Tuesday, August 14, 2012

'Red Dawn' and retelling stories



Last weekend, the trailer was finally released for Red Dawn, a remake of the 1984 film of the same name. This version has spent a couple of years on MGM’s shelf due to a combination of the studio’s financial woes and the controversy concerning the film’s original villain, China. In the end, the powers that be apparently decided to edit the film and change the invading force to North Korea in order to, as the LA Times put it, stay on China’s “good side” and maintain access to its “lucrative box office.”

The silver lining to this delay, of course, is that a couple of the film’s stars—Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games)—are now household names. And that has the potential to draw a whole generation of fans to Red Dawn who didn’t grow up with the original.

Now, I can hear a good portion of you groan at the thought of another remake. I’ve been known to do the same. Concerns about the surge in remakes—as a sign of Hollywood’s dearth of creativity to its financial greed to milk box office name recognition—have some merit. Indeed, in an economically risky market remakes do seem to have a financial attraction. "When you're going to take a risky bet, you try to look for any advantage -- real or imagined -- you can get," says Variety’s Joe Leydon.

But are remakes in and of themselves really all bad?

Not everyone thinks so. Vic Holtreman, who owns and runs ScreenRant.com, says remakes can actually be good as long as they tend to meet certain criteria, like the original film is “terribly dated in either setting or pacing and style” or it isn’t a beloved classic (like Casablanca or Citizen Kane). And in “In Defense of Movie Remakes” at Time, Jeff Alexander writes:
The modern remake… tends to be less of a remake—with that word’s implication of a word-for-word, shot-for-shot repeat of the original—than an update, an artifact of today’s world, rather than some relic with the top layer of dust blown off. If remakes can be accomplished with insight and imagination, and I believe they can, there’s no reason they shouldn’t exist…. And after all, if a story is worth telling once, it’s worth telling again.
I resonate with this. When a film is updated and remade well, the changes themselves can say something about the story we see ourselves living in today. And like all good stories, how we tweak and change a familiar or old story can point to something significant about ourselves and the world around us.

The original Red Dawn was written and shot in the bleak heart of the Cold War, something my generation all but took for granted would not end well. (And I well remember watching the events unfold that essentially ended that era and can still feel a sense of surrealistic daze.) And while there are more than a few critics out there who have suggested the original is a pro-war blood fest, after you watch those kids shredded both inside and out, I don’t think it is the positive spin they think it is. But watch the original and be your own judge.

Alexander’s words also resonate when it comes to screenwriter Carl Ellsworth, whose screenwriting credits include Red Eye, Disturba (a loose remake of Rear Window) and the remake of Last House on the Left . Early on in Red Dawn’s production, Ellsworth touched on the power of retelling a story in our own time and place in an interview at ShockTillYouDrop:
We're not straying too far from the original story. It's about the Wolverines, a group of kids. And we're doing our best to make these kids realistic and relatable. There are parallels between these kids who become an insurgency and the insurgencies we've had to face in Iraq. . . . I want to explore what could happen, let's talk to some experts and see if this could happen today. Oddly enough, the timing of the remake could really tap into something with what's happening with the world right now.
My husband and I hosted Ellsworth for a few days while he was doing research in Washington, D.C., for Red Dawn and this sounds exactly like him. He has a passion for telling stories that resonate with us here and now. If the changes and tweaks he planned for this story remain in the version we will see in November, they will indeed reveal some interesting things about ourselves and our world today.

And that could bring God-talk into these open spaces.

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