Hey Hollywood, Here’s How to Remake a Film!

Certain Someone and I recently watched the terrific remake of True Grit, a classic Western that starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, a washed-up alcoholic marshal engaged by Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) to find Tom Cheney (Jeff Corey), her father’s killer.

Jeff Bridges played Rooster this time around, with Josh Brolin as Cheney.  Hailee Steinfeld was Mattie and Matt Damon played LeBeouf, a Texas Ranger also seeking their quarry (Glen Campbell in the original).

There are several elements to a successful remake that make it worth watching.  This one had them all.

A good story

True Grit has a fantastic hook for a Western –the young girl seeking her father’s killer with the grizzled lawman– and there’s plenty of action to keep a viewer engaged.  It’s also an effective character piece.  The internal conflicts provide motivation.  You can have action by itself, but it’s not going to grab you in the gut unless you care about the people and why they are doing this.

Good writing

You can have the best story in the world and screw it up with bad writing.  Example:  the film Red Dragon, one of my favorite books ever, by Thomas Harris (and if you’ve never read Harris, get your butt to the library now).  Technically, it’s a stand-alone film, but the story was already done by Michael Mann in the 80s, as Manhunter.

Bear with me here, because I need to explain this.

Both films have flaws, but Manhunter is at least watchable, if slick.  Red Dragon was re-written so poorly it made my head hurt.  They both used dialogue from the book and in one scene in both movies, the same bit was used.  I’ll paraphrase here:

Manhunter: Feds Graham (William Peterson—yeaaaah!) and Crawford are privately discussing the Tooth Fairy serial killer.

Graham: “He won’t stop.”

Crawford: “Why not?”

Graham: “Because he’s got a genuine taste for it.”

A Harris original; a straightforward, chilling line.  It tells us much about the Tooth Fairy and Graham also, since he’s best known for his ability to step inside the mind of the monster.  Good choice to keep it in.

Now Red Dragon: Same bit, but transplanted to a police briefing.  Press might have been there too.  I don’t remember.

Graham (Ed Norton this time—meh):  “He won’t stop.”

Some dumb girl in the front row:  “Why not?”

Graham (turns head dramatically):  “BECAUSE HE THINKS HE’S GAAAAAAWWWD.”


I nearly fled the theater.  The only reason I didn’t was Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde, aka the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan in Manhunter).  Fiennes, as all Harry Potter fans know, plays the greatest villains.

Another mistake was taking dialogue and scenes between the Crawford and Graham characters and rearranging them so they now involved Graham and Hannibal Lecter, who has a very small part in the original book and the Mann film.

It was an unsubtle attempt to get more screen time for Anthony Hopkins’ popular version of Lecter (Brian Cox played him in Manhunter). And the conversations between these two did not ring true to either a real life scenario or the characters themselves.

Overall, Red Dragon kept certain entertaining background elements of the book that Manhunter chose to scrap, but it ran like a Chevette traveling a road full of potholes. It would go, and then CLUNK! And go, and then CLUNK!  I still smoked then and spent most of the movie wishing for a cigarette, a sign of extreme boredom.

A good cast

Back to True Grit.  Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin are all good actors.  They know how to give life to their characters.  An iconic performance like Wayne’s is tough for a contemporary actor to overcome.  You need someone who has the ability to play the character his or her own way and still be true to the original.  And they need solid supporting actors.  Hailee Steinfeld shows promise—she was awesome.

Making a remake, not a reboot

Nowhere in this movie did I see any updating.  There was no massive CGI, no snarky modern dialogue from characters dressed in Victorian garb, and no slow motion Matrix-style fighting (can we move on from that already?).

I’ve only seen bits of the original—it always seems to be on when I can’t watch it.  But I’ve heard from people who prefer Wayne that they were at least happy with the newer film.

Since Hollywood is remaking so many classic films (and some not so classic ones), you’d think they would learn some of these things.  I will still exhort them—vigorously—to seek new and original material.  There are plenty of novels that would make terrific films.  If they read a book once in a while, I’d probably go to the movies more often.

Is there a remake out there you like?  Or do you know a book that you’d like to see made into a film?  Feel free to share in the comments.


How to Love Your Nerd

I’m a nerd, and a geek.  So is Certain Someone.  It’s the best time I ever had with anyone.

Most people agree geeks and nerds are kind of the same thing.  They’re not, really, but they share many similarities.

First, they’re usually pretty intelligent.  Second, they tend to like things that aren’t mainstream.  Third, they may or may not be socially awkward.  Sometimes at a sci-fi/fantasy convention, it’s hard to tell.

