Every couple of years, someone announces plans to remake THE WIZARD OF OZ. Variety magazine reported that New Line and director Nicole Kassell have a new take on L. Frank Baum's classic in the works, promising a fresh take on the material. You can read the details here, but even the most optimistic movie fans likely furrowed their brows over the announcement. After all, to attempt to remake such a classic, even if it's going to be more faithful to the book, is easily seen as a fool's errand. Filmmakers ask for trouble toying with the great history and affection for Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr in the seminal 1939 film.
Why mess with such success, films that are so beloved, so brilliant, so baked into it our hearts and souls? If you're going to do a fresh take on an adaptation, why not pick from those that weren't successful? Indeed, there are so many examples of a botched Hollywood adaptation crying out to be done better. As a fan and critic, I can think of numerous versions that Hollywood screwed up demonstrably, but let's start with five. (NOTE: There will be spoilers woven into my arguments, so proceed with caution.)
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE
Arguably Agatha Christie's greatest mystery, her 1939 international bestseller has yet to find a definitive screen adaptation on either the big or small screen, even after 25 tries. The first adaptation in 1945, directed by Rene Claire, came closest in capturing all the tension and dark humor of her classic tale of murder. In the story, ten strangers are invited to a weekend getaway on a far-off island by an unknown host named U.N. Owen (get it?). Once there, they are all accused of past murders. Then, they are offed one by one, according to the child's nursery rhyme "Ten Little Indians" displayed throughout the mansion on the island. Who's doing it and why?
The problem with the adaptations done so far is that too many of the screenwriters think they can rewrite Christie. They change characters, plot points, even the murders themselves. They also, more often than not, have failed to grasp her intricate blend of the macabre and gallows humor within the material. It isn't a comedy, but it's cheeky as hell, and more recent adaptations like the 2017 BBC One television version forgot to be funny altogether.
Other adaptations have even screwed with the location, like the 1974 version entitled TEN LITTLE INDIANS that changed the remote island setting to one in the middle of the Iranian desert. Worse yet is that most adaptations have chickened out on the bleak ending of the original novel. Christie had the killer get away with it all, offing every guest and leaving their murders a mystery. Unfortunately, most filmmakers chose to opt for a happier ending with the romantic leads in the piece surviving and thwarting the killer. Even Christie caved in and went with that ending for her 1943 stage adaptation. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is an intricate and rollicking whodunnit begging for someone to do it better.
Another adaptation that has yielded many tries, without particular success, is William Shakespeare's bloodiest and shortest tragedy MACBETH. At least 23 film and TV adaptations have been made, but none stands out as a top-notch version of the material. Orson Welles and Roman Polanski tried, and their efforts were decent, but neither could be qualified as definitive. Shakespeare's material is dark and nihilistic, with two unsympathetic leads in the ambitious General Macbeth and his manipulative wife Lady Macbeth - - no wonder it's proved to be a tricky task to adapt on screen.
Nonetheless, our recent American experience showcasing an administration proving that absolute power corrupts absolutely certainly sets up an audience to appreciate the similar story in MACBETH. The violence wouldn't be too unsavory for today's audiences either, as we are all used to bloodletting even in our regular television programs like the CSI franchise or HBO's offerings. And if Hollywood would cast two great actors capable of making villains sympathetic, why couldn't the flawed leads of MACBETH be rendered utterly relatable? (Two thoughts? Michael Fassbender and Jodie Comer.) There are definitive film versions of Shakespearian plays too, like Laurence Olivier's 1948 take on HAMLET and Kenneth Branagh's 1989 interpretation of HENRY V, so it can be done. If Branagh could give weight and purpose to a comic book adaptation like THOR, one can imagine what he could render with a proper version of MACBETH.
THE SCARLET LETTER
Nathaniel Hawthorne's famed book from 1850 was initially published as a romance, yet most screen adaptations have precious little of such feeling. Granted, the story of Hester Prynne and her out-of-wedlock child Pearl is a dark tale, but there is also romantic longing in it, as well as a character arc involving a woman coming back to life and learning to forgive herself. Most of the film adaptations have been far too dour, emphasizing the tragic side of the story and the dank Puritanical setting. A more inspiring version, with an energy similar to that which Emerald Fennell filled every corner of her black comedy PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN with might just be the right approach to Hawthorne. Anything would be an improvement upon the strained, tough-cookie version of the material starring Demi Moore in 1995.
