goldblum’s Kafka-esque transformation.
Cape Fear (1991)
A taut and delightfully nasty little thriller, the 1962 Cape Fear didn’t really need a remake, but who’s gonna tell Martin Scorsese what he can’t do? He doesn’t hold back, crafting something a little bigger, a little more Hollywood, but every bit as nasty as the original, and probably more memorable. Giving original stars Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck roles in the remake went a long way toward silencing any dissenters.
The Addams Family (1991)
It’s based on the Addams Family cartoons by Charles Addams, but the 1964 TV series solidified these characters in the American consciousness, and that’s what the film is primarily riffing on. This really has no business being as funny and charming as it is, but the killer cast (Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd, Christina Ricci, etc.) sells every minute. There’s also an underlying theme of acceptance — no movie has done a better job of selling the idea that it’s not only OK to be weird; the freaks are having way more fun. (Also: The sequel is even better.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
The 1992 film had a kitschy sort of charm, and would probably be a bit of a cult classic in its own right had it not been superseded by the Sarah Michelle Gellar-led TV series. Over seven seasons, the show balanced comedy, horror, and high school drama long before all of that became a house style for the CW. Joss Whedon has come under some (apparently) well-deserved fire lately for his on-set behaviour, which certainly forces us to look at his work in a different light, but it’s also true that any television show is the product of many artists in front of and behind the camera.
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
The ‘70s show was always the most interesting of the Star Wars-era attempts at television science fiction, but it introduced fascinating themes in the first episode and promptly forgot about them, either because it never got a chance to dive into them or because of the nature of episodic television back in the day. The reboot plays with any number of religious and philosophical themes in a science fiction context and from a humanist perspective. It’s one of the smartest and most ambitious shows in the history of television, even if the name is a little off-putting to some.
It’s hard to imagine an earlier John Waters work being even remotely remake-able: time hasn’t dulled the edges of his ‘70s-era classics of bad taste, so what would be the point? Hairspray (1988), though, was something quite different: without sacrificing his weirdo comedic sensibilities, Waters created a charming and hopeful vision of body positivity and racial harmony that’s as close to cute as he’s ever gotten. This 2007 adaptation of the musical tells a very similar story with bigger stars and incredibly catchy ‘50s-inspired musical numbers. True, John Travolta as Edna Turnblad is no Divine (RIP), but everything else pays worthy tribute to the original… and then some.
Star Trek (2009)
A remake — is it a reboot — of the original Trek TV series, with an entirely new cast filling in for William Shatner and company, having new adventures apart from those we’ve seen on TV. On the other hand, it also features Leonard Nimoy as the Mr. Spock we’d known and loved for almost a half century, trapped in this alternate timeline but providing a link to everything that came before. So it’s simultaneously, and cleverly, a reboot that’s also a straight continuation, wrapped up in a glossy action-movie wrapper. Its success demonstrated the continued relevance of the franchise, and paved the way for the latest generation of shows. Fans are always going to debate the extent to which Star Trek works on film as opposed to TV, but I prefer not having to choose.
True Grit (2010)
It’s very easy forget this is a Coen brothers film, eschewing as it does most of the quirkiness that goes along with that label. Instead, it’s a surprisingly effective and affecting western in the classic sense, balancing real heart with well-earned cynicism, and going a bit deeper and darker than the 1969 original, itself based a Charles Portis novel from the previous year.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Though a popular urban legend insists that Tim Burton made an Apes film back in 2001, we will certainly not be entertaining such nonsense here. Rise, on the other hand, definitely exists, and kicked off a new series by starting back at the beginning, and by jettisoning the twist endings which were such a hallmark of the original films. This one takes its cues not from the classic 1968 Charlton Heston movie, but from the far more political fourth film, Conquest, which saw the rise of revolutionary ape Caesar and nodding toward real-world Black liberation (an allegory as powerful as it is deeply problematic). It’s an origin story kicking off a trilogy that gets darker and more deeply resonant as it goes, buoyed by a stellar motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
After 30 years, George Miller returned to the world of Mad Max with a reboot/continuation that took everything anyone ever loved about the earlier movies further than ever seemed possible. With a stripped down narrative that nonetheless gains deeper resonance from Charlize Theron’s rescue of five unwilling brides, Miller shapes the tropes of the apocalyptic action road movie genre he (almost) created into a work of art as gorgeous as it is brutal.
