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The Thought Of Buying 'Rewrite' Rights To Classic Black Literature... (A Quick Thought On Remakes)

by Malcolm Woodard
August 20, 2012 4:43 PM
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I figured I'd write something "lighter" as my second S&A piece (my first post, which I made on Friday, titled In Defining 'Quality Black Cinema,' Whose Lens Are You Looking Through?, can be read HERE, along with all the througtful comments that follow).

But humor me for a few minutes please... I just realized something this morning - film and music are the only artistic mediums I can think of that have proven susceptible to remakes!

How often do you hear of any literary piece of work being "remade," or in essence rewritten by another author, and then repackaged and resold either with the original title, or even under a different title? Or when was the last time you heard of a painting, or a sculpture being "remade" or recreated by another painter or sculptor, repackaged and then resold as a new and distinct product - at least legally, unless we're talking forgery, which has no place here? Or how about an old photograph inspiring a contemporary replica.

But, as we all know, a plethora of films since cinema's beginnings have been remade, repackaged and resold to new audiences - audiences that maybe weren't around when the original film was in release - whether with the original title, or a different one.

The same goes for music - and I'm not referring to sampling, but rather entire songs being recreated, repackaged and resold to new audiences.

Imagine if some contemporary author decided that he/she liked James Baldwin's Another Country so much that he/she "bought the rewrite rights" to it (as silly as that might sound), using film industry vernacular, and rewrote the novel, but with some new personal touches, and maybe upgrading the era in which the stories occur. Or what if a painter so in love with Pablo Picasso's work could "option the repainting rights" to it (I grimaced as I typed that), and creates a new rendition of the original, with just enough additions and/or subtractions to distinguish between the original and the "remake," and legally sell it. Or a sculptor, or photographer... and so on, and so forth...

The idea just doesn't make very much sense at all, does it? Yet we seem perfectly content with remaking classic films and treasured songs, even when those recreations are far worse than the originals, and maybe even taint the memory of them.

Another thought/question: I wonder when the first film remake actually happened! What film started the trend? The first ever film to be honored with an upgrade... hmmm... something to research! The first one that comes to mind, only because I was recently reading about it, is Wes Craven's retelling of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 Oscar Winner, The Virgin Spring. Craven's more familiar 1972 version was titled, The Last House on the Left. I'll do some research and come back with another post on this when I have more info. 

Of course these are all rhetorical questions; I did ponder the nature of cinema versus the written word, or still life images on canvas, for example. Film is considered a "low-brow" form of mass-produced entertainment providing higher levels of instant stimulation, allowing even those who can't read to participate and enjoy, compared to literature and the various kinds of fine arts; it easily lends itself to the idea of remakes. I'd guess there's more money in repackaging films than novels; and, Shakespeare and the Bible aside, I don't think most readers would take kindly to the idea of contemporary rewrites/remakes of their favorite literary works. Of course, we have film adaptations of those same literary works, which often face criticism from the "purists," but that's another topic for another post.

But all this to say in short - I wish Hollywood would leave the originals alone, and try some original material! Wishful thinking, I know. It's not a business that's filled with risk-takers.

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  • Tamara | August 23, 2012 10:10 AMReply

    OP said: "Film is considered a "low-brow" form of mass-produced entertainment providing higher levels of instant stimulation, allowing even those who can't read to participate and enjoy, compared to literature and the various kinds of fine arts; it easily lends itself to the idea of remakes. I'd guess there's more money in repackaging films than novels; and, Shakespeare and the Bible aside, I don't think most readers would take kindly to the idea of contemporary rewrites/remakes of their favorite literary works." ---- and therein lies the rub. Two different formats received/perceived differently and of the two, film is definitely more amenable to re-imaginings/packaging (hello sequels!) within the same format, and even in a different format: fan fiction for instance--taking film to print, the inverse of what usually occurs, and re-imagining storylines borne from cinema. Re-imagining/packaging literature would be harder to do, especially if the subject/story is specific. You mention the Bible and Shakespeare; both of those deal in themes that are universal, general even; so much so that kabuki theater or opera or performance art can produce adaptations of Hamlet or David and Goliath, ad nauseum. But to take on something sooo specific, a tale such as The Sound and the Fury and attempt to adapt it into a modern-day novel, for instance, tale in printed form with a slightly different take on the subject matter/plot... eh, can you do it? Can it really be done? (And who would 'want' to do it? Ha!) With that said, Faulkner did borrow from the Bible for Absalom, Absalom...but he 'borrowed from the Bible' which brings my ramblings full circle---('coz the Bible packs universal themes). I do like AKIMBO's example of the book Wicked taken from the book The Wizard of Oz. And I'm sure there are others, too. I'll do some research as well. These forms (film, dance, theater, literature) are all different forms, different beasts unto themselves. And perhaps the 'remake' works so well in film-to-film because of that "instant stimulation" you mention, as well as the mass distribution/availability. And again to AKIMBO's point: sight, sound, reading and comprehending---movies, music, theater, literature... there's a hierarchy. Which of those does the world utilize most for entertainment? Film and Music definitely...ergo, remakes, re-imaginings, "biting", etc. commences and [insert blockbuster flick here] sequel 1, 2, 3 happen. And happen again and again (yeah, I'm looking at you Resident Evil and Land Before Time franchises. lol).

