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Categories: Features

Remakes and reboots – can live with them, can avoid them (so some think), John Higgins looks at the history of two of the most successful examples.

It seems these days we can’t read a film magazine or a newspaper article without some studio, worried about declining box-office and spread-sheets, announcing some obscure movie that is going to be transformed into a plus-100 million dollar blockbuster. Will it work? Given a great director and script, anything is possible.

Two novels that have successfully made the transition from page-to-screen over the years, at least twice in both cases, are H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, The War of the Worlds and Jack Finney’s 1955 offering,  The Body Snatchers

Although there were a number of false starts when Paramount secured the rights in the early 20th Century, , the Wells classic finally emerged after it’s infamous Mercury Players / Orson Welles radio broadcast in 1938 (which caused controversy and panic when it’s ultra-realistic factual style led local residents of California to believe it’s beloved state was about to be obliterated), in a 1953 film version from producer George Pal, who had already caused a stir with Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide, which transposed the novel to California at the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Shot in striking Technicolor, the Barre Lyndon script took out much of the original novel’s setting (originally around the English Home Counties and London) and changed the tripodal war machines to manta-ray type ships, with a street light look topped by a devastating heat ray that doesn’t waste any time taking out locals from the minute a trio of townsfolk want to make peace with the aliens – and demonstrates the initial impact in an intense opening ground battle with the military (which could be one of the key influences on the Hoth Snow Battle in The Empire Strikes Back). The late Battlestar Galactica creator and producer Glen A. Larson said in an interview in 1980 that the film was one of his biggest influences.

Although this version of the film doesn’t bear as much reference to the Wells novel, the key elements are intact from beginning to end and the American setting is something that was clearly in advantage to the studio, as one suspects a Victorian-set version might not have the same power of attraction to audiences in the post-war climate.

The 2005 film, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, is resolutely more faithful to the novel, albeit retaining it’s American setting and focuses more on a lone crane worker, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), at home for the weekend to look after his two children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), at the request of his estranged wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto). Robbie vanishes with his car just as a lightning storm hits the New Jersey area when Ray lives and strikes the centre of a junction in the town square, where Ray and others look intently for evidence of why. It is a matter of minutes before a tripodal war machine emerges from the ground and wreaks havoc. Ray and his children escape from the chaos and seek solace from the alien invasion….

Structurally, the Spielberg version contains more of the original novel’s intention, right down to a lone figure, Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) and both versions contain a farmhouse sequence. The Spielberg version contains the Red Weed, described so well in the Wells novel.

The War of the Worlds also inspired a 1980s Television series starring Jared Martin (who appeared in a short-lived 1970s show called The Fantastic Journey and remains a solid point of reference for film-makers.

Equally successfully, Finney’s The Body Snatchers  yielded no fewer than four film versions, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978), Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993) and the Daniel Craig / Nicole Kidman 2007 film The Invasion.

The 1956 Don Siegel and 1978 Philip Kaufman versions are the best loved (the latter recently re-issued in a stunning Arrow UK Blu-Ray edition complete with updated interviews and features, notably on the sound of the aliens mixed by Star Wars Sound Designer Ben Burtt).

Both versions take place in California – the former a small town, the latter 1970’s San Francisco at the height of the post-Watergate concerns, but differ in tone.

The Siegel version is told in flashback when the lead hero is found at the outset at a hospital trying to convince people of the impending doom, whereas the Kaufman version starts off subtly with spores from space landing on foliage as seemingly harmless plants and a more understated developing narrative.

Both versions work on their respective audiences’ expectations in the context of their generational existences and rely more on implication and psychological suggestion than any number of gore-fests, thus making them all the more effective.

The latter version also features cameos from the original’s director and star Kevin McCarthy in an affectionate homage to the original, but doesn’t detract from the power of the black-and-white version (Robert Duvall is also glimpsed just after the opening credit sequence on a playground swing in the 1978 version)

The contrast in look, not just from the monochromatic and colour style of each version, is heightened by the use of light and shadow (thanks to Ellsworth Fredericks and Michael Chapman, who also shot The Fugitive) . However, it is down to the excellent performances in both versions, McCarthy and Dana Wynter in 1956, Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams in 1978, helped by supporting roles from Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright (Alien) and a rare non-Star Trek performance from the late Leonard Nimoy, who actually casts perfectly as Doctor David Kibner)

Both versions remain and retain their power today – and take pride of place not only in the science fiction cinematic heritage, but also as a potent comment of the status quo and zeitgeist of two decades in the 20th Century that defined the development of the United States.

John Higgins

John Higgins is an ongoing Contributing Writer for Film and TV Now, an online Film website, writing reviews and articles. He is also a qualified scriptwriter, having graduated from Euroscript in 2012, and is a member of the BKSTS. In April 2016, he completed an Intensive course in Cinematography with the London Film Academy and is now looking to collaborate on future projects. He also has his own Facebook page: John Higgins - Film Review, which he launched in 2015 - 16.

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Posted on Mar 6, 2017

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