Reboots, Remakes, and Adaptations

Curator's Note

The current film and television landscape is ripe with reboots and remakes, with countless more to be released in the near future. Yet despite their prevalence in contemporary media, very little attention has been paid to defining what a reboot is in relation to a remake. Frequently the terms have been used interchangeably, without giving enough thought into what each of them actually means and if there is a distinction between the two. Effectively, both are forms of adaptation, which are traditionally connected to works of literary origin. When we consider some films, such as Star Trek (2009) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) we instinctively identify these as reboots - films that take an established multimedia franchise/narrative and start that story again from the beginning in an attempt to revitalize or capitalize on an already existing franchise and attract new fans. Star Trek literally did this by creating an alternative timeline to distinguish this new film series from its previous canon. Unlike Pride and Prejudice (2005), which adapts a single classic story, reboots frequently draw from a larger catalogue of source materials. However, films like Casino Royale (2006) complicate this distinction as it is an adaptation of a novel and a reboot of an established franchise utilizing narrative and stylistic characteristics from the series. It is also the second time the spy novel has been adapted for the screen (third if you count the unrelated 1967 film).

How, then, do we classify a film like Len Wiseman’s Total Recall (2012), which is both a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film of the same name, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” and the latest entry in a relatively small franchise consisting of the previous film, various forms of merchandise and video games, and the short lived television series Total Recall 2070 (1999). Is this film, as this shot by shot comparison suggests, a “Total Ripoff” (approx. 2:00) or is it more complicated than that?

While you can create a reboot that doesn’t directly remake a specific story, all reboots are inherently part remake and part adaptation. The merging of all of these characteristics, and what defines each of them in relation to one another, is something that needs further exploration. This week in IMR explores the reboot in its various forms across the contemporary and historical media landscape.


I agree that not much time has been spent actually interrogating the term 'reboot' and how it differs from remaking. In an article I published in Scope: an Online Journal of Film and Television Studies titled: 'Regeneration and Rebirth: Anatomy of a Reboot', I define what a reboot is and how it differs from the remake. The 'reboot' concept is being used wildly in journalistic discourses and is being collapsed into a cacophonous jumble which makes it difficult to define, but drawing from its etymological location in Comic Books, I craft a framework and critical vocabulary. Reboots and remakes share an abundance of commonalities, but this does not mean they are conjoined entities without distinction. Both remakes and reboots "repeat recognizable narrative units" to some extent (Verevis, 2006: 1), while both rearticulate properties from the cultural past in a pattern of repetition and novelty (Horton, 1998: 6). It can be argued, however, that a film remake is a singular text bound within a self-contained narrative schema; whereas a reboot attempts to forge a series of films, to begin a franchise anew from the ashes of an old, tired or failed property. In other words, a remake is a reinterpretation of one film; a reboot “re-starts” a series of films that seek to disavow and render inert its predecessors validity.

Therefore, ‘Total Recall’ is a remake. If ‘Total Recall’ is a reboot then all remakes are reboots. A reboot strives to ‘begin again’ from a narrative/ story ground zero as in comic book series such as ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ through to last year’s ‘The New 52’ (DC Comics) and the forthcoming Marvel Now (Marvel). If we think about ‘Batman Begins’ which began the trend in cinema – it was a David S. Goyer comment about the film claiming that it is a ‘cinematic equivalent of a reboot’ – in story-terms, it is dislocated from the previous instalments. ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ does the same as does ‘Star Trek’ – which, as you rightly pointed out, uses a quirk of temporal ratiocination to allow both Trek universes (old and new) to be canonical (which is another comic book conceit where rebooting is always explained in diegesis.

I also agree, Ian, that sometimes these terms overlap and cross-pollinate. 'Casino Royale' is both reboot and adaptation. While 'Batman Begins' and Nolan's two sequels do not follow traditional models of adaptation, it does cull from different comic book sources (see Brooker's 'Hunting the Dark Knight'). 'The Amazing Spider-Man' is the same - it borrows from a wellspring of sources and invents new scenarios of its own. 'Star Trek' can operate as a reboot, a prequel, and a sequel due to the inclusion of Spock and his temporal adventures when he leaves his universe for the newly constructed timeline (some commentators call this a 'sprequel'). 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' is both remake and reboot - although if it doesn't continue the 'new' iteration of the franchise then it is a failed reboot - i.e one that does not succeed in resurrecting the film series.

Of course, defintions are hard to lock down, but I think we can safely say that 'Scream 4' is not a reboot as Kim Newman claims (the clue is in the title: number 4 - not a 'beginning again'). Ditto for 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' - not a reboot, but a sequel.

