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.
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.