My Remake Wish-List: THE WAGES OF FEAR
Every so often, I see a movie, and I think "Gee, I wish I could make that movie again!"
The Hollywood methodology for remakes and reboots involves a desire to repeat success. A story was great on screen once - it can be great on screen again! My remake wish-list is a little different. To me, a film makes it onto the list if there's something about it that I wish had been done differently. For many years, Barry Levinson's adaptation of Michael Crichton's Sphere topped my remake list. I loved the weird, quiet creepiness of the book, the film maintained none of that atmospheric tension. The movie could have been so much better!
I have other films on my Remake Wish-List, and I recently added a big one.
The Wages of Fear - a 1953 white-knuckle thriller from director Henri-Georges Clouzot, is a much-imitated classic. As I've written about before, Spielberg's Duel was heavily influenced by The Wages of Fear. The film was remade already: William Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977) is a very close American copy of the French original (though it cites the novel, rather than the film, as its source material). A recent episode of "The Mandalorian" also reimagines the story quite effectively in a sci-fi setting.
So why remake this classic? Especially since it's already been remade?
As I mentioned above, I'm not looking to remake great films (though I'd argue The Wages of Fear is pretty great). I'm looking to remake films that I wish had been done differently.
My issue with The Wages of Fear is its long, tedious first act. The basic premise of the film is that four desperate men are hired to drive two trucks full of highly volatile nitroglycerine across hundreds of miles of bumpy terrain. And once the trucks start rolling, it's white-knuckles all the way. But it takes a really long time to get to that point when the trucks start to roll. We meet all our drivers, get to know their issues, their fears, the things they're running away from... and most of it is entirely uninteresting.
What surprised me most about the Friedkin remake is that it makes this same mistake. The first act feels utterly interminable, and the trucks don't roll out until much later in the story. In fact, some of the tense set-pieces from the second half of the original film don't even make it into Friedkin's version. Friedkin says that he envisioned the film almost as a silent movie - with as little dialogue as possible. It's true, there's hardly any dialogue once the trucks start to roll. Although I think that's an admirable goal for a filmmaker - tell the story with pictures more than words - I think it results in an even worse imbalance between the 'set-up' in the beginning and the 'payoff' of the journey itself.
I think there's a way to re-structure this narrative. The trucks should start rolling no more than 25 minutes into the film. Yes, we need to get to know the characters, but (with respect to Friedkin) they can talk to each other while they're driving - we don't have to get through all four complete backstories before they start their engines. The episode of "The Mandalorian" that repurposes this story seems to work for this reason. It's not a movie, so it doesn't need to fill two whole hours. Also, as an episode somewhere in the middle of a season, it doesn't have to spend time introducing the central character of the story. We can dive right into the action and stay with it all the way through to the end.
But I don't think "The Mandalorian" is the end of this story. In a feature version, the trucks' journey could easily be expanded (through different terrain, perhaps? None of the adaptations include any ice or snow, for example) and the characters could become fleshed out during the drive rather than all at the beginning. The Wages of Fear could make a really great 21st century thriller. And I'd love to write and direct it. That's why it's on my Remake Wish-List.
Do you have a movie on your Remake Wish-List? Let me know in the comments!