When Do Remakes Go Too Far?
This is a question that, like many in the subjective domain of art, has no simple answer: “When do remakes go too far?” By what metrics do we determine when they veer too off course from their respective source material? Where are the lines drawn, if any, when setting out to recreate an iconic work and how do we constitute the terms of said boundaries? Chances are, if you ask a hundred different people, no two responses will be exactly alike.
As vigilantly as some consumers & critics try to be impartial, ultimately, there’s realistically no way for even the most experienced film “veterans” or “experts” to set & enforce a universal standard for 100% objectivity. In the words of World War Z author Max Brooks, “That’s not stupidity or weakness, that’s just human nature.” So, how then do we approach this topic?
My answer is: VERY carefully and with as transparent of a balance between objectivity vs. anecdotal bias as possible. For this discussion, we will use the upcoming Pet Sematary remake as an example (Major spoilers ahead). I will admit up front that this is one of my all-time favorite Stephen King stories. The 1989 film is also one of my favorite King adaptations as well as the first I ever saw that genuinely frightened and unnerved me growing up.
I still remember how disturbed my young self was at specific moments in this admittedly dated but still quality classic. I remember struggling to get through certain scenes, fighting the bubbling temptation to look away or turn it off. I remember shivering at the undead Timmy Baterman flashback, Louis Creed’s surreal supernatural hallucination while journeying to bury Gage at the cemetery, and Victor Pascow’s jump-scare of grabbing Creed’s hand to give him a dying prophetic warning. I remember Andrew Hubatsek’s freaky portrayal of Zelda making Rachel relive her childhood nightmares and the grotesquery of little evil Gage killing Jud Crandall.
Before you ask, OF COURSE, I remember the morbidly catchy credits theme by The Ramones that I still dance to a bit (okay, you got me, it’s on my Halloween favorites playlist). Yes, there are flaws that have gradually drawn more attention over the years once nostalgia wanes. One obvious example is poor young Blaze Berdahl’s melodramatic crocodile tears and at times flat out annoying acting, being upstaged throughout by her tragically adorable sibling performed to immortal recognition by former child horror icon Miko Hughes.
All the same, it remains apparent that Director Dennis Widmyer’s adaptation of the chilling tale which proves that “sometimes dead is better” has its work cut out for it. I recently watched the newest trailer for Widmyer’s new take on King’s work and, suffice it to say, had some strong opinions afterward that I felt could benefit from an outlet to articulate them. I was most taken aback by a particular major deviation from both the novel and ’89 film. If you are familiar with the story but don’t already know about the remake’s changes, you can see for yourself below:
Pet Sematary (2019) – Trailer 2 – Paramount Pictures
Today, I will flesh out my reactions to these minor and major changes in the remake while addressing common but often misguided defenses I hear when debating similar subjects in film. My purpose for combining personal views & impartial observations of the movie itself with plentifully uttered arguments attributed to the general climate is to bring to light how close the relationship between the two can be in the context of influence upon remake “culture” (for lack of a better term). As we progress, I will point out where and how the two coincide.
I will be as fair as possible but unapologetically frank in conveying my views on the matter. Let it be known that at NO point do I say anything with intended malice, venom, condescension, or disrespect. I am merely treating my readers with the respect they deserve as adults and speaking my mind in uncensored honesty. With that in mind, let’s begin this dissection of discourse.
“It’s a remake, of course they’ll change things to have twists on familiar aspects. Would you rather have a copy/paste of the original?”
The biggest chink in this rather standard argument’s armor is its predication upon the assumption that what the majority ask for in the first place regarding any remake is the original done all over again. It is true, as I’ve said before, that there would be little-to-no creative point in recreating anything if the new version took no risks and attempted a beat-for-beat reenactment of its predecessor. In most cases, I am generally open to twists on familiar elements.
This is one point of positivity I held toward the 2017 adaptation of IT, for changing the Losers Club’s childhood battle against Pennywise from its 1950’s setting to the summer of ‘89. It served as a safe opening to utilize the year 2016 for the characters’ return to Derry as adults 27 years later, which would be much easier and more relatable to modern audiences.