The reboot is now a buzz-word. It is being used nonchalantly to describe anything that recycles. Many commentators, producers etc want to piggy-back on Nolan's successes. Samuel Bayer, for example, equated the Freddy reboot with 'Batman Begins' as did Rupert Wyatt for the 'Apes' reboot. My PhD, 'Beginning Again: The Reboot Paradoxx in Popular Culture' examines and interrogates these discourses.

It is a paradox because a 'beginning again' is always also a return. The slate can never be truly wiped clean - the reboot writes onto a palimpsest already marked with the traces of other Batmen, Bonds, Spider-Men, Sherlocks, Supermen etc.

You can access my articles on the reboot for free online here:

Those are very good points, William, but I am going to complicate your argument a bit. I agree that a reboot endeavors to "begin again," but in cases such as Total Recall the film itself is not at all a "singular text bound within a self-contained narrative schema." As you pointed out, a reboot attempts to "begin a franchise anew." However, I do not necessarily think that this has to apply solely to multi-film franchises. As we have increasingly seen, ancillary products (games, tie-in novels, tie-in television shows, collectables etc.). Total Recall, which may have only been a singular film, spawned such ancillary products with varried success. Blockbusters like the original Total Recall are not singular entities but are instead designed to inspire interest in these other materials. The Total Recall franchise, as I pointed out in my post, was such an example. They even went so far as to publish a novelization of the film, which was an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story (something that has occurred since, most recently with Disney's John Carter). It is also important to see how a franchise narrative can move across other forms of media - such as from film to TV. While they only made one film they did produce the television series Total Recall 2070 which expanded upon concepts from the film and merged them with concepts from other PKD works, serving as a prequel of sorts to the original film and adding to an existing media franchise. Film texts, particularly those related to blockbusters, rarely stand alone. 

What I propose, therefore, is that we have to look beyond the film series application of a reboot and instead look at multi-media franchises as a whole. Film/television, unfortunately, is not always solely about reinvigorating narratives and producing art but is inherently business and profit-motivated. Breathing new life into former franchises, no matter how small, is itself a viable option. When they remake the original film (rather than producing a sequel), they are effectively trying to reboot that franchise from the ground up while building on its name. Total Recall, as I pointed out, had already proved itself to be such an option. While Wiseman's film appears to have failed to inspire a renewed interest, it could very possibly have done so and could have led to various tie-ins of its own.

Well argued Ian! That is an interesting notion - this fits in with the idea that franchise systems (like Batman, Spider-Man, etc) all operate within an intertextual matrix without tangible borders. There is already a comic book adaptation of the 'new' 'Total Recall' coming out (this week I think). What you seem to be suggesting -and please correct me if I am wrong - is that 'Total Recall' is stuck at a paradigmatic crossroads of reboot, remake, and adaptation (possibly 're-adaptation' to use Thomas Leitch's phrase)?

I do feel, however, that there are problems with your suggestions. If we are to take the 'franchise' as a whole rather than sub-brands within them - and I agree in principle that it is impossible to separate them - how can we identify 'Batman Begins' as a reboot (and, for that matter, 'Spider-Man' and 'Man of Steel') given that the comic books were still running monthly during the whole inter-regnum period? And take 'Sherlock Holmes', for example: the forthcoming 'reboot'/ adaptation/ remake/ reimagining, 'Elementary' marks the third time the great detective 'begins again' in four years (a threeboot! Ha Ha!) And that is only on TV and Film, not to mention the new novels, comic books (including a year one origin story and an official sequel to the Conan Doyle books).

I would argue that a film can only reboot a film - 'Batman Begins' is a reboot because it operates in a different, narrative universe to 'Batman and Robin'. Similarly, a comic book can only reboot a comic book. Once we start to include all franchise operations, especially with the Bat who is never out of print, then these delineations start to make little sense.

Given your notion, what conceptual tag would you apply to 'Prometheus'? Prequel, franchise-starter or reboot?

Many thanks for the discussion Ian! Really helpful and my head is now spinning on its axis (Derrida will do that to you!)

I also agree that the motivating force behind reboots and remakes is money. And I completely agree that one cannot separate franchise iterations from each other - in an abstract sense, that is absolutely true. But people do - people talk about Nolan's Batman as opposed to Morrison's or Burton's. People read texts in a linear way and a non-linear way. Post-structuralist notion of free-play of utterances into an orgy of textual intercourse are valid, but by suggesting that evrything is non-linear actually contradicts the very ideas the project resists; that is, a system of binaries. Using Derrida, the reboot system is 'undecided': it is both linear and non-linear, new and old, aesthetic and commercial. Borders are theoretical but language functions by applying borders of differance in everyday life (which invariably brings the opposite into play too).

