By Maria Puente, USA TODAY
They’re back —Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger and Baby Face, Jekyll and Hyde, Holmes and Watson. Say hello again to Robin Hood, the Wolf Man, the Lone Ranger, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man and Conan the Barbarian. Hamlet, dear boy, long time, no see! They have all been here before, and soon they’ll all be here again, dashing across big screens around the world, drawing in a new generation of moviegoers perhaps unfamiliar with earlier versions of these characters.Or so Hollywood hopes.
Exhibit A: Public Enemies, out Wednesday and starring Johnny Depp as the charming and public-relations-savvy bank robber John Dillinger in a retelling of how the early FBI got its man in 1934. (It was messy and bloody, and innocent people were caught in the crossfire.)
Real-life “public enemies” such as Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde were celebrities to Depression-era Americans who cheered them for stealing from despised banks. By the 1940s and through the 1970s, Hollywood made scores of movies and TV shows about Dillinger and his gang. Now, in the midst of an economic calamity and multiple bank bailouts, Universal hopes a sexy outlaw targeting bankers and outwitting brutal G-men will resonate with audiences.
“It’s hard to predict, but (banks) are not going to garner an undue amount of sympathy — let’s put it that way,” jokes Enemies director Michael Mann. He’s not concerned about past Dillinger movies; he knows most moviegoers will be more familiar with Depp than with Dillinger, but he believes they’ll be drawn to a story about a “fascinating life.”
But you have to wonder about all this effort being lavished on movies that have been made before, even if the characters and stories are being presented in fresh ways. Surely today’s filmmakers haven’t run out of new characters or creative juice. Maybe it’s the result of the crashed economy, as risk-averse studios fall back to familiar (and proven) moneymakers.
Call them insurance policies
Or maybe it’s a matter of tradition and history: As in any art form, entirely new stories are relatively rare; what came before is recycled and reimagined to make new art.
“The idea of re-using characters and remaking films goes back to the earliest days of Hollywood, but the flood today does seem rather stunning,” says UCLA film historian Jonathan Kuntz. “But with so much riding on major pictures costing hundreds of millions, they want some kind of insurance. Taking a story or character already well known makes it easier to market, to get that opening weekend box office at a reasonable level.”
It will not have escaped Hollywood’s notice, Kuntz says, that characters such as Batman and the Mummy, each dating back decades, have been enormously successful in recent revivals. No wonder, then, that Universal, long known as the studio of monster movies, would return to its archive: The Wolfman (original 1941) is due in November with Benicio Del Toro; The Invisible Man (original in 1933) is scheduled for 2011; and planning has begun for Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954).
So it’s back to the past — only with better (and more expensive) special effects. “There’s always talk in the Hollywood press about this— ‘Do we have to recycle everything all the time, why can’t we come up with new characters?,’ ” says David Gross, editor of MovieReviewIntelligence.com, which analyzes movie reviews from newspapers around the USA. “There’s not a whole lot new under the sun, so if you have to go back to the well every 20 years, there’s a new generation of moviegoers (to attract).”
Most of nearly two dozen coming movies are based on classics of English literature or Western folklore, with American comics, pulp fiction and TV series thrown in. Thus: Frankenstein; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Also: Conan the Barbarian (based on 1932 stories by Robert E. Howard, remake of the 1982 film due in 2010); John Carter of Mars (based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, coming in 2012 with Taylor Kitsch);The Three Stooges (coming in 2010, with Jim Carrey, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro); and The Lone Ranger (2012, with part-Cherokee Depp as faithful companion Tonto).
Most have been made multiple times, such as Gulliver’s Travels (2010, Jack Black), A Christmas Carol (November 2009, Jim Carrey) and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland(2010, directed by Tim Burton with Depp as the Mad Hatter), which even Disney has done before, in a 1951 animated feature.
“The other versions haven’t been very good,” says Richard Zanuck, an Alice producer, “and we’ve never seen the story through the eyes of a visionary like (Burton).”
As in literature, certain cinematic characters and themes are returned to repeatedly because they resonate across all boundaries of time, space and cultural milieu. So, every generation needs its own on-screen Hamlet — and now we’re about to get another one: After Lawrence Olivier (1948), Richard Burton (1964), Mel Gibson (1990), Kenneth Branagh (1996) and Ethan Hawke (2000), now comes young heartthrob Emile Hirsch, 24, who is set to play Hamlet next year and is the first actor in his 20s to play the prince of Denmark on-screen at roughly the same age as the character.
Director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Ron Nyswanger say they will present the story as a “contemporary supernatural thriller.”
“Hamlet is the ultimate, alienated young hero, who exposes the hypocrisy of society,” Hardwicke says. “His struggle to find the truth and act on it is universal and particularly relevant to young people today, living in a world that’s in crisis mode on so many fronts.”
Call them universal themes
But does every generation need its own Robin Hood? Even if it’s Russell Crowe and he’s wearing macho armor instead of tights? Maybe so. After all, rob-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor is an evergreen concept.
Robin Hood, of course, is much older; the character is based on late 12th-century English folklore. Errol Flynn nailed the role in 1938, then Sean Connery in 1976, Kevin Costner in 1991, and Mel Brooks in a comic version in 1993.
Now Oscar-winning Crowe will be the prince of thieves, starring in Robin Hood, due out later this year and directed by Ridley Scott. Producer Brian Grazer says the story was ripe for revisiting, again, because it’s a “universal theme.” (There’s that phrase again.)
Robin Hood “is trying to create equality in a world where there are a lot of injustices,” Grazer told USA TODAY earlier this year. “He’s a crusader for the people, trying to reclaim some of the ill-gotten gains of the wealthy.”
Filmmakers are not only bringing back characters we have seen before. In some cases, there are two sets of filmmakers making films about the same characters at more or less the same time.
Two Holmes and Watson films are in the works. Sherlock Holmes, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, directed by Guy Ritchie, is out later this year; the second, still untitled with no release date, is a comedy with Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell. And two Jekyll & Hydes: Jekyll and Hyde, with Forest Whitaker and 50 Cent, out later this year, and Jekyll, with Keanu Reeves, no release date yet.
Also, two William Tells. Errol Flynn played him in a 1953 picture. Now comes William Tell: The Legend, due in 2010, with Jim Caviezel. The second film has a name, Ironbow: The Legend of William Tell, due in 2011, but as of yet no named star.
Who are the audiences for two William Tell movies? He may be a Swiss hero, but to everybody else he’s … well, he’s the opera overture adapted as the theme for The Lone Ranger. But the Tell movies may be the offbeat exception.
“This is not business as usual — this is Hollywood’s attempt to deal with risk in a troubled marketplace,” says Brett Walsh, a producer on the Whitaker/50 Cent Jekyll and Hyde, which he says will follow director Abel Ferrara’s darker, more suspenseful vision of the story.
“Going back to known brands or characters is perceived as a way of protecting your downside risk, because they have an existing value,” Walsh says.
Maybe, but it might also be true that oldies are goodies. And each new generation of moviegoers gets to discover the gems in Hollywood’s archive anew — as is happening already with The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, expected to begin shooting later this year with Hilary Duff as Bonnie.
Tonya Holly, who is writing, directing and producing the movie, says she’s not intimidated by the Oscar-winning 1967 Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Not only has film technology improved in 40 years, but her target audience is filled with moviegoers who are not familiar with the real-life bank robbers and who haven’t seen the earlier film.
“But they know Hilary and Kevin (Zegers as Clyde), and their fan base is going to boost interest,” Holly says. Besides, she says, when it comes to movies, “There are a million ways to tell a story, and the story changes with each storyteller.”