  • julius hollingsworth | August 22, 2012 7:21 AMReply

    I understand what you are saying.But their is a huge market in the art world for re-imagined art work of the masters.The New York Times just did a huge write up on a gentlemen whose making millions off of just such a enterprise.Front page center of the Arts +Leisure section of the paper.

  • JustSaying | August 21, 2012 9:47 AMReply

    Dance is reworked and remade alllllll the time

  • Fred | August 21, 2012 8:35 AMReply

    Film and music are the only artistic mediums to have remakes? Try the theater. Plays are remade all the time. The very fact that they revive plays with different casts in and of itself makes them remakes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with remakes. What's wrong is when an industry becomes dependent on in as a source for ideas. It's also wrong when Hollywood remakes are justified in order to not release the original foreign movie theatrically in a wide release in North American theaters. And considering how many Hollywood remakes there have been of Asian films that have primarily white casts it really is shameful on Hollywood's part.

  • aDawn | August 20, 2012 11:52 PMReply

    "Imitation of Life" comes to mind as an earlier remake than "Virgin Spring"/"Last House." Tho' I'm sure there's probably a few even earlier than that.

  • Gigi Young | August 20, 2012 11:32 PMReply

    Heh heh, isn't Fifty Shades of Grey (love the trilogy though I do) essentially a remake of Twilight? Or the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies type books? If you trawl the interwebs long enough, you'll find fan-fiction ("remakes") based on a lot of very popular novels (like the aforementioned Twilight, as well as Harry Potter). It's somehow seen as a big "no no" though, unless you're writing a parody (and even then, I think authors have successfully sued writers/publishers who produced parodies of their work).

  • Akimbo | August 20, 2012 6:00 PMReply

    I think that maybe be because the written word isn't as easily distinguishable as the sound of someone's voice or the way a certain actor performs a role. No one's going to say, I would love to read E. Lynn Harris literally cover Atlas Shrugged; the words may vary here and there, but the story is the same. A book is about story first, a song about sound, and a movie primarily visual. All that being said, I think Wicked is a good example of a book "remake." There are other remakes and sequels to popular books out there. With a novel you'd have to re-envision or take a totally different twist/perspective on a familiar story to successfully "rewrite" it.

  • BluTopaz | August 20, 2012 5:51 PMReply

    Very interesting points, I get what you mean and never thought about that. Sometimes when literature is re-worked it's meant to be a sociopolitical satire of the original, like The Wind Done Gone vs. Gone With the Wind. Or Erasure vs. Push. But yeah, film remakes have generally become rehashes of established work for youngins. I read somewhere Wes Anderson is doing a frame by frame remake of Psycho--so this will be the second copy of the original. It's like copier machines, the more you copy a document the more faded and washed out the new versions become. Why can't Gen Z just watch the master Hitchcock? And I had no idea Last House on the Left was a remake of The Virgin Spring--talk about adapting work for mainstream audiences, jeesh. And don't get me started on music--my niece asked me if a Grace Jones song was "the new Rihanna joint?" and i had to restrain from strangling her.

  • Akimbo | September 1, 2012 6:05 PM

    I don't see how that makes her a fraud; singers and musicians have ALWAYS covered & performed others' songs. Besides, she took that song and made it sound like it was hers all along. Good for her.

  • troy | September 1, 2012 4:55 PM

    Anita Baker just remade Tyrese 's 'Lately ' some legends are frauds too.

  • Vee | August 20, 2012 5:00 PMReply

    Adaptations of literary works are done all the time, remember Cliff Notes from high school? There are also adaptations released to make them more approachable by younger readers, either in novel or comic book/graphic novel form. There's even a recent series of comic books dedicated to classic African-American literature.

  • SOULWIZE | August 21, 2012 7:05 AM

    In the Publishing Industry they re-package the book with a new, "modern" cover. They did that with Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man", James Baldwin and Alice Walker books -- they even do that with Terry McMillian and her books are pretty contemporary -- although one of her books I recently realized (after looking at the copyright) came out 20 years ago. Literary work is a protected class if you will. But this is a compelling argument. If music and films can be re-made, why can't books? But, the flip side of that is-- aren't books re-made when they are made into movies? I'm also thinking about "Invisible Man"-- which I love and think is brilliant-- and wondering if that were given a modern twist would the new writer, "get it right"? But, I must say after recently checking out's 100 top selling African American books list, it's time for a shift. 90% of the books on that list are 100% the same.

  • MALCOLM WOODARD | August 20, 2012 5:14 PM

    Hi Vee - Cliff Notes are student study guides that explain literary works in pamphlet form or even online. I'm also not talking about "adaptations" but, in the case of novels, "rewrites," just like "remakes" when it comes to films. So Cliff Notes, comics and graphic novels don't apply. I'm talking about someone taking, let's say Richard Wright's "Native Son" and rewriting the whole book today, but adding, and or subtracting parts of it, or rewriting entire chapters, etc, in order to suit the new writer's vision, and then selling that new "rewrite" as a brand new stand alone book of its own, maybe with the exact same title ("Native Son") or a new title the new writer comes up with.

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