Monday, February 18, 2008

Ripe for a Remake: The Princess Bride

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. When Istanbul woke up yesterday morning from an equally disturbing slumber, she found herself changed into Greenland. And I don’t mean it in jest. Unusual weather (snow itself isn’t unusual here – snowstorms that would make a taun-taun think twice are) such as yesterday’s would compel regular people (read: those without a death wish) to stay in doors, and curl up on the sofa with a warm cup of chocolate and a thick book. Not me, though, I had errands to run, the most important of which was to take in Charlie Wilson’s War and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

I first had to travel halfway across the nival landscape to a friend’s place to feed their cat while they’re away. Not a problem – if I don’t count the half an hour I spent searching for the feline fiend, who, for some reason, had taken to hiding from me. Next, I had to switch my copy of House of Games with a new one as it won’t play on my DVD player. I had to get some food, too – again, no problem. But, by that time, what should have taken me an hour at the most had devoured the better part of my afternoon, and I had no energy left in me to go to the cinema. Thankfully, when I went back home, there were a few films on the telly that I had never seen before. The Princess Bride was one of them.

I only found out about The Princess Bride in the early nineties in Germany – until then I had not even known that it existed. If it had received a theatrical release in Turkey when it first came out, I didn’t know about it, or else cared. When friends started going on about the flick’s apparent awesomeness, my interest was piqued yet I never sought it out either in high school, or at uni, where quoting lines from the movie seemed to be one of the entry criteria (“No, I don’t want a peanut, but would you like a slap”). By the time I read about the film in William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, it felt like I knew everything there was to know about it – the story, the jokes, the behind the scenes fun, the grosses, everything. So when I saw that the film was on yesterday, it was a great way to see what all the fuss was about without, literally, leaving the sofa (besides, the other option was The Doors, and I had no time to wallow in that mire).

It’s a good film, and I did like it. It has a quaint innocence that’s underscored by world weary sarcasm (the parachronistic gags are perhaps running commentary inserted by the Grandfather) – the charm comes from the way Rob Reiner devotes equal attention to both the fairy tale aspect and the comedy. As in This is Spinal Tap, the spoof never overshadows the story. It’s a nice little treat, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. Nonetheless, the film left me wanting – it would be unfair to call the production half-baked, but the film seemed to lack that final oomph, and the biggest reason was the way it was telling a much grander story than the one that had ended up on the screen. The visuals did not reflect the magnificence. Now what I am about to say will come as anathema, as blasphemy, to many of the film’s fans. But once they break the onerous shackles of nostalgia, even they would see that the film has summer blockbuster, maybe even franchise, written all over it. It’s a fine film, sure, but it has the potential to be so much more. The answer is simple: The Princess Bride simply must be remade.

I don’t believe that re-makes are intrinsically pestiferious. Nor are they – or sequels – commensurate with whore’s movies, as William Goldman argues in his typically irascible tone in many of his writings (David Bordwell has an excellent discussion on the history and merits of movie sequels here). The re-interpretation of an already-existing (and, at times, much lauded) work of art is not unique to American cinema. The practice is as old as human civilization itself, and encompasses all art. The Odyssey owes as much to the Epic of Gilgamesh as it does to the ancient tales of Asia Minor and Greece – in turn, Gilgamesh itself can be seen as the retelling of the Akkadian Atra-Hasis and the Sumerian Eridu-Genesis legends, both of which form the basis of all deluge myths. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Goethe’s Faust are more modern examples. In Verrochio’s workshop where he was educated, not just Leonardo Da Vinci, but Boticelli and Perugino as well, were asked to do reinterpretations of existing works. In fact, reimaginings of classical themes and scenes form the basis of much of Renaissance art. Albeit less common, remakes can be found in contemporary painting, too: Last year’s Picasso exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art “included instances of American artists remaking, as new versions, particular works by Pablo Picasso, quoting passages of his paintings, or mimicking his style.” Covers are a dime a dozen in modern music, but keen listeners of Beethoven’s early work would find themes similar to Mozart, too. To quote from the aforementioned Picasso exhibit’s website, “a remake — by adapting, displacing, or just feeding off another film — not only generates something different and new, it reveals peculiarities of the original that we wouldn't otherwise see. Whether it is an homage or a travesty, a remake can be faithful to the original in changing it — or it can betray the original by imitating it.” In fact, as Matthew Gurewitsch wrote in the New York Times on April 4, 1999, and as today’s word of the day mailing from Dictionary.Com appropriately brings to my attention, “However we choose to define a classic, a sine qua non is that the material lend itself to reinterpretation in the light of changing circumstances.” So it can even be said that a classic is not truly a classic unless it can be (or is) reinterpreted.

Which brings us to why The Princess Bride needs to be remade. As I said earlier, the story is much more majestic than the film itself does it justice. It’s supposed to be a fairy tale, a grand adventure through many lands, an Odyssey of sorts, yet it feels like it was filmed in the emerald hills while the shepherds were keeping the flocks of sheep at bay – which they probably were. The scenery doesn’t have a commanding presence – and it should as this is a fairy tale, and the scenery is one of the most important parts of the story. Try to imagine the Lord of the Rings films without thinking of New Zealand…See, you can’t! The cliffs of insanity are not at all imposing, the soundstage where Westley duels Inigo too obviously a soundstage, the Prince’s castle, and its interiors, totally underwhelming. And the less talk about the risible sequences with the eels and the giant rats the better. Yet it’s not just what is lacking in the film that makes it deserving of a remake, but what’s already in it, too. The tongue in cheek, at times wonderfully meta humour, is currently very much a part of the pop culture zeitgeist. Just as getting involved in a land war in Asia is a bad idea still, so were swashbuckling action-adventure movies until a few years ago when Pirates of the Caribbean obliterated that particular axiom with panache.

