Are There Re-Makes a-Waiting in Canadian Film & TV?

Looking to Hollywood, re-makes are a veritable sub-industry. Nor is it quite the modern phenomenon some think. Silent movies got re-made as sound movies, black & white re-made as colour, radio shows became movie serials, movie serials became movies, movies became TV series…and back again.

Re-makes can, of course, engender cynicism. “What?” we ask, “can’t they be original?” And we can also feel a bit offended. If they do a re-make of an old classic, and botch it, we think they ruined it. If they do a remake, and do it well…we can feel miffed, as the new generation now embraces the re-make as the “definitive” version.

But maybe there is a cultural and creative value to re-makes — keeping an old story alive, even if in a slightly adulterated form. Is it better to treat a classic film as sacrosanct, knowing that young folks will leave it unwatched simply because it’s old? Or is it better to have it re-made for a modern generation…possibly even bringing the original back into vogue in the process? (How often has a re-make hit the big screens…and suddenly the near forgotten original is cropping up on late night movie shows again?) Some classics become classics…precisely because they are constantly re-imagined. Where would James Bond be if they had stopped when Sean Connery quit the role? Probably another Harry Palmer and hardly the international icon he is today.

There’s even something to be said for remaking bad movies! Movies that had good ideas, but were mucked up in the execution. The late Hollywood director John Huston once made a comment along those lines, that he didn’t see why people re-made good movies…when there were not-so-good movies he’d like to take another try at.

All this got me to thinking about Canadian film & TV. An industry always struggling for success, rarely quite grasping that brass ring. Are there old Canadian movies and TV shows that might warrant a re-make, a re-imagining? Either things that were successful at the time and, possibly, lightning could strike twice…or things that weren’t that successful in their day, but the core idea, the basic plot and characters, held out the tantalizing promise that with a little more finesse, they could’ve worked? And does it maybe lend some credibility to a film if you can say it’s a re-make? Basically suggesting to the audience that the concept has already been taken for a test drive, and was found to be sound…or at least that the bugs have now been worked out?

(And I should mention I’m thinking, as usual, about the English-Canada industry — French-Canada has a history of re-making beloved old classics — such as Les Plouffes and others.)

Curiously, I sat down to write this at a propitious time — because the CBC has recently aired the TV movie Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town which, in addition to being based on a century old book, the material was previously utilized for one of the network’s earliest TV series (back in the 1950s) as well as a radio adaptation (also I believe in the ’50s).

There have been occasional examples of re-makes — or, at least, movies drawing upon the same source material. There have been two bio-pics about Norman Bethune (both starring Donald Sutherland!) and two flicks chronicling Terry Fox’s iconic Marathon of Hope. Though even those examples are few.

Canada perhaps has a legitimate reason to look to remakes — because of the country’s bilingual status. The Two Solitudes, as it’s been called. Might there not be great movies in one language that could find a new audience if re-made into the other tongue? Yet, to my knowledge, there has only been one example of such a translated film — the thriller Liste noire which was re-made as The List. Unfortunately…I didn’t much care for either version (and the English language re-make was set in the U.S. with an American cast to headline; hardly a “Canadian” version of the story). But what about movies with a solid “concept” premise that would probably speak just as well to Anglophone sensibilities as Francophone? What about an English-language La Grande seduction? Or Jesus de Montreal? CBC TV briefly experimented with turning a couple of popular French-language sitcoms into English — Sophie and Rumours. Neither was successful. But maybe there wasn’t enough of a “concept” to them…or maybe that concept didn’t translate well. Personally, I’d think a better candidate for an English remake might be Fortier, a crime-drama about a civilian lady psychologist who aids the police. Or maybe the Twin Peaks-esque Grande ourse. Or the political satire Si la tendance se maintient.

As for old English language movies that might be worth re-visiting? The Changeling was one of a small handful of movies made during the notorious Hollywood North tax shelter era that was actually regarded as pretty good…yet still ended up bombing (not unlike the well-regarded Murder by Decree and one or two others). Everyone who has seen that particular ghost story seems to remember it well…maybe it’d be worth a re-visitation. I’ve always fondly recalled an obscure low-budget thriller called Sudden Fury…yet most people have never heard of it. Maybe it deserves a second audience with a re-make. Or I’ve sometimes thought the alien invasion movie, Starship Invasions, could’ve been a fun little pop corn movie with a little more money and polish. Or private eye Benny Cooperman was featured in a couple of TV movies starring Saul Rubinek — made it’s time to call him out for another case! Maybe Aaron Abrams could tackle the role.