Does this make sense?

These are some great points, William. I am indeed arguing that Total Recall is an example of "crossroads" text that merges all three concepts (reboot, adaptation, remake). I see what issues you might take with the idea of conceptualizing franchise reboots in conjunction with those other examples that you brought up. If we are to look at the overall narrative trends within DC comics, the Nolan Batman films might not even be considered to be a reboot but merely an alternate universe retelling of Batman that fits within the overall metatext. As you pointed out, we do discuss these films separately from their other incarnations but they all tie back to an overall whole. Would you consider every subsequent film restarting a narrative as being a reboot? For example, would you consider Tim Burton's Batman to be a reboot in relation to the Adam West Batman film? Is that film a reboot of the 1943 Batman serial? All of these versions start the Batman narrative over from the beginning onscreen and add to the overall franchise. Do they differentiate from the Nolan films? As you pointed out, you can never wipe the slate clean and that the term "reboot" is a buzz word, and if it is going to be used we definitely need to keep applying it historically. But as our conversation has continued, I am beginning to wonder if the term itself is indeed irrelevant and we are instead in need of finding something more accurate - particularly in relation to the historical development of multi-media franchises.

On a separate note, I find it interesting that Total Recall can potentially be itendified as the "Total Recall" franchise rather than a "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale" franchise. Even the reprintings of that short story are marketed as the story that inspired Total Recall" on the cover rather than identify the short story by name. I am therefore asking myself what this means in relation to all of these other examples and, building on what you said, how films are viewed in relation to other related texts?

In Will Brooker's 'Hunting the Dark Knight', he argues that all Batman incarnations - including comics, films, games, theme park rides, 'Dark Knight Whopper Meals etc - are all part and parcel of a matrix. It all depends upon your position in the so-called matrix on what is a reboot etc. For the consumer who has never seen a Batman film, 'Batman Begins' could simply be the first instalment - but I think the majority of people have heard of Batman and may have an idea of who he is: he may look like Adam West to some people, Michael Keaton to others. If we interrogate closely any text, we can deconstruct them - in the Derridean sense - to uncover contradictions and paradoxes. At the most basic level, a reboot strives to begin a story again from a narrative ground zero. If we look at an analogy: 'Batman and Robin' forced the film series into hibernation due to critical flogging (it still made money, contrary to popular belief!). This created an error in the 'aesthetic processing unit' and the Batman operating system needed rebooting to recover from that error. That said, rebooting does not literally wipe the slate clean - as when rebooting a computer there is always a record of the error. In addition, the Batman operating system - like Windows or Safari - remains untarnished. This allows a new story to be told from 'year one' that is both intrinically connected yet disconnected from its antecedent. The characters have no memory of their history, but you cannot wipe the audience's mind like Will Smith in 'Men in Black'. Thus, a reboot is a paradox - but, I argue that it does intend to 'begin again' - the fact that it never can in a literal sense is by-the-by lest we be stuck without definition and everything becomes meaningless. There are, as Eco claims, limits to interpretation. This is my interpretation, by the way, and I do not claim it is 'right' nor 'wrong' - it is my reading, after all.

Great points, William! The one thing I want to add, which brings this back again full circle, is to argue again that the definition of reboot needs to be adjusted to compensate for more diverse examples beyond the multi-film reboot. What we seem to have both agreed on is that a film can only be a reboot of another film. However, I am still not convinced that your argument that remaking a single film is a remake while remaking a film in a series is a reboot - specifically because Total Recall complicates this. What I think needs to be clarified therefore is possibly the concept of multiple sub-franchises that may possibly exist within larger franchises that may be media specific (for example, Batman films vs. Batman comics). Both the films and the comics add to the overall whole of the Batman franchise, but rebooting the films through the Nolan films creates a pathway to follow the events you described above regarding Batman and Robin. As I pointed out in my last comment, Total Recall is the title by which all of its associated texts (including the short story it was based on) are now referred to. Therefore, the Total Recall franchise is related to the film. The short story it was based on (which has a different title), while associated with that franchise through the process of adaptation, continues to remain separate unless it is identified in relation to its more well-known film incarnation. I would still classify Total Recall as falling into the category of reboot despite the fact that it previously only existed as a single film due to the franchise that built up around it. It (Total Recall) is essentially a brand name that they are trying to bring back into the public eye and update an already successful narrative. I am not disagreeing with what you said above, but I am encouraging a need to continue complicating our understanding of the reboot and its relation to remakes and adaptations through the formation of multimedia franchises surrounding these films.