It is possible to be both a nerd and a geek.  While geek is a term used to label someone with superficial pop culture interests as opposed to more upper-level intellectual pursuits like nerds, just because you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t mean your IQ is in the lower percentile.   You can still be a microbiologist who thinks Buffy kicks ass.

If your family member is a nerd

A brother, sister or even a parent may be a nerd.  In my family, I’m the only person who reads Harry Potter, who gets anything about current video games (except maybe my nephew) and knows who Frodo, Elrond, Glorfindel, and Tom Bombadil are.  I’m still learning about the games, thanks to CS, but new stuff keeps your brain in shape.

If your family member is like me, embrace this person.  Do not try to make her be something she is not.  She thinks fashion is trivial—so what?  Look for other common interests.  Almost everyone has something, even if it’s only making fun of Aunty Myrtle with the hairy mole.

If your child is a nerd

You know it’s always good to encourage your child’s interests, right?  I would kill for a kid that liked science and grew up to work for NASA or the CDC.  Talk about built-in source material! Okay, that’s a writer nerd talking.   But still.

You may have dreamed of a buddy to shoot hoops with, but if your kid is a music nerd who is only interested in the cello, PLEASE don’t make him feel bad for it.  Use this as an opportunity to expand your own horizons.  Ask him something about what he’s interested in.  Kids absolutely love it when they get to tell adults stuff.  And you might learn something from him.

If your spouse / significant other is a nerd

Harry Potter, marine biology, computers; whatever her main interest, it’s not going to be a surprise to you if you married her.  It might even be her career.  She’ll have cool stories.  She can fix your machine.  A brainy chick is sexy.  But you’re smart enough to know that.  Right?

NEVER EVER EVER make fun of her for being intelligent.  It makes you look like a dumbass, which you are if you do this.

Wives / girlfriends, you may not appreciate your nerd’s large collection of Star Wars figures, but if he’s hoarding you have issues I won’t cover here.  All that passion can be channeled toward you if you know how to work it.   Nerds often make fantastic boyfriends / husbands, because they are so damn happy to have someone who really gets them.

If you’re still engaged, be advised.  Never marry a man thinking you’ll change him.  Rough edges can be polished but a nerd will always be a nerd.  Don’t like it? GTFO and leave him to someone who will appreciate him.

Nerd gifts

When nerds have a birthday or Christmas is coming, they usually let you know EXACTLY what they want.  Pay attention to this.  Get the junior telescope or regulation Jedi Master outfit from the website your kid has emailed you 47,000 times.

Don’t buy your nerd something you think he should have, unless your son has completely outgrown his underwear and his face is turning purple from the constriction.  Anyway, underwear makes a lousy gift.  Something practical yet cool will be appreciated, if he hasn’t gotten around to getting it himself.

Accepting a gift from a nerd

If the gift is nerdy, like a paleontology kit from the Nature Store, don’t just pitch it into the closet.  Give it a chance.  Nerds are smart and observant (most of the time) and yours may have noticed a budding interest you mentioned in passing.  You might find you like looking for fossilized dino poo in a box of fake desert.

Nerd manners

Sometimes, your nerd may scoff at something you say or a question you ask.  Kids especially may do this because they haven’t learned how to navigate social situations with grace and tact.  Don’t let him do that.   Make it clear to your nerd that just because you don’t know every little nuance of Starship Troopers and have never heard of Robert Heinlein, that doesn’t mean you are stupid.

Nerds are running the world now.  As Gilbert in Revenge of the Nerds wisely pointed out to the beautiful people, “There are a lot more of us than there are of you.”  Being a nerd isn’t the stigma it once was.  Love your nerd and the rewards will follow!

A Crisis Can Test Your Characters

The huge, lumbering machine of healthcare has let us down yet again.   At work, we switched over to a new insurance company.  Our old insurance was set to expire, and we were supposed to be in the new system with our cards in the mail within two weeks.

You guessed it:  no cards, no policy number, nothing.   And now no insurance.

In today’s economy, paying out of pocket for healthcare is detrimental to most people’s budgets.  I’m lucky; all I’ll be out is a couple of prescriptions and one of them is only $4.00 anyway.  Unless this nasty cold I have turns into something worse, I should be okay.

Whether it’s a health crisis or something else, adversity reveals character.  People who ordinarily are pretty sweet-tempered can lose their minds over a budget snafu or customer service issue.