It saves the trouble of having to craft a series of both 50’s & 80’s era sets with period-appropriate costumes, dialogue, and social/cultural issues. This change does not impact the story except largely at a surface level since no defining traits of the characters or plot are dependent upon the exact year in which they’re set.
It does not affect the dynamic of the cast nearly as much as, say, changing Ben Hanscom to the nerdy historian of the Losers who spends most of his time at the library in favor of Mike Hanlon. This did fundamentally alter the group’s relationships & contributions because it left Mike as a mostly different character altogether with much less to offer as an individual outside his knowledge of the cattle gun. This is where changing established material gets tricky.
One of the first things to ask when developing a recreation is “Can it be made better? If so, in what ways?” The answer is that even the best of the best can almost always improve somewhere. That said, there is a significant difference between changing miscellaneous or superficial details vs. one of the most well known critical turning points that progress the overarching conflict. The change I’m speaking of about 2019’s Pet Sematary is such a case. As with anything in entertainment, there comes a point where one must ask, “How much is enough?”
I am NOT against changes that help the current version stand apart but not all changes are equal, necessary, or for the better. Considering how many King adaptations & remakes in general have historically fallen short, distrust is to an extent justified. This is why it’s crucial as a creator to back up the changes you’re making and substantiate how they can add to what was already quality. As is too often the case though, another point I’ve brought up in the past is how consistently slow society seems to be in learning when to leave good things ALONE.
“Maybe they just didn’t want to kill off a two-year-old for the remake? Why is it so important that you see something so horrible?”
If this were genuinely the catalyst for the change, I would counter that that’s a poor decision made by over-sensitive creators pressured by gutless executives prioritizing profit over substance, to avoid riling up a too easily offended modern generation. Has that possibility been considered? If not, then perhaps it is not those like me who argue against the change but those who defend it that could benefit from a little healthy self-reflection.
I’m sorry to break this to you, folks, but part of what makes quality horror is and always has been tragedy. There is no greater fear for a parent than outliving their child but that’s a sad reality. However young or innocent a child may be, that does not make them exempt from the universe’s cruelties. Death does NOT discriminate, and it does not help anybody to downplay or in some cases outright censor it from entertainment. This is a necessary theme Pet Sematary stands out for being bold enough to explore in the ways that it does.
Stephen King’s Pet Sematary- Gage’s Death
The fear of losing that soul, that light with so much potential that you helped bring into this world and how far you’re willing to go into the abyss for a chance to bring it back is the backbone of what makes the story compelling & relatable. This is why Gage dies of all characters dies because his character is the epitome of that purity. Being the youngest Creed, a mostly blank canvas yet to develop an understanding of the world around him, perfectly serves the theme of lost innocence in context of how the message hits home. There’s a reason many still consider this King’s darkest tale, which is fundamentally why it works.
This loss is not only important as the trigger that sends Louis over the edge, drives home how unfair the situation is, and tempts him to use the cemetery’s power. It also impacts the reader/viewer in ways that only the death of one so young could because that age difference does matter in how deeply many people as parents would have their hearts ripped out.
This is not to say or imply by any means that killing off sweet eight year old Ellie instead of Gage wouldn’t be soul-shattering in its own right. But I think it’s fair to point out another harsh truth that, as much as some may deny it, all child deaths in film or reality are not taken equally.
If you hypothetically asked yourself with no sugar coating which is sadder, hearing about a tragedy on the news that killed a baby or a teenager, can you honestly say with certainty that one wouldn’t make you want to cry just a tiny bit harder than the other? If so, then it is with no joy or ego that I rest my case.
There is no shame in admitting this. It doesn’t make you a bad or less caring person. Again, it makes you human and demonstrates the range in strength of that primal parental instinct most carry in wanting to protect/nurture a younger life in comparison to an older one. Your child is ALWAYS your child regardless of age but differences in age-range do influence perception.
My point is not to debate or suggest that one life inherently holds more value than another, as such a quandary is far more complex than a number. I’m only arguing that switching out this loss in Pet Sematary’s context for another character, especially an older one, will inevitably change its impact. One would think it should go without saying that I don’t wish to see any child (fictional or not) die because I take some satisfaction from it. On the contrary, it’s a subject I’ve quite often struggled with in any medium.
