Watch and repeat

Hollywood studios continue to reel in moviegoers by repackaging movies from the past.

What do Cary Grant, Mark Wahlberg, Audrey Hepburn, and Thandie Newton have in common? They've all starred in the same movie.

Well, almost.

Next month's "The Truth About Charlie," a remake of the 1963 classic "Charade," features Mr. Wahlberg and Ms. Newton trying to re-enact the rarified charm of Grant and Hepburn.

Several other films this fall will also tell familiar stories using modern faces, starting with today's debut of "The Four Feathers," about the British colonization of Sudan. Later this fall, remakes of the 1974 Italian movie "Swept Away" starring Madonna, a retelling of "Tuck Everlasting," and "Treasure Planet" – "Treasure Island" set in space – will try to woo new audiences or stir a sense of nostalgia using stories that have successful track records.

While film buffs may cringe at the heresy of any one trying to step into Audrey Hepburn's Givenchy heels, studios see remakes as a smart business decision. They have a ready-made story that's already proved it can attract an audience.

"There has always been a reworking of the classics. If it works once, it might work twice," says Les Friedman, a film lecturer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The irony is, that it almost never does as well as the first release, he says.

And remakes can come with a stigma that filmmakers lack originality. As a result, some try to downplay the original film – as in the case of next month's "Red Dragon," the prequel to "Silence of the Lambs," originally filmed as 1986's "Manhunter."

What's new this year is the surge of remakes debuting in the fall, a time of year when studios present their more intelligent fare, says Paul Dergarabedian, head of Exhibitor Relations in Encino, Calif. That may indicate the coming remakes are more thoughtful or character-driven than usual.

It might also portend a conservative era of filmmaking, says Mr. Friedman.

"One of the reasons you make remakes is that you're searching for something comfortable and well known. That might be what people want now," he says.

Or it's at least that's what movie studios may want. Friedman adds that it's not a paucity of imagination, but Hollywood's fear of taking a risk and losing money that often drives remakes.

"[Studios] are putting out products like McDonald's – fast-food movies," says John Murphy host of "The Movie World Radio Show" in Los Angeles. "It's easier to go back to an older hit."

Love stories and comedies tend to be remade the most. Audiences love happy endings. The attraction is one of familiarity and comfort.

Hollywood knows this and produces a steady stream of remakes each year.

Though profit is a primary factor, there are other reasons films get remade.

Sometimes modern special effects enable an old story to be told more effectively, says Sandy Camargo, a film instructor at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

The special effects possible today helped Peter Jackson vividly re-create Middle Earth in his first installment of "Lord of the Rings," which won four Oscars. The first version of Tolkien's classic was actually a 1978 animated film.

Another advantage of retelling stories is that sometimes filmmakers can probe issues of race or sexuality because a political climate has changed. Adding modern-day star power can also be a way to introduce a good story to younger audiences who have never seen the original.

Fifth time's the charm?

Paramount is hoping the fifth release of "Four Feathers," will speak to today's audience. Heath Ledger (see interview, this page) stars as a British officer who resigns from his post. His fiancée and three military friends send him four white feathers as a symbol for cowardice.

"When you look at it from today's point of view, it's an act of great courage to say, 'No, I'm not going to war,' " says director Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth").

The best well-known version of "The Four Feathers," made in 1939, connected with audiences just as World War II was brewing.

Mr. Kapur says that he doesn't approach his film as a remake, because he tried to take a colonial story and make it anticolonial. "I didn't read the book, and I only saw the shorter [film] version," he says.

He acknowledges a risk that modern filmmakers run with remakes: People already know, and love, the original. "People get upset with me. People are such fans of the book, and such fans of the old story."

Even with modern touches, a remade film doesn't always resonate with new audiences. "To make the same film speak to a contemporary audience, you have to twist it – and perhaps what you're left with is the bare bones," Friedman says.

Overhauled films tend to lose luster the second, third, or fourth time around and are less rich thematically. Remember last year's remake of "Planet of the Apes," "Sabrina" with Harrison Ford, "Vanilla Sky," with Tom Cruise, or even "Psycho," where every Hitchcock scene was Xeroxed by director Gus Van Sant?

While some moviegoers may long for the nuances of an original film, Hollywood's primary audience – teenage boys – probably is unaware that anything is lacking.

"These movies may be old hat to you and me, but they're brand new to most 14-year-olds who have no knowledge of film history," says John Blumenthal, an author and screenwriter in Los Angeles.

"Mr. Deeds," for instance, released earlier this year and starring Adam Sandler, is a third remake. The film "destroyed the charm, wit, and nuance of 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' " made in 1936 and starring Gary Cooper, says Mr. Murphy, who adds that most of its target audience probably didn't know it was a remake.

But perhaps our expectations for cinema are too high to begin with, says Camargo. "We [want] cinema to be a more original art than it's ever been," she says.

Filmmakers haven't taken significant risks or adopted new modes of storytelling since Hollywood's "golden era" of cinema in the 1970s, she says.

"Throughout its history, cinema has been derivative – adapting a play, a story, remaking movies."

Indeed, even the Bard himself may have rewritten stories. Many scholars believe "Hamlet" is based on a 12th-century tale.

Improving on the original

Sometimes there are good reasons to remake a film. "A remake is not always a sign of failure of imagination," Camargo says.

She points to Michael Almereyda's modern-day portrayal of "Hamlet" (2000) living in New York, as an example of a classic story with an imaginative, relevant spin. "Romeo and Juliet" (1996) with Leonardo DiCaprio and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978) with Donald Sutherland are also examples of good remakes.

The most recent remake that outdid the original was last year's "Ocean's 11," with George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

A new film might even inspire young audiences to see the original version, some optimistic observers say.

"The advantage of remakes," says Mr. Murphy. "is that the story gets to be told, like Shakespeare. The work has a continued life and is exposed to a new generation of audiences...."

In addition to good storytelling, the key to producing a successful remake is time.

"You need historical distance from the film you're remaking – [the audience] can't have it firmly in mind," Friedman says. "It takes at least 20 to 25 years to have a successful remake."

But there are still some movies that filmmakers won't go near. Producers have yet to revamp classics like "Casablanca" and "Gone With The Wind." (You can almost hear film purists shuddering at the thought!)

How long they hold out remains to be seen. Eventually, every good story will be retold, Murphy says. "Even 'When Harry Met Sally' ... Before 2010, they will reproduce that same story ... with a different spin."

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