Your characters are no exception.  How would they react to the following scenarios?

  • Susan’s insurance expired (ha!) and the new healthcare company hasn’t sent her policy number yet.  Both her prescriptions need refilling and her son just fell off his skateboard and broke a wrist.
  • Gary’s mother shows up at his front door, the same day his new internet girlfriend is supposed to visit from out of state.
  • Thomas gets the wrong food order after waiting nearly 45 minutes, and he is late for an important meeting.
  • Nina’s unreasonable boss puts six big fat folders on her desk at 4:50 pm and asks her to stay late, but she has a critical theater audition in an hour.

What they do next will depend on what kind of story you’re writing.  All of these situations are annoying, and at least one has comedy potential.

Take Gary, for example.  He could try to manage the situation by introducing his mother to the girlfriend.  The fact that he barely knows her himself sets him up for another crisis, because she might be a total nutjob.

Or, he could try to hide the two from each other.  Plenty of room for slapstick here.  He better learn something from this.

If characters don’t grow or change, they fall flat.  They trudge through a story while everything happens around them.

  • The character could have an extreme reaction:  external, or internal.  If internal, the other characters might be puzzled by his failure to acknowledge a stressor.  The story conflict could then come from their frustration with him.
  • You’ll have to establish a new trait in order for the character to deal with the crisis.  Someone dropped into a remote wilderness will adapt, or die.
  • If the situation requires heroics, the aftermath can change your character.  Whether for better or worse is your decision.

No one will react rationally to every situation, no matter how self-possessed.  Have some fun with your characters.  Give them more to deal with and you might be surprised at what bravery or cowardice emerges.


Summer is A-Comin’ In

I was going to write that title in Middle English á la Chaucer, but it looked funny.

To kick off my summer, this past weekend I went back to Tucson to see Certain Someone (CS).  We drove up to the top of Mount Lemmon.  Usually this time of year Tucson starts getting pretty toasty.  It’s a dry heat, yes, but still damn hot.  Up around 8000 feet above sea level, there’s a big difference.

Yes, Arizona has mountains.  They are kind of pointy.  They’re not high enough to have a lot of snow, like the Rockies, which I flew over on the way home.  Pretty!


This is a pointy Arizona mountain.

Because they have been shaped by erosion, there is a lot of this going on:


And when you get to the top you’re in Summerhaven, a tiny, unincorporated town with…well, nothing.  But it sure is pretty.  When you brave the winding mountain roads, you’re rewarded with this:

There’s a lot of dust in Arizona, and it likes to fly around in the wind.  If you drive south and west of Tucson over more pointy mountains, you’ll come to Old Tucson and the Desert Museum.  You can walk around outside and look at plants and a few animals, and some neat exhibits in the buildings.  I got a great long-distance view of some dust storms from there:

In the desert live many different animals like this burrowing owl.  A ground dweller, the owl eats insects and small rodents and is active during the day.  He likes to hunt mostly at dusk and dawn, when it’s cooler.  Who could blame him?


Javelinas (say hav-eh-LEE-nuhs), closely related to peccaries (a kind of wild pig relative), also hang out here.  The museum has a few and apparently they know what to do with a 98-degree afternoon.


Sleep under a bridge, of course!


Cacti are everywhere in Arizona.  The common prickly pear can be seen all over Tucson, and it comes in more than just green.



The saguaro (say SWAH-ro) is the most famous cactus of all.  If you drive into Arizona from California, you will begin to see them dot the landscape, like alien sentinel scouts:


Saguaro – advance guard!


Then they thicken and approach:


Saguaro sentinels – they're everywhere!

And as the second wave crests and recedes, you pass into New Mexico, where they disappear altogether.

They have a flower on top that blooms in May and June.  Elf owls like to live inside them.  If you see a rather large hole in the body of the cactus, chances are some sort of bird has made a home there.


Tall…silent…knobby appendages…yep, they're aliens, all right.


Driving around Tucson, we passed the famous No-Tel Motel.  Yes, it exists!  Look here for a fascinating (and squeamish) Tucson Weekly account of Saxon Burns’ attempt to stay there for a week.


Daily, weekly, monthly rates were posted; don't know about hourly.

I leave you with this cool horse sculpture from the Desert Museum.  There’s a lot to see and do in Tucson, so if you’re passing by that way and get a chance, check out some of the nature there.  The desert isn’t all scrub and scorpions.  (For the record, I haven’t seen one of those yet.)


Y'all come back. HEEEeeeeee!