We are at an inflection point in story-telling, both in sensibility and technology. No one is sure where and how it will wash out and what will be left in its wake…but, think about the last 10 years and what has changed about what you watch (forgetting about where you watch it, which is another long discussion). Frankly, the trend toward bigger and more complex stories is something I’m celebrating, even as other issues like “good enough” culture of quality and fractured landscapes are causing other challenges. The return of classics in more complete forms is definitely one of positives in this trend.
Classics (of all cultures) have long been a source of material for writers and entertainers. They’re “classics” for a good reason after all: they found a truth that resonates with their public that transcends time periods; this is what allows them to live on. Of course, language and society change over time, so while the truth may still apply, the provided journey tends to become ever more challenging to contemporary audiences as years, decades, and millennia go by.
This is why writers constantly reinvent (or steal) them, to keep them fresh for current audiences. Shakespeare, in particular, is reinterpreted constantly to this end (think Lear, The Donmar Warehouse, Richard III, 10 Things I Hate About You, and so many more). And “updating” the stories, either in place or language, allows relevant themes, storylines, or even aspects of character to be more accessible to an audience to whom it applies but is otherwise unable to receive the message from the original.
The BBC has been known to not only not be afraid of classical literature as source material, but often to embrace it. This has produced some amazing series and movies… but also a sort of genre of its own that tends to be rather staid period pieces. Hollywood has, likewise, plumbed this vein, but often produced short-cutted stories that lose so much of the original that they are mere sketches of the breadth and depth of those tales.
The streaming world has changed this. The current approach now is to create multiple episode productions that drag the material onto screen in both a more complete way, and by updating them to contemporary sensibilities to keep them accessible and fresh.
While this has been going on for a while (see Sherlock), there were three in quick succession recently that suggest to me it’s accelerating. The first to drop was War of the Worlds late last year. But Dracula and A Christmas Carol both came available about the same time and raise interesting specters. I’m going to leave Little Women out of this because it is such a wholly different genre than these three and was a single movie, but the discussion still applies, just not quite as directly.
OK, top line is that all three are great stories that were considered very dark in their day. But, as tales of horror, they pale in today’s light and genre offerings. One of the first aspects of these reboots is just how violent they can be, and just how horrid to their main characters they are. When they were originally published, they were received relatively the same as the new versions are now….that is, disturbing and scary. To pierce the modern skin, inference and subtlety had to be replaced with direct example to achieve the same effect.
The second aspect that is common is that they are all given the room they need to address the book-length ideas in an amount of time that can contain them. We aren’t forced into a 90 minute or 2 hour stripped-down rendering of the large psychological and sociological ideas the original authors intended. The stories are expansive and contemplative on these points. Paired with good writing and broken into a serial, they sustain these aspects and open the old stories back up for a new audience.
For all of the concerns about the streaming invasion, one of the main positives is the room they are making for bigger and more niche ideas. Remakes of classics is just a small piece of that, it reaches well beyond classics in terms of material. But, since classics return and return and return, there is a history to compare it to, whereas adaptations like Watchmen or American Gods, also provided room to breathe (and arguably modern classics), have no previous incarnations to celebrate.
Today’s Strand is Netflix, Prime, and HBO. And, in many ways, and despite the current streaming wars, it is bringing about a Renaissance in story telling that is even affecting theatrical releases (think It: Chapter 1, It: Chapter 2). And then there is the Marvel Phases, which are less direct, but still taking advantage of the desire for expansive stories.
So, while we may also be encountering mountains of mediocre and empty material (as we always have), the new Hollywood (wherever that is in a distributed, global sense) is also creating some top notch entertainment from the bones of its ancestors. And that is something to celebrate and support. We’re even seeing it start to expand in cultures as these companies reach for new markets, bringing Western stories to them, but also their stories to us…something that is already accelerating as well on global streamers like Netflix in particular.