"West Side Story" and the Remake Question
As a long-time fan and student of all things Spielberg, I made sure to find my way into a movie theater on the opening weekend of his remake of the classic 1961 musical, "West Side Story".
Just a few days earlier, a producer friend of mine asked me the question: "what are your thoughts about remakes?" The question was on my mind when I watched (and enjoyed) Spielberg's remake.
In exploring the question, it's useful to define the landscape a little. It turns out that defining a 'remake' can get a little tricky. This is because a remake is a form of adaptation of prior material. Adaptations have been around as long as stories have been stories. "West Side Story" is itself an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", which is an adaptation of the tragic romance of Tristan and Isolde.
Why are those 'adaptations' and not 'remakes'? To me, it seems that it's a matter of what changes and what doesn't. The core structure of the story is consistent across the versions: two people from opposing factions fall in love, and fight (and fail) to escape the fate of people who are traitors to their 'tribe' (even if they are traitors for the sake of love). But that's just a framework. Each iteration of the story dresses that framework in different materials: the opposing factions are families in Shaekspeare, race-framed gangs in "West Side Story". The characters have different names. Tristan becomes Romeo becomes Tony. The setting, the dialogue, the details and specifics all change. But this is all 'dressing' over the same narrative frame.
In the case of these adaptations, they often also cross from one format to another. "Tristan and Isolde" is a folktale, written as a book eventually. It was adapted by Shakespeare into a stage play. "West Side Story" adapted Shakespeare's tale as a stage musical in 1957 - a genre shift within the same medium - before jumping from the stage to the screen in 1961.
In movie history, adaptations are frequent. Almost all major movies these days are adapted from prior "IP" ("Intellectual property"). Superhero comics, books, plays, magazine articles, etc. are all fodder for Hollywood stories. It's arguable that all stories are, at their core, a version of one or several proto-narratives. It's possible (and I find this to be true) that there is no purely 'original' story. For this reason, an argument against adaptation in Hollywood is an argument against storytelling itself.
But remakes are something more specific than just adaptation. Typically, in a remake, the character names are the same. The setting is the same. In some cases, even lines of dialogue are the same.
In theater, this actually happens all the time. Every time a theater mounts a production of "Romeo and Juliet", they're essentially remaking Shakespeare's original. They're using the same script, but the specifics of the performance change. No one seems to object to this practice in theater because it's essential. A play that is not performed is effectively dead.
Movies are different because they are a recorded medium. Although the original "West Side Story" was released in the early 1960s, I can still see it (in fact, I have the VHS in my collection, and my VCR still works...) There is no need to re-tell the story: as long as the recording is available, the movie remains alive.
For this reason, remakes often beg the question: "why bother?" Fans of an original film often find the very idea of a remake objectionable. Why try to recapture magic that's already been captured? Why make a new movie when you can still enjoy the old one?
The answer can be found back in the theater. Productions that 'remake' Shakespeare plays rarely make an effort to match the details of Shakespeare's original productions. One of my favorite theater experiences was a high school production of "Macbeth", directed by Jason Slavick at Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts in the early 2000s. The production borrowed a "Mad Max" post-Apocalyptic deisel-punk aesthetic and staged the play in the round, with the audience completely surrounding the stage. It was brutal, intense, raw... and completely unlike anything Shakespeare could have imagined. (And let's not forget what might be the most shocking departure from the Shakespearian original: women in the play were played by actual women!)
To me, this is indicative of an important feature of a successful remake: it brings something into the story that was not around, or could not have been done, or was not acceptable when the story was previously told.
Diesel-punk Shakespeare is a bold move. Movie remakes don't need to be so bold, as long as they incorporate something new into the story.
In movie remakes, new elements can be technological (use IMAX cameras or color film), aesthetic (use modern acting methods) or narrative (incorporate technology into the story that didn't exist when the original was made, or work with people who wouldn't have had access to the original production).
"West Side Story" benefits from many innovations on the original, but most of the innovations are subtle. The cinematography and color work is more sophisticated, utilizing technologies that afford a greater degree of flexibility than the original filmmakers could have dreamed of. The performances are more naturalistic, suiting our current "method"-inspired tastes better than the more heavily stage-influenced performances of the original. Perhaps most significantly, the remake strives for (and largely achieves) an authenticity that's missing from the original in the casting of Latino actors in Latino roles, and in permitting Spanish to weave in and out of certain key scenes - choices that could not have been made for cultural reasons in the early '60s.
A brief aside about the use of Spanish without subtitles: The Jawas in "Star Wars" are rarely subtitled, and I don't hear any complaints.
But innovation alone isn't enough of a reason to justify a remake of a classic film (in my humblest opinion). So there are new cameras? So what?
Ultimately, the innovations that are woven into a remake need to somehow elevate the story. To make it better. This is why fans often object to remakes of films that they love. "How could it possibly be better?"
I've only seen the new "West Side Story" once, so it's hard to recall precise details, but I think Spielberg found innovations that did improve on the original. The use of Spanish and the Latino casting didn't just give the film a new degree of authenticity, but - to me, at least - it helped make the story clearer. I remember being confused by the original. Who's who? Why are they at each other's throats? I couldn't tell the difference between the Sharks and the Jets.
Another interesting consequence is that the authentic portrayal of the Puerto Rican characters opens the door for a more honest look at the white kids - a portrayal that would ring false and hypocritical if it were one-sided. And this, in turn, contributes to an overall re-balancing of the story. The Sharks and the Jets are - ultimately - both victims as well as perpetrators, sucking each other deeper into cycles of brutality and hatred.
In the original film, I never really responded to "There's a Place for Us". It's a lovely song, but I didn't really get it. Spielberg's version made me sob. By making changes that could only be allowed by today's sociopolitical climate (as opposed to that of the '60s), Spielberg was better able to paint a world where hatred begets hatred, and where "There's a Place for Us" becomes a true prayer - a wish uttered by lovers and dreamers for a world where "we'll find a way of forgiving".
So when I'm asked "what are your thoughts about remakes?" I say it depends. Does the remake introduce something new to the story that couldn't have been part of it before? Does the innovation somehow change or elevate the way the story comes across? In other words, does the remake justify itself? To my mind, "West Side Story" certainly does.