As for Promethius, I'm ashamed to say that I missed the film when it was in the theater and have been avoiding reading much about it until I can see it when it comes out on DVD. Sorry I can't be of more help with that example!

Many thanks for your comments - rather than striving for a 'general theory of reboots' perhaps it would be more useful to argue for particulat conceptual designations on a case-by-case basis. Your 'Total Recall' point is well-argued and one which I will raise in my thesis (with full credit to yourself, of course!).

Regarding your questions vis-a-vis Batman: I do not think Burton's Batman was a reboot - I think it is a franchise-starter. The 1960s Batman film was a TV spin-off rather than a fully-fledged film franchise; and the 1943 serial is not a fully-fledged film franchise either. Remember: we must ask the question - what is being rebooted? 'Batman Begins' is rebooting a film franchise as a reaction to the critically mauled 'Batman and Robin'. What is 'Total Recall' rebooting? Is it rebooting the brand with eyes on a new series of films? What is it reacting against?

Another poiint of contention: I don't necessarily think that reboots are always part adaptation, part remake, but, once again, may differ depending upon the text in question. For example, what exactly is 'Star Trek' remaking when the 'early years' of Spock and Kirk have never been represented on film or TV before (it has its origins in the Expanded Universe novels)?

Many commentators seem to be aligning the reboot with the genre process: so, Bond reboots everytime the actor changes, for example (although I do not accept this); and 'Moonraker' is a reboot due to to the location shift to sci-fi by drawing upon the success of 'Star Wars'. I would argue that that intersecting paradigmatic crossroads we discussed earlier should include: remake; adaptation; re-adaptation; sequel; prequel; 'sidequel' (as in the latest Bourne which occurs at the same time as 'The Bourne Ulitmatum' but is frequently being described as a reboot); rebranding; and the genre dialectic. Sometimes it is difficult to separate them - and sometimes people disagree as we have. This illustrates the sheer complexity of this area.


 I'm glad this discussion has been of some help with your research, William! That's what IMR strives to accomplish with these discussions. 

Those are some interesting questions that you pose, and I think the Star Trek point connects somewhat to my argument surrounding Total Recall and then connects back to your discussion of rebooting a series of films rather than remaking a single film (just to complicate things even further). Your question regarding "what is being rebooted" is key to all of this. With Star Trek, I'd argue that the first film has paved the way for what they are planning with the second film in the trilogy, which is going to feature a villain from the classic series. Although they haven't officially announced who that character is, Karl Urban let slip in a Judge Dredd press conference that it is Gary Mitchell, who was featured in the second pilot for the original series (the first episode featuring Kirk). Until we actually see the film it is impossible to tell how much of the episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before" will be included (if Gary Mitchell is even the villain being featured). If that is the case, Star Trek (2009) may have paved the way for more specific remakes rather than just a general franchise reboot. If it does follow that path, it may be interesting to see how that adjusts the relationship. But I see what your argument is regarding the first film not remaking a specific story. By the way, since Star Trek is part of your dissertation, be sure you check out the IDW comic series that is directly remaking specific Star Trek stories in the new JJ Abrams timeline (produced in collaboration with Robert Orci). The second volume also just got released. If nothing else, the JJ universe appears to have paved the way for direct remakes in tie-in materials.

In terms of Bond, I am in full agreement with you. It doesn't reboot each time (see License to Kill for a direct reference to On Her Majesty's Secret Service for one such example). That list of crossroads you have identified are definitely worthy of further exploration. I'm truly glad that we have been able to have this discussion. Reboots are incredibly complex entities and, like many terms thrown around, begging for further exploration and definition.

 One thing I want to add is that I think you definitely should think about how Tim Burton's Batman was developed in such a strong contrast to the Adam West version. While the West film was a spin-off from the television series, it is important to keep in mind that for many people this was how they still envisioned Batman prior to Burton's film. The popularity of the pastiche inherent in West's series had become synonymous with the role for many people who did not read the comic books as it was still readily broadcast on television. This incarnation had also bled over to all of the animated series on television at the time (including several where West and Ward reprised their roles). While I know you are striving to keep film and television separate when discussing reboots, I think that in the case of Batman that doesn't necessarily work. Burton's film definitely was a franchise starter but it was also in the eyes of many a stark contrast from West's portrayal, starting the story anew and creating a completely different and darker world. It was re-inventing the character on the screen and essentially replacing a portrayal that had been synonymous with Batman for 20 years. While it is not necessarily done to wipe the slate clean as your post argues on Batman Begins in a negative sense (i.e. trying yet failing to erase our memories of Batman and Robin), I think there are many similarities in terms of intent and historical precedence that might be worthy of further analysis when examining the reboot and its relation to multi-media franchises.

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