Consider the remake. Almost as long as people have put stories on screens, other people have come along to remake them: as early as 1919, John Ford remade Edward LeSaint's 1916 Western The Three Godfathers as Marked Men; The Maltese Falcon may be immortal, but it came only after two previous stabs at the subject material. The reasons to remake a movie or television series are legion: to make money off a commercially viable idea with untapped financial potential; to translate a movie or television series so viewers won't have to read subtitles or mentally translate cultural idioms; to update a promising idea based on shifting politics or norms; or simply to refine the ideas of an earlier work of art. We so awash in remakes, revamps, translations, and updates that it's easy to forget the higher artistic purpose of variation on a theme.
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In weighing the merits and weaknesses of remakes, it's instructive to examine three British television shows or series that American networks and studios have adapted, tried to adapt, or are adapting right now. In a three-part series, I'll look at Prime Suspect and State of Play (both of fairly recent vintage—they ended their runs in 2006 and 2003, respectively), and Being Human (about to begin its third series on BBC). Shot in English, none of them required a remake that would eliminate subtitles. None of the shows involve exceptionally British cultural idioms that would be unfamiliar or unengaging to American audiences. All of the originals are excellent. And yet they've been reclaimed, repurposed to new ends. And they each tell us quite a bit about what makes remakes work—or what makes them inherently unremakable.
The American version of Being Human, which debuted last week on Syfy, is being advertised as original programming—a characterization that's prompted grumbling from blog commenters who love the original. The show, about a vampire and a werewolf who become roommates, only to find themselves living with a ghost, certainly reads like something that ought to have been cooked up by a marketing department eager to capitalize on the madness for Twilight. But in fact, there's something slightly ghostly about the show itself, so close are its visuals and some of the plots it explores in its first three episodes to its British predecessor, which began airing in 2009.
That ghostliness is annoying, because if it dared to diverge more from its source material, or even if it was separated from the BBC's Being Human by a longer period of time, it would be easier to compare the two shows without feeling any particular guilt about Syfy's appropriation. And it would be easier to give Syfy the credit it deserves for fielding a sharp, charming twist on the supernatural that also deftly explores that most important of twenty-something relationships, being roommates. The remake of Being Human loses something ineffably British along the way, and there are areas where its attempts to import storylines fail in translation. But the remake has a stronger mythology, faster dialogue, and through three episodes, a stronger sense of its characters' backstories and how to build multi-hour story arcs than its predecessor did at the same point.
Some of those strengths may be a result of the American pop-culture market. Saturated as we've become in stories about vampires and werewolves, all of whom play by different rules, we demand explanations that explain our supernatural characters' behaviors. Because the American version of Being Human airs not simply on a general interest network, but on Syfy, that demand is even stronger: you can't insult nerds' intelligence when it comes to mythology and expect to get away with it.
In the original version of Being Human, for example, it's made clear that vampires can't derive nutrition from donated human blood—but it's not clear how they survive if they simply starve themselves. In the Syfy remake, Aidan, the courtly vampire, can drink donated blood, but it makes his use of his powers, including significantly enhanced strength and memory manipulation, less than reliable. Similarly, vampires can go into the light because they've evolved from total light aversion to mere light sensitivity. The American version of the show pays similar attention to trifles: Sally, the ghost Aidan and werewolf Josh acquire as an accidental third roommate, discovers in the show's third episode she can cross planes to touch living people, but only if they "warrant it."
It's not merely their supernatural selves that Syfy explicates in a richer way: the remake pays more attention to the human lives of its characters. In the BBC original, we know that the werewolf—named George in that show, Josh in the remake—abandoned his family and fiance once he was turned. But we don't get to see them: we know the basic fact of his loss, but not the painful and specific contours of it.
In the American remake, Josh and his sister Emily cross paths when her girlfriend comes into the hospital where he works. "I really wanted to rub it in his face that I ended up with a Shiksa goddess," she explains to Aidan at one point, at once putting up a facade against the depth of the pain of missing her brother, and imbuing their family's Judaism with a richer significance than the original show does in its early episodes. Aidan's backstory is less concrete, which given that he's several hundred years old, makes sense, but the show finds ways to sketch in elements of it throughout the early episodes. And Sally, who appeared in the British version to have little in her human life except her fiancee before her death, is fleshed out as a blog-reading masters' candidate frustrated by lack of intellectual stimulation until her new roommates come along.
And the remake doesn't just establish the characters' humanity through their pasts. Because American seasons are longer than British ones (the first series of Being Human had 6 episodes, the second had 8—while the remake is tentatively slated for an initial run of 13 episodes), the Syfy show has more time to luxuriate in the little details of how the characters constitute their humanity. As on Community, perhaps the best show on network television, it's often through pop culture: Sally pulls from Bon Jovi lyrics to try to haunt Aidan and Josh; Josh does a decent Julia Child impression in the kitchen. The roommates banter about credit scores and their cooking skills, bargain over the rent and carry thrift store tables down the street.
And the remake succeeds at dramatizing their struggles to maintain their humanity other than during sex (for the vampire) or physical transformation (for the werewolf). One particularly nice moment has Aidan (Sam Witwer, elevating a tall-dark-and-toothy vampire stereotype) stripping off his bloody nurse's scrubs, a desire for the blood so strong it crosses into revulsion twisting his handsome face.
If anything, the remake is too faithful to the original. An attempt to turn Gilbert, a Morrissey-esque depressive specter who died in the '80s and helps Sally come to terms with her ghosthood, into Tony, an American hair-band devotee, sheds much of the charm along the way. Nevertheless, in its appropriations of the broad plot arc of the original, Syfy has deepened the story it chose to work with, even adding a paternal cast and a dedication to his brother officers to the murderous vampire leader Bishop, who works for—and cleans up vampire-caused messes by dint of his employment—the police department.
Nothing about the Being Human remake is necessary. The original show isn't gone before its time. It's not a good concept executed disastrously, or even poorly. The conceptual and plot holes of the original are largely overcome by the sexual charisma of the cast, an alchemy SyFy hasn't quite recreated yet. And the remake will be forever haunted by the original, simply because they are airing so close together. But Syfy's Being Human makes a case for even the most trivial of remakes. There is a tiny pantheon of works that is unimprovable and unimpeachable. Almost everything else can stand a little tinkering by people who are dedicated to the concept—and if there's a little profit to be made along the way, who can blame them?