‘89’s Pet Sematary features some of the most heart-wrenching moments in my history with horror, from that small bloody shoe bouncing in the road to the tear-jerker of Louis cradling his boy’s corpse after digging him up. Finally, there’s the unholy cruelty of being forced to kill his own son for a second time in order to end his rampage. To this day, I still get misty-eyed at the poor little Frankenstein’s monster letting out that last pathetic cry.
Cult Horror Movie Scene – Pet Semetary (1989) – End Creepy Gage
We feel so much for Gage because we know it’s not his fault and that (unlike the remake’s undead Ellie) he couldn’t understand what he’d become. Even in spite of committing murder, he’s every bit as much a victim as anyone unlucky enough to have been brought back and corrupted by the evil within that burial ground. At the same time, this is also part of what makes Gage’s transformation so unsettling even when simply watching his brief interactions with other characters.
It’s because he’s a toddler with barely any developed speech that his noticeable increase in language (particularly the swearing, in the book) and articulation post-resurrection immediately catches one off guard. Everybody who remembers that eerie phone call knows what I’m talking about, how Louis is set on edge along with us as he listens to his boy and gradually realizes that something’s not right, that this can’t be his son but rather something else disguised within his voice & flesh.
Pet Sematary- Gage phone scene, quote
This feeds into his body language as well, with his previously appropriately uncoordinated movements for his age transitioning from innocent waddling with those little legs to a performance that is blatantly more instructed and methodical thanks in part to Mary Lambert’s excellent direction. To reiterate, it’s something that only works in the way it does with such a young actor.
THAT is why this event is so powerful, because I’ve never met anyone new to the story who anticipated Gage becoming such a threat. Many newbies perhaps expected an older resurrected character. A reanimated Ellie can still absolutely inspire fear and dread in her own right with her comparatively older physique/coordination that would make her a superior killer or more educated vocabulary that would serve to psychologically break down characters.
This was a major ingredient in how Timmy Baterman horrified those around him after returning and he was an adult. I am strictly asserting that, however well conveyed, it still won’t carry the same emotional punch or almost otherworldly surrealism that Hughes brought. I argue that it should be preserved as is in order to preserve that impact.
“Gage as a toddler-sized killer would be silly, too much like Child’s Play.”
This is shallow reasoning likely influenced by a comment from Widmyer. Quoted:
“Much of how they shot the first [movie] was a doll. It’s creepy, and it’s effective. But we’ve now seen Child’s Play and we’ve seen the little kid trying to kill, and it’s effective when done right, but it’s kind of corny.
A toddler just doesn’t have the same physical threat as an eight-year-old, and the film would struggle to depict someone that young. Anyone who has raised a toddler knows that they can barely take a step without bumping their head.
The concept of corrupted innocence is still there but isn’t quite as intense. That said, the undead child being older means she is smarter, more aware of her situation, which is unsettling. There was something about the psychology that she would have.
She would understand what happened to her on the road. She would understand that she’s dead. She would know how to not only physically kill a person but psychologically destroy them as well. It just gave another layer to it.”
First of all, ‘89’s Pet Sematary came out the year after Child’s Play, which itself was predated by King’s 1983 novel. While there are definitely similarities in that both involve the concept of a toddler-sized killer with intelligence, coordination, and seemingly strength that betrays their size (I refuse to believe any two year old without some supernatural muscle would be capable of severing a grown man’s ankle tendon, let alone chewing his throat & jaw), this does NOT make them comparable as characters. Gage’s greatest threat in context has nothing to do with his small stature.
Granted, it is still a factor in that, like most stories featuring a pint-sized villain, the young Creed’s size + center of gravity make it easier for him to hide and thereby surprise his targets. Chucky utilized almost identical tactics against taller opponents. He compensated for his lack in height that would render head-on confrontations unwise (I personally fantasized about the knife-wielding runt running up to me and simply punting him through a window, lol) with a combination of stealth and in a pinch what appeared to be raw adult power retained from his human soul. This shows in how multiple adults struggle to resist him. Ex- Karen Barklay, when Chucky first reveals his sentience onscreen and attacks her after she threatens him.
