‘The book was better!’ was the cry.
You know you’ve said it a million times over. I know I have. And I bet you secretly judge people who tell you they preferred the film/TV adaptation to the book. I know I do.
Of course the age we live in now is such that it is difficult to write a book without it being made into a film; it is difficult to produce a film without it being turned into a computer game; worst of all, computer games have a nasty habit of spawning cinematic abominations with all the substance of a reality TV show for amoebas.
So, do re-makes ever have any value?
It’s tempting to just say ‘no’, but they often do, if they are executed very carefully by someone who appreciates the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium.
For example, Mortal Kombat pretty much defined its particular genre of gaming and to this day continues to be one of the most successful fighting game franchises on the market. Like all good games, Mortal Kombat does have a story, but it’s not really central to the game. And that was okay, because the story wasn’t really the point; it was about the fighting. But when they transferred it over to film and TV… suddenly, it was awful. Mortal Kombat (1995 film) was at best an okay bit of martial-arts escapism; Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was terrible; and don’t even get me started on Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (Mortal Kombat is not for children; they should not try to make it child-friendly).
Let’s take the main bad guy for example: Shao Kahn. In the game he comes from another dimension and wants to take over our dimension. He has a distinctive costume and says the odd catch-phrase while fighting like ‘Bow to me!’ and ‘You will never win!’. He also appears in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation wearing more or less the right outfit and saying most of his catchphrases from the game and… well, that’s about it. He’s as 2d in the film as he was in the game.
He also appeared in the 1998-’99 TV series, Mortal Kombat: Konquest, where he was portrayed by Jeff Meek. His costume was quite different from the games and he made far less use of the recognisable catchphrases but in my opinion, he was also the best thing about this (otherwise unspectacular) show. He had been given a bit of character. He was cunning, paranoid and merciless. He was swift to anger but still had a soft side which came out around his adopted daughter (granted, he still killed her but it was apparent that he regretted it). If only everything about Konquest had been re-made as well as Shao Kahn had been, it might have been a really good TV show. Alas, they still relied a little too much on familiar characters, fight scenes and scantily clad females and I think that ruined it.
I used a game-to-movie as an example because that tends to be where you see the most stark examples of this type of thing but the principle applies to any story you want to transfer from one medium to another: it needs to be altered sufficiently to suit its new medium. Superhero comics, for example, often make for excellent films because the elaborate costumes, fast paced action scenes and super powers tend to look great when there is a well-budgeted special effects team behind it. Of course, even here, a little thought needs to be put into it. You may have noticed that in the X-Men films, they all wear black leather costumes whereas in the comics they tend to wear much brighter outfits. This was a wise decision; could you imagine Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) wearing the tight yellow and blue number he wore in the comics? Not a good look. Nevertheless you walk a tightrope as a film-maker between remaining faithful to the comics (as the fans all want) and making a film which is pleasing to the eye.
To some extent, you don’t have the same problem transferring books to films or TV. The big problem you do have is remaining faithful to the plot and especially maintaining the essence of every character. When reading a novel, we have access not only to what characters do and say but also to their thoughts and feelings; moreover the author will have carefully selected his/her words and will have crafted them in such a way that we gain a very precise understanding of what is going on. You don’t get that in films. Everything has to be made clear visually and there are only so many books that naturally lend themselves to this without ruining it (there’s a reason Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men has been adapted for film so often!). Of course, plot-based novels (especially thrillers) make good films. We tend to forget that the ever-popular James Bond franchise started out as a series of novels (incidentally, I encourage you to read these and tell me which actor the books remind you the most of; I was a little surprised how often I imagined Daniel Craig while reading things like From Russia With Love).
So… is the re-make ever better than the original? I’m a little cautious of making broad general statements but I’ve never yet preferred the re-make of anything to the original. The original is usually written for the medium that suits it best by someone who ought to be an expert in that medium; a playwright writes a play that, in their professional opinion, will work well on stage; a novelist writes a novel that, in their professional opinion, will work well in print; a screenwriter writes a script that, in their professional opinion, will work well on film and so on. When you convert a novel to a film, for example, you’re asking a screenwriter to write for film something that came from the mind of a novelist, originally intended for print. Of course, someone especially skilled in their craft, who cares more about their art than the money they might make, can make a great success of this… but they will also have the wisdom to know when not to attempt it.