We live in an age of remakes, when practically every news story in the movie industry is about an old property getting “re-imagined” for a new generation… a generation, ironically enough, with unparalleled access to the original version. Many critics scoff at movie remakes, viewing them as thinly-veiled attempts to capitalize on the good will generated by a popular original film in order to market a new production more easily. Put simply, most kinds of marketing exist to raise awareness of a brand, so that if you’re interested in buying a certain product you’ll ask for their particular brand by name. If you’ve ever used the word “Coke” as a synonym for “soda,” you know that this works. So if you’re at the multiplex and are already familiar with the name of, say, Straw Dogs, the theory goes that you’re more likely to see it because it is familiar and thus, “safe.”
But I digress. Despite popular belief, not every remake is awful, or even inferior to the original film. Many are true classics and arguably even better than the original, and many others work sufficiently on their own merits, or differ enough from the original movie they can be enjoyed even if they’re not, technically, as good. But the majority of remakes, like the majority of movies and indeed all art forms in general, suck really, really, really hard. I’d list examples, but that’s exactly why we now present Remake Rumble.
Every two weeks here at CraveOnline we will examine two films side by side: an “original” movie (which itself may be an adaptation of some kind) and its remake. How do they tackle the same storyline differently? Which film, ultimately, is better? We’ll find out for you, and hopefully save you the trouble of watching both. Unless they’re both good, in which case: jackpot.
Since it’s October, we’re going to spend the first couple of Remake Rumbles talking about horror movies, or at least movies with a horror slant. Let’s start with two Hannibal Lecter movies: Michael Mann’s Manhunter from 1986 and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon from 2002. They’re both adaptations of Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel, Red Dragon, but they both tell the same story, so for the sake of argument we’ll let Red Dragon qualify as Manhunter’s remake.
WHAT ARE THEY ABOUT?
Again, both Manhunter and Red Dragon are adapted from the same novel, so their plotlines are mostly similar. In both films, FBI profiler Will Graham (CSI’s William Peterson in Manhunter, Ed Norton in Red Dragon) is called back from early, early retirement to help the FBI, and specifically agent Jack Crawford (played by Dennis Farina and later Harvey Keitel), catch a serial killer known only as “The Tooth Fairy,” who has been murdering entire families every time there’s a full moon. Graham is an atypical hero for these kinds of movies, however, as he’s empathic to an almost debilitating degree. Years prior to the Tooth Fairy killings he captured Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Brian Cox, later Sir Anthony Hopkins), but then had to be institutionalized in order to get Lecter’s sociopathic thoughts out of his head.
In an effort to placate his family’s concerns for his psychological wellbeing, Graham first tries to distance himself from the case by acting mostly as an inconspicuous consultant, but his cover is blown by a paparazzo named Freddy Lounds (Avatar’s Stephen Lang, later Philip Seymour Hoffman). Lounds catches Graham on camera after he visits Hannibal Lecter for advice on the case, making Graham and his family a potential target for the murderer. Meanwhile, Lecter is playing games of his own and corresponds with The Tooth Fairy, secretly giving him Graham’s home address and an invitation to “kill them all.”
With Graham’s character established, each film eventually begins cutting between his efforts to catch the killer and the killer himself, Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan, later Ralph Fiennes). Dolarhyde begins a romantic relationship with a blind co-worker named Reba (Joan Allen, later Emily Watson) that seems to set him on a path to retirement, if not necessarily redemption. But by now Graham is closing in, setting the stage for a climactic showdown between the hero and villain.
From a plot perspective Manhunter and Red Dragon are largely similar, but Michael Mann took more liberties with the source material, mostly in an effort to showcase Will Graham as the clear protagonist. Dolarhyde isn’t revealed as a character until over an hour into the movie, and Hannibal Lecktor (his last name somewhat inexplicably spelled differently here) is given significantly less screen time than in Red Dragon, either the book or the movie. Brett Ratner’s movie obviously had a mandate to include as much Hannibal Lecter as possible, as evidenced by a prologue showing the fateful night in which Graham caught him, and a coda which segues directly into his first appearance in The Silence of the Lambs.
Mann’s film, which he also wrote, first introduces Dolarhyde after he attacks Freddy Lounds, bringing him into the story when he first begins to interact with its protagonists. Ratner’s film introduces Dolarhyde more arbitrarily about 40 minutes into Red Dragon, and incorporates him more as a protagonist throughout the movie, highlighting various aspects of his character that Mann chose to ignore, including extensive tattooing and a closer look at the years of abuse that transformed him into a monster. That said, Mann’s film has more overt sympathy for the character, and as a whole Mann spends more time getting into each character’s psyche than Ratner, who appears to be more interested in the external plotline.
The biggest story difference between the two films is their climax, which Mann staged as a showdown between Graham and Dolarhyde at the latter’s home, when Reba is in peril. Ratner’s film, written by Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally, keeps that sequence but continues along as the book does, with Dolarhyde escaping to menace Graham’s family at his own house. Thematically the biggest difference is that Mann takes the story’s theme of empathy and runs with it, while Ratner uses it as an occasional plot device to aid in telling his potboiler. More on that later.
Stylistically, Manhunter and Red Dragon are wildly different movies, with Michael Mann’s version representing a sparse visual aesthetic and Brett Ratner’s looking more like a Hammer horror movie. Both films were shot by talented director of photography Dante Spinotti, who also worked on such gorgeous films as L.A. Confidential and The Quick and the Dead, and his work on both of these movies is impressive despite the contrasting styles. Mann’s film offers a cool palette of blues and whites, while Ratner’s film favors grimy greys and warm, fireside reds. Mann’s film relies largely on the synth soundtrack style that was popular in the 1980’s but failed to catch on in a permanent basis, while Ratner’s film features a bombastically scary score from Danny Elfman. It’s practically apples and oranges, here.