Child’s Play (1988) – Chucky Escapes
Gage’s most terrifying advantage over his victims is fundamentally different and in some ways consistently more effective. Like most zombie & vampire fiction, the strongest deterrent against eliminating the imminent threat before you when your logical side knows it’s the only way is emotional attachment. Despite knowing they’re dead, even when seeing them disgusting, rotted or mangled (as Gage is described in the book), part of us still sees them as what was once our loved ones.
Whether breaking down crying that he/she can’t do it or just having that split-second moment of hesitation that costs the would-be survivor their life, this is a trope capitalized upon countless times in many genres. Pet Sematary is a match made in Heaven (or Hell) for this, as practically every character who encounters evil Gage has an opportunity to kill him but fails, which can be attributed on some level to their relationship with him.
Even Jud, who was quickly prepared to destroy the abomination upon Gage’s intrusion into his home, wasn’t quite quick enough. However briefly it may have been, he still recognized the boy and had gotten to know him. This comes out when Jud confides in Louis that he feels he may be responsible for the baby’s death as a result of introducing Dr. Creed to the burial grounds’ power. That line of “I may have murdered your son” exacerbated by the old man’s weeping speaks to Fred Gwynne’s acting prowess and drives home his character’s inner turmoil.
It’s reasonable to interpret, based upon this overwhelming guilt, that even Jud who knew firsthand how evil the cemetery and those corrupted by it are was however subtly held back to some underlying degree by his sympathy for the child. The same can be said in spades for Gage’s mother, who was too petrified and grief-stricken to even contemplate killing her baby, self-defense or not. An older timeless example is The Omen‘s Robert Thorn whose hesitation to end his adoptive Hell-spawn Damien ultimately allowed the Antichrist to be the one left standing.
This critical difference is why the “Child’s Play” analogy for putting Ellie in Gage’s role doesn’t hold much water from a narrative standpoint because Gage’s opening to exploit characters’ pity is an advantage Chucky has never had. He has no such relationship to any character (even his “best friend” Andy quickly comes to fear him) and is only ever able to exploit victims’ false sense of security at thinking he’s just a harmless toy.
Secondly, switching which sibling dies not only changes how the family is affected but also another important plot point related to the story’s lore. Ellie is referenced in the novel as having a variant of the “Shining” or “Shine”, a mysterious mental power multiple King characters (most commonly children) posses that takes varying forms with elements of telepathy or clairvoyance among other traits.
Supposedly, almost every child with some degree of the ability loses it as they age, which has drawn criticism toward this King cliche as lazy writing to make otherwise often undeveloped child characters more interesting. This plays into the visions that drive Ellie into hysterics toward the ending, alongside her communications with Pascow’s spirit attempting to warn the Creeds of the impending danger the cemetery poses toward them.
The ’89 movie omits almost all of this, save for Pascow’s conversations with Ellie, as the “Shine” is never mentioned or alluded to. Should this subplot be somehow integrated into the remake, the glaring issue arises when you consider that only Gage is logically left to take his sister’s place now that their roles are effectively flipped. The boy’s drastically younger mental faculties however, would make it much more difficult and by extension possibly less cinematic to communicate this link with Pascow to his family.
How would Gage effectively convey this in a way his mom or grandparents could understand in the time the plot allows as Louis’ conflict transpires? Would he write, draw, or spell it out on the fridge? It’s definitely not impossible to make that work with a two-three year old but to do so would necessitate a larger role, probably more dialogue, and even more elaborate instruction. Would this not defeat the purpose of making it easier working with a toddler?
Point being, any/all changes can create more work for the creators depending on the project. This looks to be a gamble that could very easily result in aspects of Pet Semetary‘s mythos that fans appreciate being compromised, which would be counter-productive to the trailer’s hinting at trying to add more of the source material (Ex- The Wendigo).
Thirdly, claiming that Gage wouldn’t work from a production pov due to how difficult toddlers are to direct + the silliness of the doll doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Granted, young actors are almost never easy to instruct but for anyone to suggest that it isn’t worth the effort to hire someone who works with children for a living is absurd. With today’s technology & motion-capture, there are multiple options to make the killer Gage convincing while maintaining the behavior of the genuine article.