Prynne's story of being shunned by puritanical Boston society also has relevant motifs that couldn't be timelier today. She is slut-shamed, condemned by hypocrites whose own sins are far worse, and the men in her life represent a patriarchy failing to deal with a strong, persistent female. Roger Chillingworth, her long-lost husband, returns to publicly slander her left and right, and he continually tries to out her lover. That lover is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a forlorn man who cannot give up his position of power to do the right thing because of, frankly, his sense of entitlement. One doesn't have to think too hard to find the relevant equals of such injustices in our modern times. This one almost demands to be redone.
GUYS AND DOLLS
There have been many film adaptations of Broadway musicals that have come up woefully short too, and while it's too early to demand a remake of CATS, it isn't so with a definitive film adaptation of GUYS AND DOLLS. The 1955 version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz isn't terrible; in fact, much of it is quite good. However, it ultimately fails due to one egregious casting choice: Marlon Brando in the lead role of Sky Masterson. He's okay when he's speaking, but his singing leaves much to be desired. And he sings a lot in the film, wheezing and mumbling his way through numerous, gorgeous Frank Loesser tunes. He's the lesser here, for sure.
The role should have gone to Frank Sinatra, an incredible singer, and a terrific actor. Ironically, one of Sinatra's classic croons is of the song "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" sung by Masterson in the show. Sinatra didn't get the lead role though because Brando was a bigger deal at the time. Inexplicably, Sinatra was cast as the comic relief character of Nathan Detroit who only sings in a handful of songs. Though not nearly as comical as Detroit should be, Sinatra's fine in the role, but the dunderheadedness of the casting cries out for a proper remake. At the very least, NBC could give it the TV treatment as they did with their sublime version of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR in 2018.
ANYTHING BY EDGAR ALLAN POE
Shockingly, one of the world's greatest authors has yielded far too many lamentable versions of his major works. Granted, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and HOUSE OF USHER, directed by Roger Corman, are terrific adaptations, but most others are quite forgettable. THE RAVEN and THE PIT & THE PENDULUM are strenuously awful. Is Poe that unfilmable? Not at all, but the problem with most adaptations of his work lies in filmmakers wrongfully stretching his short stories into feature-length films.
Generally, short stories work better as features because films can expand upon the material. Trying to condense a sprawling novel into a two-hour movie is more difficult as it requires cutting so much of the story to fit into its box. So, why did Poe's shorts come up so, well, short? For starters, screenwriters padded the material, adding all kinds of B stories to the adaptations that felt fatty. Sinister characters were given arcs rendering them more sympathetic as well, and tacky, tacked-on love stories were given oodles of screen time. If Poe was alive to see what they did to his work he definitely would've gone on a bender.
Such problems should be easy to correct. Adapt Poe's work into shorts, ixnay the B stories, and forget about love story add-ons. And keep the tone pitch black too. In 2013, various animators created a big-screen anthology of five of Poe's most famed short stories in the horror film EXTRAORDINARY TALES and, while some were better than others, they all were faithfully dark. Look, if Bryan Fuller could make three sublime seasons out of HANNIBAL, with all of its unsavory grotesqueries and murders, a filmmaker of his caliber should be able to make something sublime of Poe's tales.
One could go on and on. There are plenty of works by Stephen King, Neil Simon, and F. Scott Fitzgerald that have been done wrong on screen. Thomas Wolfe's THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is an excellent novel, but its abysmal film is one of film's most embarrassing adaptation. Additionally, Hollywood could remake quite a few comic book adaptations they blundered, starting with a proper interpretation of CATWOMAN. The DC one-off CATWOMAN: WHEN IN ROME by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale is where they should start. Still, Hollywood can begin with the five at the top of this article. Great works like them demand much better versions.
Just leave Dorothy and her pals alone.