Now imagine this. A visionary director, like Guillermo Del Toro, say, helming a page one remake of the story. While they keep what is great about the film – the characters, the humour, the heart – they completely overhaul the rest of the film. I am not just talking about better effects, which would be instrumental, but a rebuilding of the story from the ground up – a more fleshed out story, more formidable sets, luscious locations, new designs, etc.[1] The fact is The Princess Bride, however great it is, can be much better. They have the technology. They can re build it.

No – they SHOULD rebuild it. They owe it to the story.

[1] In fact, just as the original film is told as a bedtime story by the grandfather, this new version could be the director pitching the remake itself to an at-first oblivious studio exec. How’s that for meta!


Anonymous said...

RE: your reasons for remaking TPB...If you were talking about some other movie, I could totally understand where you're coming from. But in the case of TPB, I've always felt like the things you see as detriments actually *add* to what I think they're trying to acheive artistically.

I'm not gonna pretend that I know the motivations of the creators of the film (or of the book it's based on), but I always saw it as a balance between mockery of, and faithfulness to, the cliches/traditions of a certain storytelling genre. The "fairy tale fantasy" equivalent of Young Frankenstein, which poked fun at monster-movie tropes, but still made you care about the characters.

There's a satirical tone throughout the story that seems to be toying with our expectations of what a fairy tale should/can be like. (Anachronistic dialogue, the Igor-like assistant with the creepy voice who then clears his throat to reveal a completely normal tone, a hero who dies before the story's even over...)

Yes, it was afforded a less-than-spectacular budget, and I don't know whether it was by design or a necessity. But I think that's a large part of its off-kilter charm. It's part of the joke. It's not *supposed* to be a grand, sweeping epic. (This is made even more explicit in the original novel, which claims to be William Goldman's "abridgement" of S. Morgenstern's original story. In fact, Goldman invented the whole thing, and just used the whole authorship joke as a way of saying that these stories can be great, but that the greatness is often buried under boring passages, ridiculous dialogue, etc.)

As I said, there's also moments of faithfulness to the genre cliches. Among the jokes, they make it clear that at the end of the day, we *should* still believe that Love Conquers All, Good is Greater than Evil, etc. It's a movie for people who can laugh at the silliness at the same time that deep down, they actually *believe* in it.

What makes the movie so great (for me, anyway) is that the balance between jokes and belief is so perfectly calibrated. Somehow, the surface layer of mockery actually strengthens those moments of honest feelings that peek out from beneath. If someone tried to remake the film with the changes you suggested, I think it would be problematic for two reasons: it would upset the delicious balance of satire & love-letter, and by throwing off the balance, it would then diminish the impact that's in those more honest moments.

Just my 0.02.

Ali Arikan said...

Hey Jack,

I see what you mean. But my reasoning for a remake is more in line with a total overhaul of the story to turn it into a tongue-in-cheek blockbuster. There's a big chance, as you say, that such a change would have a detrimental effect on the original's more cunning aspects (such as the satire/fairy tale balance), but, for that, there could always be the original.

Thanks for your comments, and I must say again that you do make a good point.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ali: Good argument. And here’s the good news: recently “The Princess Bride” was remade with a grander presentation and more stunning special effects. It was called “Stardust.” And I quite enjoyed it. But not as much as “The Princess Bride.” In reviewing “Stardust” I noted that both it and “PTB” don’t take themselves too seriously, and that – unlike “TPB” – “Stardust” doesn’t put much effort into even that. Budget aside, I’d argue that “TPB” aimed for its low-budget look. The smoking gun for me comes in the scene where the masked Westley meets Inigo Montoya for their duel: at one point, Westley makes an acrobat’s spin around what is quite simply a piece of gymnast’s apparatus – a bar not disguised as anything other than something for the hero to swing around on. Certainly they had budget enough to be less obvious there, if that was actually their intent.

In any case, the movie endures because of its writing (hence all those well-known quotes), so now you come to the dilemma of whether to stick with the dialogue that has worked thus far or to reimagine it, at which point you’re taking away the very heart of the thing “TBP” fans seem to hold most dear. As a way of evaluating whether it would work, you might want to compare it to another beloved movie made on a low budget with unforgettable dialogue: “Casablanca.” An argument could be made that “Casablanca” deserves to be remade as well. But if you’re going all that way as an excuse to, well, play it again, Sam (and, yes, I know that line wasn’t actually in the movie), and dust off the original dialogue unchanged, what’s the point? If the words are the heart of the movie, then there’s really no reason to rewrap the gift with shinier paper and ribbons.

There are multiple ways of looking at this. Your stance is certainly valid, and I’m with you that remakes shouldn’t be considered sacrilegious as a whole. But I wonder if it would work in this case. Fun to think about though! Good post!

Ali Arikan said...

Hey Jason - They remade Casablanca as Havana, not to mention that early 80's TV show, too! Yikes!

I wanted to work Stardust into my argument but I haven't seen it yet, so lacked the first hand knowledge.

It might be that my entire argument centres around a desire to see a bigger presentation of the material. But you are right, of course - such increase in scale and scope culd very easily drown out the writing...

Anonymous said...

How's this for a "remake"?:

Ali Arikan said...