Look no further for perfect example of the problems I have with template-driven storytelling than some recent movie remake news:
... [here are] some details of the Poltergeist remake script, by David Lindsay-Abaire. It doesn’t sound like a straight re-do of the original film. Rather, it features a family headed by a guy named Eric Bowen. He loses his job, after which he and his family “relocate to a new town to start anew. His daughter, Madison, is abducted, making him truly understand what’s important in life: family. In the new version, Eric’s wife, Amy, can communicate with the dead.”
First off, the mere fact that they are remaking Poltergeist -- not to mention Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, nor Seven Samurai -- is insult enough. Well, even there I'm willing to bend a bit: Seven Samurai did get remade as The Magnificent Seven, and if we're going to remake Korean cinema we might as well aim high, right? (See my comments about the Oldboy remake.)
But let me zoom in on the real irk-maker -- the bit about how having his daughter kidnapped "[makes] him truly understand what's important in life: family." Is there one single movie in the past thirty years that hasn't pounded this treacly lesson into us a dozen different ways, along with a whole slew of others (follow your dreams, break the rules, listen to your heart, kiss the girl, etc. etc.)?
It's not that those lessons aren't worth learning, but the whole ready-made-concept deployment makes them into mere story ingredients. You cannot manufacture moral lessons that have any real weight, and you sure as hell aren't going to be able to do them in the context of a cynical remake of a Hollywood property. The lessons, such as they are, have to be an organic outgrowth of what happens and why. They cannot be siphoned off and transfused into a story as a way to give life to something that's dead on its feet from the git-go.
My counter-example of choice is Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa's film about a dying public servant who decides, for the first time in his life, to do something more than just take up space. When he finds he's dying of stomach cancer, he at first tries to distract himself through dissolution, then commits to helping a group of local housewives convert a smelly bit of reclaimed land into a playground. The movie shakes people up, because its very construction forces us to see how the rest of the world regards his dying gestures as a lunatic frivolity.
This is a classic example of a great movie from which you can extract a treacly moral ("follow your dream"). Do that and you're left with nothing but, well, a treacly moralism. Without the movie -- its characters, its look and feel, its writing, and so on -- to surround it and give it context and heft, you don't have a story. You have a fortune cookie. Nobody wants to spend $12 on something they can get free with their dumplings and pork fried rice.
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Other Lives Of The Mind