There's simply no way to couch this: Hollywood would rather re-upholster


Every day or two the cry goes up in our newsroom or a reporter's e-mail hits the daily editorial log: Yet another remake is in the works.

In the past several weeks we've learned we'll be treated to another "Excalibur," "Yellow Submarine," "Brewster's Millions," "Robin Hood," "Mother's Day," "Sex and the City" and "Barbarella."

Yes, even "Barbarella." I pity the guy with the pen who has to figure out how to reinvent Jane Fonda all over again. Just the way I was stunned when Universal decided to improve upon Audrey Hepburn with another "Charade" and Paramount plodded through an unfortunate phase redoing classics like "Sabrina" and "Four Feathers." (This last already had five previous incarnations, including the masterful 1939 version with Ralph Richardson.)

There's even an idea to update "Random Harvest," one of my favorite films but also one of the most absurd plotwise, what with the heroine (Greer Garson) marrying the same man (Ronald Colman) twice, only he doesn't remember ... "Don't even think about it," was what came to my mind upon hearing about this possibility.

I blame it all on the recession.

Not that companies behind these do-overs think of their efforts as just cost-containment exercises or even strictly speaking as "remakes": Rather, they use the word revamp or re-imagine or re-interpret or even re-upholster. Right now the 1980s is the decade to plumb.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing intrinsically bad about remakes, and the reflex is as old as the (Hollywood) hills, but it does seem that fewer folks get the chance to write anything original anymore.

Of the ones that do, fewer of their scripts are getting made by the big studios. (And the ones that do work are being maniacally milked: We're going to see "Bad Boys 3," "Hancock 2," "Hangover 2" "District 9 -- 2" (Well, something will have to give with the title of this last.)

As for source material, much has shifted in the past quarter-century. Novels used to be the bedrock of movie adaptation because they were the basis of the culture's general education. Practically every best-seller got made into a movie, and some more high-toned works did as well. That's because there was a coterie of studio-based screenwriters with a literary bent, turning out original and adapted scripts at quite a clip: Ben Hecht, Nunnally Johnson, Charles Brackett and Philip Dunne among them.

We had movie versions of potboilers by George M. Cain and romances by Daphne du Maurier as well as pics based on works by Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dreiser, Lewis and Hemingway. Not only were we treated to "A Place in the Sun," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Dodsworth," but even populist fare was oft-transformed into excellent pics: Think "Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Rebecca."

Some remakes are actually better than their originals -- or at least speak to the current generation more persuasively: It's hard to argue with the successive treatments of "Love Affair," leaving aside the Beatty-Bening one but including "Sleepless in Seattle." Or the several versions of "A Star Is Born." Or the star-studded "Oceans" series, which is decidedly more fun than the original.

The companies that dominate the entertainment landscape simply can't afford to make expensive flops, so they have come to rely on branded, easily recognizable, marketable material: the more serializable, sequelizable and starless the better.

Strikingly too, comic books have emerged from kids' bedrooms into the mainstream as the coolest source material for movies. They and their snootier cousins, graphic novels, are now talked about in the same hushed tones that were once reserved for the works of Thomas Pynchon or John Barth.

Who can blame the studios for this tilt toward strips when their concoctions -- from Spider-Man, the Dark Knight and Transformers and now onward to the Green Hornet, the Green Lantern, the Flash, Thor, etc. -- have taken (or likely will take) global audiences by storm. The tyranny of teenage boys at the wickets means that these are the movies with the biggest budgets, the loudest bangs and the most playdates.

It's precisely why Warners is tightening its grip on DC Comics and why Disney decided to fill in a gap in its portfolio by snapping up Marvel Entertainment. The acquisition is more complicated than was the pickup of Pixar, but the trove of unexploited characters is considerable and will likely make the $4 billion price tag seem risible if Disney manages to work its magic on its purchase.

Still, boys (and girls) do grow up, and when they do, some leave their comic books in the garage. A few of them actually become writers -- of original screenplays no less.

Let's hope their lot gets a little easier.
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