One approach off the top of my head could have been Captain America: The First Avenger‘s method of superimposing its star’s head onto another actor’s body to give the illusion of an emaciated Steve Rogers pre-super serum. It’s an advanced visual effects technique to be sure but more than plausible for a modern undead Gage. Superimpose the toddler’s head onto the body of a midget of comparable size/frame. To strengthen the presentation, go the extra mile for makeup and give zombie-Gage his horrific facial damage from the truck. Do what the ’89 film held back on and refuse to cater to the squeamish. Even if the actor is less recognizable, he’ll damn well be scarier.
The only argument regarding Child’s Play that might earn some understanding is that 2019’s Pet Sematary is set to debut this same year as the upcoming Child’s Play remake, which was talked about for well over at least the past decade. Had Widmyer instead reasoned that he didn’t want to compete with modern audiences’ perception of a killer doll vs. a killer kid with two movies so close together, then I may be more forgiving of his perspective regardless of whether I agree with it.
“It’s only the trailer. Don’t judge until you’ve seen the full movie.”
A trailer’s entire function is to advertise a product and thereby leave you with a first impression of what the full experience will be. It sets the stage for what you can expect in the context of premise, tone/style, casting, and atmosphere.
The overwhelming majority of the time in film history, what you see in the preview is largely indicative of what you get in the full product. This marketing is done for the explicit purpose of attracting attention and inviting judgment. You cannot do one without the other inevitably following suit as consumers process what they’ve seen, heard, and felt. Therefore, it can be reasonably concluded that trailers by their nature are factually made to be judged.
People like to play the “Don’t judge a book by its cover” card whenever something or someone is perceived (prematurely or otherwise) in a way they disagree with. The problem with that is that the principle is often taken to the extreme and applied in situations that can make it sound like a cop-out when one has no other argument. It’s not a bad policy, but it’s NOT an absolute either.
“You’re just mad because the Pet Sematary remake isn’t what you wanted.”
1) I’m not mad, more just disappointed. Assuming one is angry because they disagree with your perception and express passion or negativity within their views can often say just as much about you as it does about what you disagree with.
Can an emotional response on the part of a writer and critique be accurately discerned from text? Of course, it can, but that requires more solid evidence to back up the “You mad, bro” claim beyond your speculation of what reads as anger. This is another example of weak reasoning.
2) Said disappointment is NOT because the story isn’t what I personally want (That’s not necessarily inherently bad in itself, as there are times when certain consumers’ desires objectively serve a product’s quality more than others’).
I didn’t want a recreation of Pet Sematary that catered to my individual tastes in every aspect as if reading my mind to adapt a fan-fiction while ignoring everyone else. What I wanted was a faithful adaptation of what Stephen King wrote.
You know, the author responsible for the story in the first place? I don’t think it’s unreasonable by any means to expect a cinematic experience based upon one of any creator’s most popular works to follow its narrative & characters.
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
This is a grossly overused attempt (plus an overused meme, lol) at a counter typically intended to undermine the value of one’s points on the grounds that they are not objective fact. I would argue that an opinion’s merit isn’t predicated on whether it’s factual to begin with, only on whether it can be substantiated with logic & reason. Subjectivity is NOT inherently inferior to objectivity in determining an argument’s value, and those who aren’t mindful of this can easily create blind-spots in their own pov that hinder or outright prevent them from learning.
“If you don’t like it, then don’t watch it.”
How about, if you do like it, then leave me alone and go watch it? One can easily flip this logic around on itself, and the cycle wouldn’t end. “Don’t like it, don’t watch” is the intellectual equivalent of suggesting that we not criticize anything.
It’s a textbook deflection most often used to undercut dissenting views or attempts at discourse preemptively. To inform ourselves about any topic and form an opinion with substance, we naturally must first expose ourselves to it. In other words, we have to watch at least to an extent.
Otherwise, we’d merely be parroting others’ opinions rather than thinking for ourselves by giving said topic a chance. That’s how the majority of bandwagons happen. I watched this trailer with an open mind to form an educated opinion based upon more than critics or word of mouth.
