Up until recently, cinematic remaking was academically neglected despite its longstanding role in Hollywood history. Scholarship tended to march in step with popular film journalism, which dismissed remakes, sequels, and prequels because of their commercial imperatives and lack of creativity (and continues to do so today). But there are many other ways of looking at cinematic remaking, including approaches that take into account the cultural work and social functions these films perform. In this post, I want to suggest that cinematic remaking has always played and continues to play an important role in structuring the evolution of cinema as a technological medium, and – more important for my purpose here – in shaping processes of identity formation among successive generations of cinemagoers. Following this line of thought may provide new insights into the reception of recent Hollywood remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings.
On the one hand, then, Hollywood manufactures its own history as a narrative of technological progress in and with long-running, cross-generational chains of remakes, sequels, and prequels. On the other hand, cinematic remaking plays a crucial role in constructing audiences as media generations – a concept I use to describe viewers within certain age groups that share a cultural field and set of embodied media practices. Such media generations include fans, film critics, scholars, and casual viewers who share pop-cultural reference points. Movies like Ghostbusters (1984) or the first Star Wars trilogy, for example, have become infused with cultural meaning around which media-generational identities have then been constructed and maintained. I argue that this often happens retrospectively and through social practices and discourses which aim to protect beloved media texts against new versions and the extra layers of meaning they invariably add to movies of the past.
In the broader scheme of things, cross-generational chains of remakes, sequels, and prequels preserve a repertoire of popular narratives as they recycle familiar plots, characters, settings, and themes. They provide temporal continuity markers for a culture, and gradually become (film-historical) sites of memory. At the same time, each individual movie in the cinematic remaking chain is also grounded in a specific historical moment that shapes the ways in which generations imagine themselves as mnemonic communities. It comes to stand in for that moment in terms of its social, political, and cultural dynamics as well as its position in film history, i.e. the specific technologies (e.g. sound, color, widescreen, 3-D, CGI, motion capture), performers, narrative structures, and visual aesthetics, or, more generally, the medium’s affordances and constraints at the time.
Reactions to Hollywood’s recent remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings are informed by intergenerational differences between audiences who do not identify with the same media texts. Nicholas Stoller’s Bad Neighbors (2014) makes reference to how such feelings of media-generational belonging can play out as Mac (Seth Rogan) and Teddy (Zac Efron) debate whether Michael Keaton or Christian Bale is the best Batman. Intergenerational differences are often expressed more aggressively, however, as a deep dislike of the new version combined with nostalgia for an older pop-cultural reference point. Thus, fans and critics alike try adamantly to rescue their beloved movies from being overwritten by a new media text. The extremely negative reactions to Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters trailer in May 2016 are emblematic for the kind of emotional response remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings of an enduring classic are able to elicit. In the case of Ghostbusters, often-voiced fears that cinematic remaking will destroy childhood memories (and therefore poses a potential threat to the collectively constructed identity of a media generation), were additionally overshadowed by an overwhelming misogyny regarding the gender-swapped cast. The movie eventually stood its ground (even featuring meta-references to this pushback), yet – like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) or Jurassic World (2015) – it was also very careful to cater to the sentimental attachments and nostalgic feelings of an older media generation (with a plethora of intertextual references and bonuses for viewers in the know). Cinematic remaking always addresses a double audience but these are clearly concessions designed to make the new media text less threatening with regard to media-generational identity constructions and more enjoyable for audiences whose pop-cultural reference points lie in the past. For generational studies of fandom and popular culture, cinematic remaking is a multifaceted object of study. It invites reflections on the role of media and popular culture in our lives, in-depth analyses of media-generational identity formation and the role specific media texts play in this process, and investigations of intergenerational controversies surrounding cinematic remaking and the resulting shifts in the practice they may provoke.