If you’re anything like me, you’ve grown a little weary of the glut of remakes, spinoffs and sequels currently saturating the movie industry. As I write this, the latest Star Wars sequel-prequel-spinoff has clasped the zeitgeist and is making all kinds of money worldwide. Within the last 10 years, 8 of the 10 highest grossing movies were sequels, spinoffs or additions to an extended cinematic universe. The current appetite is for familiarity over originality, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere yet.
And it seems like this has persisted for longer than we thought. This week we looked at our first remake; James Bamforth’s The Biter Bit from 1899. Bamforth’s film is a British take on the 1895 French comedy The Sprinkler Sprinkled. You may remember that Sprinkler was something of a hit when it was released, and made tremendous progress towards advancing narrative film. The success of the movie attracted the attentions of fellow filmmakers, who exploited lax copyright laws to develop their own versions of the picture. The result was an avalanche of remakes, which were steadily pumped out over the next five years.
Bamforth’s iteration of Sprinkler Sprinkled isn’t a great movie. It doesn’t improve upon the original premise, nor does it advance the filmmaking medium in any significant way. Yet the movie deserves recognition as a successful remake. Imitation is the currency of filmmaking, and the artform is perhaps more susceptible to copying than any other. On the contrary, movie production encourages replication, not only as a money-making endeavour, but as a means to maintaining the status quo. Filmmaking is built upon a very specific grammar, and audiences subconsciously recognize and rely on this grammar to lead them through a story. Every once in a while an innovator will tamper with movie conventions and create something extraordinary, but movies remain stagnant for the most part. Even within the latest blockbuster smash, you find the DNA of filmmaking’s earliest productions.
Perhaps reproductionists like Bamforth recognized the stagnation of moviemaking before their contemporaries. Whether or not you agree with the remake ethos, you have to admit that Bamforth had the business-savy to survive in the early days of motion pictures.