Scanners pretty much put David Cronenberg on the cinematic map, a sci-fi horror movie about telepaths notorious for its gory exploding head scenes. It’s a rare thing in English-Canada to have a Canadian-conceived movie spawn sequels…but Scanners did. A couple of low-budget Canadian ones, with even Americans moving in on the franchise with the “Scanner Cop” movies. Admittedly…I’m not sure what legs the concept has (the sequels all fared poorly). As mentioned, its main claim to fame was the “shock” effect of the violence. Still — it has a “name” recognition factor that might fuel a new movie — or even a TV series (with toned down violence). Hopefully ones with some money and better than the previous, low-budget sequels which were pretty missable. The original Scanners was set in Canada…but the sequels all went the route of being set in the U.S. So maybe it’s time someone returned the franchise to its Canadian roots.

What about Wojeck — English-Canada’s first and seminal TV hit, about a socially crusading coroner? It worked once, it might work again. Granted, it’s a hard formula to get right — DaVinci’s Inquest was a similar idea…but I’d argue wasn’t really anything like Wojeck. Still, worth a thought. So who could play Steve Wojeck today, a role personified by John Vernon as a steely-eyed force of nature? When re-casting signature roles, you don’t want an actor so different that you lose the character…yet it’s probably a futile quest to seek an actor who could just impersonate the original performer. The key is to figure out what is the essence of the character, the characteristics that define him, rather than worrying about whether the new guy looks like the old guy. In that sense, I could almost picture Brian Markinson as a good choice for the takes no guff crusader. For some reason, Currie Graham also comes to mind — maybe ’cause he can look suitably disapproving and he’s got the height more evocative of Vernon.

And what about Strange Paradise? In the 1960s, American TV landed a surprise cult hit with the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. And Canadians followed with the similarly themed Strange Paradise — which enjoys a (minor) cult fame even 40 years later! But a re-make of Strange Paradise would only partly be banking on name recognition…and more on simply being, y’know, a wild story about curses and ghosts! Maybe it could be brought back, not as a TV series, but as a mini-series, or a one-shot movie. So who could play the aristocratic and cursed Jean Paul Desmond (played by Colin Fox originally)? I dunno. Maybe Christopher Heyerdahl. Or Colm Feore. Or Eric McCormack.

Adderly was a comic-adventure series (think Republic of Doyle, only about spies) about a secret agent who could give James Bond a run for his money…who had been relegated to a lowly office after an injury left him with a crippled hand. But his small cases usually kept turning into big ones, anyway. I mean, what’s not to like about a series about a suave secret agent with a signature black glove on one hand who, even with a clipped wing, was still the smartest, toughest guy in the room? Just as a series’ premise, Adderly could probably endure a resurrection. But, with that said, a lot of its appeal relied on Winston Rekert’s irrepressible charm and devil-may-care grin — as well as Dixie Seatle as his admiring Girl Friday. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an obvious replacement…but then, prior to Adderly, I might not have pegged Rekert as so ideal for the role, either. Though part of me could see calling in Vincent Walsh for a line reading.

King of Kensington was a rarity in the 1970s — a successful English-Canadian TV sitcom. Could the trials and tribs of a big hearted corner store owner in a pluralistic downtown neighbourhood stand a dusting off and a re-invention? Perhaps of all the properties here, it’s the one that still retains a certain “name” recognition. I could see Gary Basaraba basically transplanting his performance in Mixed Blessings over to the Kensington Market and taking on the mantle of the King.

And what about the misadventures of…Flavius Maximus, Private Roman “I”? A trademark of the seminal Canadian comedy duo, Wayne & Shuster, was their complex, long form sketches. One of their most famous was their Julius Caesar spoof, “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” — told as a private eye story about a Roman gumshoe named Flavius Maximus played by Wayne. And the duo reprised Flavius at least once (in a sketch called “The Burning of Rome Caper” or something) only with Flavius now a police officer. I’ve always wondered if there was legs to that concept — either as a movie, or a weekly series — a comedy about a private eye in ancient Rome (that could be billed as “based on the comedy of Wayne & Shuster” — now how’s that for Canada honouring its artistic roots?)

