Rules for Movie Remakes

Movie remakes are inevitable.  And inevitably, many movie remakes are bad.  As evident by Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 hit Psycho. This film is on several lists as one of the worst movie remakes of all time.

Psycho 1960 vs. 1998
Psycho 1960 vs. 1998

So, how can bad remakes be avoided? I have come up with some rules that may help.

Rule #1: Allow at least 30 years to pass before remaking a film. This amount of time allows for a generational shift in the audience and for movie technology to advance enough to help the remake seem fresh.

Examples of good remakes:

The Champ (original in 1931 by King Vidor, remade in 1979 by Franco Zefferilli) 48 years difference.

Father of the Bride (original in 1950 by Vincente Minnelli, remade in 1991 by Charles Shyer) 41 years difference,

12 Angry Men (original in 1957 by Sidney Lumet, remade in 1997 by William Friedkin) 40 years difference.

12 Angry Men
12 Angry Men

Ocean’s Eleven (original 1960 by Lewis Milestone, remade in 2001 by Steven Soderbergh) 41 years difference

Examples of films remade too soon:

The In-Laws (original in 1979 by Arthur Hiller, remade in 2003 by Andrew Fleming) 24 years difference.

Irma La Douce (original 1963 by Billy Wilder, remade in 1972 by Paul Paviot) 9 years difference.

The Getaway (original in 1972 by Sam Peckinpah, remade in 1994 by Rodger Donaldson) 22 years difference.

Rule #2: Remakes made by the original director tend to be good. Alfred Hitchcock remade The Man That Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956).

Rio Bravo - Rio Lobo
Rio Bravo – Rio Lobo

Howard Hawks remade Rio Bravo (1959) into Rio Lobo (1970).




And Cecil B. DeMille remade The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956). In my estimation these are examples of good or great films that were equally good as remakes.

Rule #3: Average to poor directors should not remake a film by a master director. In 1986 Ted Post remade John Ford’s classic 1939 western Stagecoach. The Defiant Ones, originally made by Stanley Kramer in 1958 was remade in 1986 as a TV movie by David Lowell Rich. And Tom Laughlin’s 1977 Billy Jack Goes to Washington was a remake of Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Billy Jack vs. Jimmy Stewart?

How can Tom Laughlin as a director compare in any way to Frank Capra? And can Billy Jack be compared at all to James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith? I don’t think so.

Rule #4: Remade foreign films tend to be good. In my opinion some of the best English language films are remakes of good foreign films. Two of my favorite westerns are remakes of Akira Kurosawa films. Seven Samurai (1954) was remade into The Magnificent Seven (1960). Yojimbo (1961) was remade into A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Seven Samurai vs. The Magnificent Seven
Seven Samurai – The Magnificent Seven

Other examples of good remakes of foreign films are: La Cage aux Folles (1978 Molinaro) was remade into The Birdcage in 1996 by Mike Nichols, Infernal Affairs (2002 Wai Keung Lau & Siu Fai Mak) was remade into The Departed in 2006 by Martin Scorsese, and Viktor und Viktoria (1933 Schunzel) was remade into Victor/Victoria in 1982 by Blake Edwards.

Some film buffs would argue with me that many original foreign films are much better than the remakes. I will not argue that point. I merely say that the English language remakes can be very good films and bring millions of English speaking people to these exceptional stories.


Special Adam Sandler Exception to Rule #1:   Do not do a remake with Adam Sandler. The Longest Yard (2005 vs. 1974) and Mr. Deeds, the 2002 remake of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), are dreadful. It does not matter the there was 31 years and 66 years respectively between the original and the remakes, Adam Sandler does not compare as an actor with Burt Reynolds, much less Gary Cooper.

Gary Cooper vs. Adam Sandler?
Gary Cooper vs. Adam Sandler?


By the way, Adam, I loved you in Spanglish (2004-not a remake).

Special Musical Exception to Rule #1: Musicals can be remade at any time as long as the music is still well done.

Special Reboot Exception to Rule #1: Reboots of franchises can be done well at any time. Think Spiderman, The Karate Kid, Superman and James Bond movies.

Special Genre Shift Exception to all of the above rules: If a movie remake is so different from the original that it actually shifts genre then you have such a different movie that it actual is not a remake. Can you really compare Stanley Kramer’s 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with the 2005 remake Guess Who (Kevin Rodney Sullivan)? The first is drama about race relations, made just one year after the King assignation, starring Spencer Tracey, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier.   The other is an enjoyable, if basic, comedy starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher that uses race as a punch line.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - Guess Who
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Guess Who

Special Actor Exception to Rule #1: The quality of the actor(s) involved in a remake can trump Rule #1. Cape Fear was originally made in 1962 by J Lee Thompson, starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. Just 29 years later (1991) Martin Scorsese remade the film with Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro. Who could argue that the cast of the later film did not provide as gripping of performances as the original cast?

Another example is the 1986 Frank Oz remake of Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The original is considered a classic, and Jack Nicholson was in the cast.   The remake was just 26 years after the original but, just look at the cast: Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, James Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest and Bill Murray! How could this not be a good remake? Technically the Genre Shift Exception noted above would apply because the remake was a musical. But I think I have still made my point.

I think that if directors used the above rules in selecting possible remakes then we would all, as movie fans, be better served.