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.