Hollywood remakes are nothing new. We have seen countless remakes of timeless Disney films, such as Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella and reboots of popular cult TV shows such as Full House or Gilmore Girls. The film Star Is Born has been remade three times since the original in 1937, whilst Little Women has been adapted and remade seven times since the first silent version premiering in 1917.
One obvious reasoning for reboots and remakes is to bring new generations of fans to established stories. Another motivation is profit, as factors such as a returning cast or a continuation of a fan favorite character almost guarantee audience turn-out. In the last decade it would seem that any noteworthy film or TV show from the 20th century has been remade and it therefore raises the question: does Hollywood do so for profit or have all original stories been told? In this case study, I will examine the phenomenon of reboots and remakes, their functionality, and whether or not they are successful in their goals.
Reboots and Remakes
First, one must understand the terminology used in film and TV rejuvenation to explore the motivation behind it. A remake is defined as “a new Motion Picture derived from an existing Motion Picture or its Underlying Material in which substantially the same characters and events as shown in the existing Motion Picture are depicted.” An example of a remake would be Little Women (2019) or Beauty and the Beast (2017). Remakes usually involve different actors and creators, or sometimes a new media (animation to live-action), but will generally stick to the same storyline with potential minor differences.
Reboots do not have an official definition, however, they are recognised in the industry as “a new start to an established fictional universe, work, or series.” They are different from a franchise, prequel, or sequel, as they usually serve as a remake that is substantially different from the original “incarnation.” Marvel is known for such reboots, for example rebooting Spider-Man for the second time since the year 2000, just five years after The Amazing Spider-Man’s release in 2012. Although the inspiration and the universe of Spiderman are the same, the actors and the storyline are different, essentially pretending that the previous films didn’t exist. This makes it different from both sequels as well as remakes. The terminology of reboots, remakes, franchises, and delayed sequels is still very vague within the industry and the conditions for each term are not clear, thus the lines between reboots and remakes can often be blurred.
Hollywood has always been criticised for valuing profit over quality, thus profit as the sole motivation behind remakes and reboots must be considered. It is often said that updating is cheaper than innovating. Rebooting franchises such as Star Wars or Batman could be considered exploitative. They have established market bases and storylines, therefore audience awareness and turnout are almost guaranteed. For instance, Star Wars 7 grossed $2 billion and there is no financial reason why the franchise shouldn’t continue to be rebooted. Franchises such as Batman or Spiderman benefit from a predictable story that is known and loved by a large portion of movie watchers. The star era of Hollywood is considered to be gone, and it matters less how well known the new actors or creators are, as audiences will be hungry to see the new take on these stories and characters.
The same motivation can be seen behind seemingly endless sequels such as the Fast and Furious franchise, that benefit from a returning cast ensemble. Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez have become household names in the Fast and Furious universe, and no matter the reception of the film, audiences will continue to show support for the established characters. The franchise is able to drastically increase the budget with each installment, with the first one having a budget of $38 million and the ninth instalment reaching over $200 million.
Engines for Change
Profit, however, may not be the sole motivation behind Hollywood’s tendency to produce reboots and remakes. One such motivation could be trying to be an engine for change. Many remakes and reboots happen as Hollywood tries to fix its mistakes, such as bad representation, sexism, lack of diversity, etc. For example, many Disney films have been remade with a deeper focus on the female lead characters and their empowerment and decision-making. Disney has an indisputable impact on its target audience. A large number of children in the western-world oriented culture grow up watching Disney films, observing and imitating the behavioural patterns presented in these tales, and absorbing the gender roles and stereotypes. It makes sense for a brand and influential as Disney to remake some of their most classic tales to appeal to a wider range of audiences, by empowering their lead characters and re-imagining the stories with a more diverse cast/characters.
The upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid will star Halle Bailey as Ariel. The director Rob Marshall enthusiastically talked about bringing freshness to the role, while Daveed Diggs added that the remake will give “some more power” to Ariel than the original film. It should be noted, however, that perhaps the biggest change to the role will be the fact, that Halle Bailey is a Black actress. To this day, there had only been one official Black Disney princess: Tiana from The Princess and the Frog in 2009.
Little Mermaid will mark the first remake and a second Disney film overall to have a Black female lead character. As many generations have grown up with Disney’s animated version of Little Mermaid, first premiering in 1989, the new live-action remake will undoubtedly inspire many young black children, and allow them to experience Disney in a completely new way.
Aside from recasting, some remakes focus on a complex and distinct retelling of cult stories. Maleficent (2014) revises the storyline of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty and almost completely redefines its narrative by inserting more complex moral dilemmas into the originally simple narrative. While many remakes tend to retell the same story with minor updates, Maleficent manages to omit some core aspects of the fairytale, resulting in a different outcome and making the main female heroines much less passive than in the original animation. By adding more complexity to the original tale and giving its characters more depth, Maleficent blurs the lines between good and evil, bringing a new perspective to the story and humanising the main villainess in the process. Many would argue that that serves as a much better example of female and human complexity and is thus proving to be more beneficial for new generations, while still regaining the magic of the original tale.