That’s all the reason I need, whether I end up liking it or not. Nobody can challenge your right to like what you’ve seen of any media so please don’t presume to tell me or anybody for that matter to “leave it alone” when the product’s creators chose to invite our attention (positive or negative).
“You don’t know what the full Pet Sematary film will be like. The changes could improve it.”
This is the only instance where I would say “Fair point”. I do not know what the full experience will bring. What’s important to account for however, is that we don’t always have to (especially today). As said, trailers give away enough these days that one can discern for themselves to at some extent.
I don’t have to watch the entirety of every single solitary film I wish to form an opinion on because I’d like to think I’m old enough and experienced in movies enough now to have at least adequately consistent instincts that tell me the likelihood of whether I’ll be invested in a movie.
As the old storytelling rule goes, if you can’t hook me within the first five minutes (Even the longest trailers are typically three minutes or less), then that failure is your own in context of your goal to sell the content, NOT my failure in attention span as the consumer. I’m under no obligation to ignore my preferences and give every film 1-2+ hours of my life before judging it.
As unique as any cinematic experience can be from one individual to another, the reality is that cinema as a collective whole is rife with tropes, clichés, storytelling structures, atmospheric tactics, and other conventions that overlap once you’ve seen enough. This is even more prevalent in trailers, which have less than a fraction of time to convey their content and thus employ techniques that are far more overused, especially in horror trailers.
Another factor to consider is that changes are not only influential in a story’s material but also its cultural relevance. A fitting example is the difference between the late Fred Gwynne’s portrayal of Jud with his unforgettable Maine accent vs John Lithgow’s plainly spoken and more reserved performance.
As you can imagine, I’m not a fan thus far of Lithgow’s version. He doesn’t sound at all like someone who grew up in Ludlow, sacrificing that country feel to voice & demeanor for something that I strangely find more reminiscent of an older, balder, bearded Frasier Crane.
This is not the same as superficial changes like Pascow being black instead of white, as it shifts the character’s background in addition to their appearance. A major reason Jud is a fan favorite is because of the commitment Gwynne put into the accent from studying Maine residents in preparation for the role. Removing that dilutes the backdrop and makes him come off as more of an outsider than an old, wise, off-putting but neighborly mentor archetype of this country town.
By undermining his performance as a native to the area, the remake risks taking away from his contrast to Louis’ position as the Chicago city boy in over his head with forces he doesn’t understand. Eric Wagner’s video below goes into more depth about culture’s intimacy with remakes and how changing the wrong details can alter or undercut its identity as a whole.
WTF Happened to Movie Remakes?
Even if I agreed with holding out cautious optimism for the remake in spite of all this, the foundation of the problem is that there isn’t enough evidence to encourage much good faith. I am generally an optimist but also a realist and it is an inarguable fact that the overwhelming majority of remakes which diverge strongly from their source material are historically held more often in controversy and thus negative or divisive reception. “Divisive” is the exact opposite feeling of what any remake whose legacy is directly competing with the original’s should set out to evoke among its consumer base, especially with such iconic works.
When you count those that garner praise for such changes or are held as the definitive incarnations (Ex- 1983’s Scarface vs. the 1932 film, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz vs. the 1910 short film), these are statistically a gross minority. Like it or not, the majority of people more often than not prefer remakes that demonstrate love for their roots over those that strongly alienate them. Last I checked, matters of opinion are commonly held to majority rules.
Granted, that doesn’t by default make any opinion “right” but it does make it substantiated & supported for better and worse. That’s just how it works. The only King adaptation long famously held above its source is currently 1980’s The Shining, and even that masterpiece drew some controversy over King’s vocal dislikes for its changes that is debated to this day among fans.
Nobody I know of asked for a perfect visual/audio-book of the Pet Sematary novel on the big screen but the bottom line comes down to this: Remakes that don’t faithfully adapt their source material are inherently riskier than those that do. In the West’s cinematic track record alone, history is NOT as often kind to the former.
Were remakes generally financially + critically successful, we wouldn’t be having this discussion but that is not the world we live in. I wholeheartedly hope I’m proved wrong of course but for the time being remain skeptical. We’ll just have to see for ourselves when 2019’s Pet Sematary releases in theaters on April 5th!