The 1984 original is a justifiably beloved a classic (the 1989 sequel less so). The 2016 reboot is looser and goofier, for better and for worse, lacking the solid structure that kept the original from ever descending too far into silliness. What it does have is one of the most impressive comedic casts ever assembled. There’s a sense of fun oozing out of every scene and, at least until the obligatory CGI action finale, a light touch that’s much harder to pull off than it seems. For my money, it’s every bit as rewatchable as the original.
Absolutely nothing can match the cultural importance of the 1977 Roots miniseries, which centered the generations-long story of a Black family at a time when only sitcoms were even trying to foreground people of colour. The 2016 version couldn’t possibly have that kind of impact, but giving the stories of continued systemic violence against Black Americans, the timing wasn’t terrible. And it works: impressively acted and with a modern polish that doesn’t detract from the story’s power. Covering much of the same ground, the newer version goes further in focusing on the American family at its centre, spending less time leading white viewers into the story (and avoiding some of the slightly distracting star cameos in the original). There’s a very reasonable debate about the preponderance of slave narratives in film and television and the purpose they serve for white audiences; while both versions of Roots are unflinching in that area, they also go beyond it by engaging with what came before and after.
One Day at a Time (2017-2020)
Though a bit less-well remembered than Norman Lear’s other ‘70s/’80s-era triumphs, One Day at a Time made waves by introducing a divorced (gasp!) protagonist — a single mother raising two daughters — and ran for an impressive nine seasons. The updated version works by updating, rather than reinventing, classic sitcom conventions, and by never sacrificing heart for the sake of a joke. In the best tradition of those classic Lear shows, it tackles mental illness, gender identity issues, homophobia, and the racism faced by the central Cuban-American family. The memorable theme song even gets an upgrade courtesy of Gloria Estefan.
DuckTales (woo-oo!), as a concept, has a far more impressive pedigree than many realise, springing as it does from the work of Scrooge McDuck creator Carl Barks, one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century, and someone who took a workaday assignment on Donald Duck comics as an opportunity to create art. The 2017 update of the ‘80s series doesn’t entirely reinvent the wheel, but it improves on the classic by being funnier, weirder, and quite a bit more ambitious in its storytelling goals.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020)
Without the need to go dark or edgy, and remaining 100% all-ages friendly, the 2018 She-Ra update expands the earlier show’s mythology and builds in long-form storytelling to tell a story that builds to something genuinely epic by the end. It also takes all of the original’s queer coding (intentional or not) and brings it right to the surface, filling the show with heroes and villains of shapes, skin tones, and and body shapes and presenting a world in which heart is what matters most. We have high hopes the Kevin Smith-led reboot of Masters of the Universe can follow suit.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-2020)
Sabrina the Teenage Witch (based, of course, on the Archie comics) was a TGIF classic, running for an impressive seven seasons on two networks and spinning off into books, video games, and an animated series. It was a cute, slightly twisted family sitcom. The 2018 version, on the other hand, maintains the essential premise and even some of the sitcom-ready scenarios while adding human sacrifice, blood ritual, and cannibalism. By playing things a tiny bit more seriously, Chilling becomes a much, much darker comedy with real stakes.
Little Women (2019)
You don’t have to go far to catch an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic, and there’s been a bit of a renaissance over the last few years: a minor film version was released just the year prior, and a rather good BBC miniseries the year before that. Still, Greta Gerwig’s take lands at the top of a crowded field by being as bold as it is loyal to Alcott’s vision. By jumping back and forth in time, the film draws strongly emotional contrasts between childhood and the adult world; and a cleverly ambiguous ending finds a middle ground between the published book’s conclusion and an ending that Alcott, herself no sappy romantic, would have preferred.