Audiences are a huge driving force behind many reboots. In the last several decades, it has been the norm for fans to share their thoughts and theories on a multitude of online fan forums. They point out gaps in the storylines, discuss their favourite characters and devise backstories. Many fans create what is called fan-fiction, where they write up their own imagined continuation of the story and share it with the rest of the fandom, as oftentimes the original source material has the power to define generations of audiences.
By removing Gene Roddenberry, producer and creator of Star Trek: The Original Series, from the primary focus, the franchise stopped belonging to solely one person, as there was no need for Roddenberry’s approval as a sole creator. The 2009 Star Trek reboot restricted the importance of both Roddenberry and Abrams by not emphasising their creative role. The franchise was then in effect taken out of the hands of the creators and put into the hands of a collective force, thus giving the audiences a sense of responsibility for the franchise and boosting the economy behind it, while giving the fans a sense of communal experience and belonging.
Indisputably, one of the major driving forces behind remakes and reboots is the constant advancement of technology in the film industry. One of the most successful reboots in that sense was the reboot of Planet of the Apes, which was followed by four sequels, two remakes, and a rebooted franchise since the release of the original film in 1968. The rebooted franchise began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), which was intended to serve as an origin film for a whole new franchise. While having a similar premise as some of the previous instalments in the original series, it is not a direct remake. The films employed groundbreaking new visual effects technology, with the main breakthrough being in the advancement of performance capture which allowed for a more realistic portrayal of the apes as well as the environment. The franchise has received high critical acclaim and numerous accolades for its visual effects, as well as substantial financial success. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), the last installment in the reboot trilogy, has grossed a total of $490.7 million worldwide, against a production budget of $150 million. This is a prime example of a reboot done well, where a franchise has taken inspiration from the original series and combined it with new technology and successfully reimagined script. The new reboot has been able to not only attract old fans of the series but also gain a completely brand new audience and fans of science fiction films and blockbusters.
The same purpose can be seen behind reboots such as the Jurassic World franchise, where the story takes place in the same universe while taking advantage of advanced CGI technology. Jurassic World (2015) a sequel/reboot of the original Jurassic Park (1993) series, has gained immense financial success, grossing a worldwide total of $1.670 billion against a production budget of $150 million. With one critic noting that “Jurassic World can’t match the original for sheer inventiveness and impact, but it works in its own right as an entertaining — and visually dazzling — popcorn thriller,” it is clear that new technology can rarely recapture the magic of the original series, but is enough to attract fans and audience and gain profit. In this case, such reboots can be seen as exploitative as well.
While there seem to be enough reasons and motivation for Hollywood to continue to invest in reboots and remakes, the question remains whether they should. Reboots of reboots are becoming the new norm, causing the audience to know exactly what to expect from the film. One could argue that that takes away from the excitement of the overall experience and leaves less room for original new stories to be told. Of course, some remakes such as Disney fairytales, allow audiences to enjoy their beloved stories in a more politically correct and ethical manner, but is that progressive or retroactive? It may seem to some, that Hollywood would rather invest in “fixing” established stories than creating new ones, because, as previously examined, remakes may have a higher likelihood of success.
One should question why there is less content being created that is directly catered to a wider range of characters, such as stories centering on female heroes, BIPOC families, or LGBTQ+ princesses? Would casting a woman in the role of James Bond, an established male character with a male-oriented storyline be better, than writing a script catered to a woman agent? While sometimes remakes are successful in gender swapping or casting diversity, it may seem like a “lazy way out” do so only for the guaranteed profit.
Although the need for nostalgia can often be a powerful force, it is worth asking ourselves if the return of the familiarity is worth ruining the new franchise altogether, as it is rare that anyone is ever able to recapture the magic and essence of what made the original content so special. Although acknowledging past Hollywood mistakes is important, it is also vital for our society to move forward and continue to improve, rather than go back in time and fix something that has already been done. The objectively unsuccessful reboots and remakes such and Ghostbusters (2016) and Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016) prove that works with such longevity are sometimes best left alone if there isn’t a high need for a remake. They say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Hollywood, do you hear that?
Gleiberman, Owen. ‘Charlie’s Angels’ AGAIN? How Reboots of Reboots Became the New Normal. Variety, Aug 7, 2016
Hollands, David. “Toward a New Category of Remake: A First Analysis of the Reboot.” Film Matters 1.3 (2010): 9–13.
Vágnerová, Barbora. ‘Tale as Old as Time:’ Modernization of Gender Roles in Disney Remakes. Master’s thesis. Masaryk University, Faculty of Arts, 2018.