WHICH VERSION IS BETTER?
Manhunter, in every single way. Manhunter may in fact be one of the very best serial killer stories told in any medium, while Red Dragon is, at best, a watchable love note to Anthony Hopkins’ performance in The Silence of the Lambs, regardless of how well this kind of fan service fits into the actual movie. At worst, it’s just awful.
It mostly boils down to that theme of “empathy” from before. The story of Manhunter, beyond mere plotting, is about empathy. It permeates throughout the entire film, and is enhanced by the foregrounding of Will Graham as a character. Graham is disturbed by his own ability to think like a homicidal maniac, and is visibly shaken by his own psychological tendencies. In Manhunter, he only succeeds in catching the killer by successfully thinking as he does, and grows as a character by balancing his empathy for the abused child along with his moral outrage at the adult that child became. In Red Dragon, Will captures the killer thanks almost entirely to the efforts of Hannibal Lecter, has few problems with his mental state and only gains an understanding of Dolarhyde after finding his journal, and not through the supposed “gift” that made Jack Crawford bring him back from retirement in the first place.
Various contrasting sequences reveal Manhunter to be the superior film. In Manhunter, Will Graham visits Hannibal Lecktor to return to that terrifying mindset he’s spent years trying to avoid. Mann stages the sequence in a stark white room (imagery he will later revisit when Will regains the killer’s point of view) at the top of a tall building, and positions each camera angle to emphasize Graham and Lecktor’s many similarities, represented by the fact that each of them are behind bars. Lecktor speaks to Graham as an old friend, someone with whom he has an intimate connection, and Graham is so terrified by that possibility that he literally flees the building, racing down multiple flights of stairs in a panicked effort to distance himself from the maniac Lecktor, and the maniac Graham fears he could become.
In Red Dragon, Graham visits Hannibal Lecter at the behest of Jack Crawford, specifically to seek his aid in investigating the Tooth Fairy: an example of plot over substance. Lecter’s relationship with Graham is the same as his relationship with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. He’s a detached psychologist with, at best, respect for the person on the other side of his bars. Graham departs their meeting calmly, if unhappily, and keeps going back to Lecter repeatedly throughout the narrative, their relationship never evolving over time. In Manhunter, Graham sees Lecktor more sparingly, but their final scene together takes place over the telephone with both characters physically relaxed and chatting about news of the day like old, albeit estranged friends. In one film the characters actually grow, and in the other they are merely instruments with which to progress the plot; a plot that is rendered meaningless in the absence of that growth.
The cast of Red Dragon, it must be admitted, is truly stellar, with a veritable “Who’s Who” of great, award-winning actors who have done brilliant work in other, better films, and as such it can be intuited that the director is to blame for their uniform blandness here. Brett Ratner has become a popular punch line for many film critics, thanks largely to his abysmal X-Men: The Last Stand, and unfortunately does nothing to dispel that stigma here. His film is sometimes competently constructed but lacks anything resembling insight, which is tragic since insight is literally what the story Red Dragon is all about.
Unlike Mann, who admittedly has proven himself to be one of the greatest directors alive (Public Enemies notwithstanding), Ratner does seem committed to adapting his Red Dragon faithfully from its source material. But also unlike Mann, he seems to have no greater purpose behind this decision other than mere fan service. Fans liked the portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and so they get more of that here, even though that portrayal does a decided disservice to Ratner’s own film. Even his faithfulness to Jonathan Demme’s classic movie is surface at best. Ratner retains the production design of Lecter’s subterranean dungeon of a prison cell but eliminates the sound design that made that location feel so hellish, like the submarine noises Demme included to sell the mood of utter, physical depth. The result is a forgettable depiction of a place unforgettably portrayed in a previous, better film.
I could go on for pages, but the finale is particularly telling. Manhunter concludes before the book does, with Graham actually reaching Dolarhyde in time to save Reba and, ultimately, the day. And he does so by thinking like the killer, to the extent of scouting the house in the exact way Dolarhyde surveyed the homes of his victims. This ending also emphasized the relationship Dolarhyde had with Reba, which Mann treats with the same understanding that Will achieves. In Manhunter, Graham comes to learn what, exactly, Dolarhyde thinks he is transforming into through the act of murdering people he desired: a creature capable of being desired himself. Dolarhyde thinks he’s achieved that state when Reba appears to love him, but finally projects his own insecurities onto her and assumes that she has betrayed him. As such, her final plight becomes the climax of the movie, since it represents Dolarhyde’s ultimate tragedy, and since Graham’s entire purpose was to comprehend that tragedy himself.
In Red Dragon, Graham never comes to an understanding of Dolarhyde’s psychology, and is in fact too late to save Reba, who survives Dolarhyde’s attack through her own personal wherewithal. Dolarhyde escapes to menace Graham’s own family, but the threat is no longer personal, even to Graham. In the end, he bests Dolarhyde by exploiting his frailties rather than empathizing with them, and as such anything resembling a “point” is lost and the film pretty much falls apart as anything other than an unusually well cast “B-Movie,” focused more on now familiar genre conventions than the kind of meaningful insight Michael Mann was able to infuse into the same, intense storyline.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
See Manhunter. Find it, watch it, and marvel at its masterful balance of serial killer suspense and genuine depth. As for Red Dragon, pretend it never existed. You’ll be glad you did.
And come back in two weeks for more Remake Rumble!