And what about…The Starlost? Even today this early 1970s science fiction series retains a certain recognition factor. Unfortunately, it tends to be a negative recognition factor (as in “Oh, I remember that terrible show”). But, y’know, maybe any recognition is better than no recognition (or as Captain Jack Sparrow said, when told he’s the worst pirate someone’s ever heard of: “Ah…but at least you’ve heard of me!”) Besides — the fact that Starlost is remembered is, I think, because it did have something…a mystique…a feeling that if done right, it could’ve been something special. But though Canadians tend to view it as a Canadian series…I get the impression Americans view it as an American series that just happened to be filmed in Canada. Off and on I’ve heard rumours of re-makes being considered…usually from American corners.

Or how about a big budget, live action version of…Rocket Robin Hood! Yeah, that cartoon of the cheesy animation but the irresistible premise of setting the Robin Hood legend in outer space. Granted, I’m not thinking of hewing too closely to the original in terms of characterization or camp quality…but the basic concept is a great hook. Honestly, if you saw it as a kid, no doubt you remember it to this day! Maybe it could be Canada’s first ever stab at a true summer blockbuster! Seriously…if we don’t do it, it’s only a matter of time before Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson does, and they probably wouldn’t even credit its Canadian origin (since I’m not sure you can really copyright the basic idea). For some reason I can picture Alan Van Sprang as Robin (maybe because of his Tudors days as the roguish Sir Francis Bryan) with, I dunno, Mayko Nguyen as Marion and Alan C. Peterson or Graham Greene as Tuck and Tyler Mane as Little John.

Or what about The Mighty Hercules? Couldn’t you just picture a live version with Steve Bacic as the title hero, with that wicked cool ring that used to get struck by lightning (or whatever) to give him super powers? And Michael Eklund could play his wacky centaur pal, Newt. Or am I just getting desperate now?

Strangely, some things don’t quite strike me as candidates for re-makes. The 1980s CBC mystery-comedy series, Seeing Things, had a lot to recommend it: funny, yet with clever mysteries, and wrapped around a “high concept” hook of a bumbling reporter, Louie Ciccone, with psychic flashes that helped him solve the cases. But as much as I think it’s a classic of Canadian TV, I worry it’d be too hard to recapture its spirit again. Maybe it’s just hard to picture anyone but Louis Del Grande as the star! Still, who knows. Maybe a big screen version with Ryan Reynolds. (Added July 29: or a belated thought — maybe Enrico Colantoni would make a good Louie Ciccone). Likewise, I remember liking the old cop drama Night Heat — but other than the “cops on the graveyard shift” gimmick, I’m not sure there’s anything about it that couldn’t be done in any old big city police drama.

Of course, in Hollywood, where decisions are made by studio suits, old properties are optioned and repackaged with new casts and crews as part of the assembly line mentality of Hollywood. In Canada, where it’s much more artist driven, there’s probably less enthusiasm. Filmmakers want to make their own stories…not re-make someone else’s. But in an industry so woefully lacking in hits…or even moderate successes…maybe a certain mercenary pragmatism is not a bad thing.

Maybe picking through the junk yard of old Canadian movies and TV shows in search of that inspiration, that lost classic that can be polished and re-presented for a new audience, might have its value.

Heck, even just looking through the past simply for inspiration, archetypes, rather than literal, direct re-makes is not a bad idea — pop culture sometimes strengthened by a sense of recurring trends and motifs. Though not a re-make, were the makers of the current Victorian detective TV series, The Murdoch Mysteries, entirely ignorant of the earlier The Great Detective — both set in Victorian Ontario, about a police detective (with a coroner confidant), the stories often revolving around historical minutia and “cutting edge” technology? (Funnily, I’d also wonder if The Great Detective might have inspired the BBC Radio series, McLevy). And one can suspect the biological horror of the movie, Splice, was inspired by the early films of David Cronenberg. The TV series Being Erica has been compared by some to the U.S. TV series, Quantum Leap, but I’d argue the Canadian indie film, Fetching Cody, was just as likely an inspiration.

Mining old stories might prove successful for today…and show respect for the past.

And that’s what culture is all about.

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