Many of us are familiar with the story of Cinderella, the poor orphan girl who is treated like a slave by her step-mother and step-sisters but who eventually becomes the prince’s bride (thanks to a pair of glass slippers from her fairy godmother). Recently, the shelves of public libraries have been flooded with new versions of the Cinderella story, such as Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Cinderella films abound: “Ella Enchanted” starring Anne Hathaway (loosely based on the book of the same name), “Ever After” with Drew Barrymore and Angela Huston, “A Cinderella Story” with Hillary Duff, and more. Cinderella is not the only fairytale making a comeback. Little Red Riding Hood made an appearance recently in “Red Riding Hood,” the “Shrek” film series includes an amalgamation of fairytales, Disney’s “Tangled” revitalizes the story of Rapunzel, ABC’s television series “Once Upon a Time” features a modern twist on many old fairytales… I could go on and on.
The superheroes of DC Comics and Marvel Comics from the early to mid-1900s have also reappeared: Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and so on. Four main superheroes—Great Hulk, Ironman, Thor, and Captain America—have been recast in 21st century roles in the 2012 film “The Avengers,” produced by Marvel Studios. Given the box office returns on many of the superhero films, it’s obvious: Superheroes never truly die, either in film or in the mind of the public.
Mythologies have also come back to life. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have been memorialized in dozens, if not hundreds, of books, poems, and films. Beowulf has been recycled by writers like Michael Crichton (Eaters of the Dead) and brought to the big screen in recent years. Robin Hood’s enduring appeal is attested by the publication of many books from the viewpoints of varying characters from the legends and by the overwhelming number of adaptations to film of the Robin Hood story, most recently a version starring Russell Crowe.
Some people feel that the trend signals laziness: “Well, I can’t find anything original to write about, but I want a sure-fire winner. Hey, I’ll just pull out an old favorite and remake it!” Other people feel that the trend signals the timelessness of these themes and characters: “If classics present universal themes that never truly fade, why let them be forgotten? Revive them for the modern world and let our old favorites shine once again!”
Some people feel that the trend tarnishes the old material: “The old heroes had integrity and the old stories taught values and morals. Now they’re violent, foul-mouthed, and sexualized.” Other people feel that the trend perpetuates the good qualities of the old heroes: “We need these modern interpretations to share the good lessons of the old stories with this generation. Besides, it’s fun to reinterpret an old favorite—to take something familiar to many but to make it original!”
My opinion is a mixture of all of the above concerns and opinions. Part of me feels that the explosion of remakes is a cop-out from those with insurmountable writer’s block; another part of me feels that some of the remakes represent clever interpretations of the old stories, sometimes in spiritually symbolic ways (for example, C. S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces is a masterful and thought-provoking remake of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche and has become one of my all-time favorites). On the one hand, I feel that the material has been degraded by modern grittiness. For example, “The Amazing Spider-Man” was highly entertaining, but Peter Parker’s cocky attitude, vengeful vendetta, and broken promises do not make him much of a hero to me. On the other hand, Captain America (as portrayed by Chris Evans in the film of the same name), while exhibiting human weaknesses, consistently demonstrates humility, self-sacrifice, and honor, even when tempted to misuse his new-found strength.
I admit my own participation in the trend; in the last year, I have drafted a fantasy story that puts a Shakespearean twist on the Cinderella story. It was fun and challenging to try to incorporate the traditional elements (the step-mother, the prince, the glass slippers, etc.) in unexpected ways. In some cases, the functions of the people or objects were completely reversed from their original roles, adding the mystery and suspense. In the end, the story felt less like a remake than an original work, because my plot went far beyond the fairytale.
In the end, my opinion of remakes is simple: If the story challenges the reader/viewer to pursue character and honor, not simply in lip-service but in consistent choice-making, then I applaud it, regardless of whether it is a remake or an original. The truth can never be told too often.