Remakes: Anger and Fear

Yesterday, the cast for Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters remake was announced and, predictably, some folks on the internet exploded. There are a lot of moving parts to consider when examining what, exactly, makes this project so odious to certain people–from a fatigue with Feig’s recent output to the perpetual backlash against Saturday Night Live to the general minefield of women making in-roads into genre/sci-fi culture–but I wan to focus on a much broader point: why do remakes get people so angry?

On the surface, a remake of a film seems like the dumbest thing in the world to get angry about. Unless George Lucas is involved, the original film is completely untouched by the process.  At worst, the new movie comes out and it’s godawful. So you don’t see it and you pretend it never existed.  At best, the new movie adds to the original and explores some new angle of the concept. And that’s great. The world is better off for having a billion versions of Dracula, for example.

But it’s not that simple.  It’s not just remakes people get mad about, but adaptations.  When Hollywood makes a shitty movie out of a good book, fans of the book are furious.  But why?  The book is still there.  You can ignore the film.  Nothing changes.  Right?  RIGHT?

The problem is that these books and original films are important to people. They aren’t just pieces of media or art that are consumed, enjoyed, and cast away once finished. They are more powerful than that. Each film, each book, each video game is a point on the vast field of popular culture which we use to assist in identifying ourselves.

For as long as I’ve been alive, “culture” has been defined in terms of the media and products that I consume.  If you don’t believe me, consider Facebook.  Or at least the early days of Facebook–I don’t know that much about modern facebook to be honest. But back when I used it, one of the first things you were prompted to indicate on your profile were your favorite films, bands, books, and television shows. Facebook asked us to use popular media to craft our public image–and most of us did it!

Who am I? Going back to the facebook profile I haven’t updated in years, I’m Cat’s Cradle. I’m LOST.  I’m Steven King’s The Stand. I’m Kill Bill. I’m I’m Luo Guanzhong‘s Three Kingdoms, but only because ten years ago I got way into the Koei Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy series to the point where I started reading Chinese historical novels. Which is maybe the most embarrassing thing.

This sounds like a horrible corporatist nightmare in which we all form our identities around products sold to us, but I try to look on the bright side of things. For most of human history, culture has been bounded by geography and ethnicity.  And culture wars were actual wars, with folks taking knives to the throats of their neighbors.  Being a consumer is bad, but it’s not the worst manifestation of culture we have seen as a species. So I’m not going to rage against consumer culture entirely, at least not in this post.

The problem is that culture changes and recycles itself, even though it is part of our identity.  When the culture we have assumed  as part of how we position ourselves in the world comes under assault, we take it as an attack on our self.  We cannot ignore it. We cannot shrug it off and tell ourselves that it is meaningless.  When we use films as  coordinates to determine our own identities, those films becomes quasi-sacred.

So, sure,  when the remake comes out, the old film is still there. The remake didn’t change it. But the very existence of the remake suggests that the old film–something that we incorporated into our own identity–was examined by our culture and found deficient.  It has been forced to change to remain relevant and that is troubling because it says something about our selves, and the terms we have come to use to define our selves.

The anger that people express against these remakes is existential anger.

This sounds overdramatic. Or maybe it sounds like I’m looking down upon the common folks, seething over pop culture, for being dumb sheeple who buy into the idea that they can find meaning in corporate brands which pander to them as members of a certain demographic audience. But I’m not.  Far from it. I’m right there in the brands with the rest of them.

There’s one particular movie I left out from the paragraph about my old facebook profile and it’s probably easy to guess since I withheld it for dramatic purposes: Ghostbusters. When I was a little kid, Ghostbusters was my favorite movie in the world. I watched it all the time, and even watched its mediocre sequel and forgettable cartoons. I owned a ton of Ghostbusters toys and dressed up in a jumpsuit and proton pack for at least one Halloween.

Of course, by now my passion for the franchise has waned.  But it still has stuck with me, both as a part of my past and as a building block of my writing style and sense of humor.  If you go back and read any of my early comedy scripts,  it’s almost embarrassing how apparent the influence of Ghostbusters is on what I think is funny.

I like to consider myself an even-keeled person who doesn’t get angry or upset about something as dumb as Hollywood films. But months ago when Feig’s reboot was announced, I felt that tiny voice in the back of my head whispering “How dare they fuck up Ghostbusters.” And maybe for the first time I understood what made people so angry.

Granted, it took maybe an hour to get over myself and accept that remaking a film didn’t affect me in any meaningful way. And when I found out that the main cast would be women this time, I was relieved because it signaled that the new movie wasn’t meant to replace the old movie and instead riff on the idea.

I still understood the anger.

I suspect that we all have books, movies, sports teams, albums, and video games that are somehow sacred to us.  Because as much as we might want to act like we’re somehow outside of society, we aren’t. Pop culture is ubiquitous.  Brands and franchises are relentless, bombarding us with idealized images that we can only pretend to forget.  They worm their way into our heads and placate us by reinforcing or changing how we see ourselves.  And then, when they are done and move on to a more lucrative audience, they remind us that they were products all along.

Ghostbusters is a product and now that I’m 30 and I bought the DVD, it doesn’t have any more use for me. It sees a whole new group of kids and teens who have a different sense of humor and a different set of interests, who think that capturing ghosts is just a new way to follow each other on Snapchat.  Those people will spend more money, buy more action figures, play the mobile game, and build the new electric-powered ECTO-1 in Minecraft. My Ghostbusters won’t reach those kids.

I have come to accept this, so why am I writing this? Because I also understand why others haven’t come to accept this. There are a ton of people in my generation, stuck in shitty situations,  who haven’t moved on from the things that made them happy as a child. They haven’t found new coordinates with which to plot their identities.  And the reasons they haven’t moved on aren’t entirely their fault.

The people you see shouting into the void about remaking a film aren’t just angry. They are afraid. They see their identity being stripped away and re-packaged to a new audience. And while we might want to mock them for being so pathetic that their identity is, even in part, reliant on a Bill Murray movie about trapping spirits in mechanical backpacks, let’s not forget that we’re all exposed to the same cultural pressures and seductive media.

There but for the grace of ghosts, go I.


2 thoughts on “Remakes: Anger and Fear

  1. It’s lazy sexism from people who’ve had it their own way since the beginning of pop culture being a thing, as well as all the other things you mention. But I disagree that it’s not their fault entirely – is clinging on to crap from your childhood a symptom or a cause?

    • Oh for sure, folks have to take some of the blame for not growing out of an exclusionary, sheltered perspective. And especially for proudly crowing about that limited perspective, which only perpetuates the problem.

      But I do firmly believe that this stuff is a symptom and not a cause. For a lot of these folks, they don’t have anything to mold their identity other than stale pop culture. I don’t think anyone actively chooses to be a manchild. They may resist growing up, but I think it’s because the idea of “growing up” is muddled in western society right now–there isn’t a path to follow–so structures with a vested interest in preserving or creating manchildren can successfully demonize maturity.

      I guess I’m just inclined to pity these people, though admittedly not enough to stop making jokes at their expense.

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