So many remakes are poor because they lose the attraction of the leanness of the original. Especially in thrillers, bleakness adds to the sinister nature of what is being shown. 'Get Carter' can almost be seen as a docu-drama of people living in northern England in the early 1970s; it shows the wealthiest to the poorest and all kinds of people in between but at best their lives are tawdry, at worst they are grim. No Hollywood drama could come close to that. Why not take the remake's plot and make a wholly differently named movie?
One thing about remakes is Americanisation. Hollywood, for some reason, despite all the scriptwriters there, is always looking for successful stories from around the world, especially France and Japan. 'Ringu' (1998)/'The Ring' (2002), 'Ringu 2' (1999)/'The Ring Two' (1999)(remade by the original director, Hideo Nakata), 'Ju-On: The Grudge' (2003) / 'The Grudge' (2004) (remade by the original director, Takashi Shimizu', 'Honogurai mizu no soko kara' (2002) / 'Dark Water' (2005) amongst others are examples from Japan in the horror category. Hollywood has had an interesting relationship with Japan, people always refer back to 'Sinchinin no samurai' ('The Seven Samurai') (1954) influencing 'The Magnificent Seven' (1960) but there is also an interesting relationship with other Westerns. Partly this is because the Wild West and Medieval Japan, especially the pre-Tokugawa era (i.e. pre-17th century) had similarities in the role of armed individuals working alone in lawless places and the sense of duty, loyalty, courage, etc. The other case cited is 'Yojimbo' (1961) remade as the spaghetti western (i.e. made in Italy rather than the USA but with American actors) 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964). That is only part of the story as 'Yojimbo' took from an American story set in the USA in the 1920s which is most faithfully shown in movie form in 'Last Man Standing' (1996) which took the story back to its roots.
Hollywood has not only drawn from Japan but also European countries. 'Le Retour de Martin Guerre' (1982) was remade very successfully as 'Sommersby' (1993). The story is the same, about a man coming back from wars in the Basque lands of France in 1538 and to 1866 Virginia, USA. The story was a true one, but by putting it into respective contexts for the French and American audiences gives it a connection that creates a logic and a legal dynamic for the stories. The American audiences find it much harder to stomach a sad ending than European audiences do so remakes often have redemption if not survival for the heros of tragedies which is missing from the European originals. This is notable in 'The Vanishing' (1993) which is a remake of the most successful Dutch film ever, Spoorloos' (1988). In my mind 'Spoorloos' is the most successful horror movie ever. It has not blood and gore, and that is what makes it so frightening, because in it evil is not spectacular, it is mundane and that makes it more credible. I am unlikely to be assaulted by a many-headed demon when I walk down my street but there is a chance my neighbour will hit me over the head with a spade an bury me alive in his garden. That is why 'Spoorloos' which its incredibly bleak ending that the hero is futile to prevent, is so grim and will remain with you. In 'The Vanishing' it is all fine because a woman comes and digs him up at the end and he survives to wreak revenge. That shows the difference, I would argue, in terms of maturity (but may be also in national self-perception and self-confidence) between American and European audiences.
As noted above, it seems increasingly common for non-American directors to remake their own films in the USA. I think that is a healthy development as it brings more of the original character of the film to the remake. Increasingly too original actors appear. There may be an earlier case which I am not familiar with but the first time I noticed this was with 'My Father the Hero' (1994) which like the original, 'Mon Pere Ce Heros' (1991) featured the French actor, Gerard Depardieu. The remake 'Just Visiting' (2001) used not only the same writers and directors as in the original, 'Les Visiteurs' (1992) but also the two stars, Jean Reno and Christian Clavier (Clavier was also one of the writers). The original was another big hit in France and a minor one in the USA. Comparing the two shows up more of the differences between the French and American audiences. The story is about a medieval knight, Godefroy de Malfete and his servant, Jacquouille who are transported to modern day France/USA and the humour that arises as they try to deal with modern technology and behaviour. The original is set in a small village in France where Godefroy's descendant still lives though she has sold the castle top a descendant of Jacquouille's. The story is around the two medieval men trying to get home and rectify the accidental killing of Godefroy's prospective father-in-law to maintain the Malfete line. There is much humour over Jacquouille's descendant being wealthy in post-revolution France and the fact that actually the French Revolution did break feudalism for the benefit of social mobility in the country. However, there is also a sense of the importance of ties to the locality. Through re-locating hidden treasure Jacquouille becomes a wealthy man and engineers to stay in 1990s France.
'Just Visiting' had a much budget and so the medieval men, this time Thibault de Malfete and Andre le Pate, travel to modern day Chicago. Their attempts to find a wizard in order to return and Andre becoming wealthy are the same. This time they have to get back to save Thibault's bride and thwart the scheming Earl of Warwick. Their difficulty with cars, using toilets, fascination with light switches, etc. are all the same as in the original. However, in the remake the director and the writers take the opportunities to improve the story in parts. Being in the USA there is emphasis on the country as a land of opportunity and social mobility achieved that way rather than in terms of societal opportunities shown in the original. In addition, the message from 'Just Visiting' is in fact old world values have much to offer and stop you being exploited in the modern world, whereas in 'Les Visiteurs' old world values are relegated to the middle ages and in the contemporary world, it is the contemporary values which work. Julia Malfete, Thibault's descendant in 'Just Visiting' has to learn the values of the medieval person (actually the robust female role real medieval women had rather than the princessified one they tend to be popularly portrayed as having) to boot out her exploitative boyfriend and reclaim her inheritance. Maybe the movie was too far removed from the get-rich-quick, everyone-can-be-a-celebrity attitude of modern day USA to appeal to a US audience. What is improved is the motivations in both the story in France and in the USA which round out the story better without losing the humour or excitement.
Another example in which a remake tackled some awkward aspects in the original plot is 'The Assassin' (1993) (also known as 'Point of No Return') which is a remake of 'Nikita' (1990) a very successful French film. The plot in each is nearly identical, a young female junkie is given the chance of surviving if she becomes a government assassin. The scenes are often identical and while 'The Assassin' tries to be stylish and does it very well, it is difficult to match the savoir faire of the French original. However, the one improvement comes near the end. In the original a 'cleaner' (played by Jean Reno in the original and Harvey Keitel in the remake) tries to stop Nikita completing her mission and yet he is also there to clean up her mess. Thus, his role seems very confusing and it weakens the conclusion of the movie. In the remake, the cleaner is there to finish off the bungled mission and then dispose of Maggie, his motives are clearer and so the tension is more effective.
Now, you have read a long way without me really mentioning any movies for which I feel the remake is better than the original. I think the first one is obvious and that is 'Ocean's Eleven' (1960; 2001). Both effectively are star vehicles, with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Angie Dickinson in the original and George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia and Julie Roberts in the remake. However, the quality of writing is miles better. It is more effective because the focus is on one casino rather than five. That approach would have made the original movie far stronger as separating the cast means losing a lot of the dialogue between then which provides both tension and humour and brings out the diversity of characters which is something you want to highlight in an ensemble movie like either version. Both try to make a good deal of the Las Vegas background but the original loses the tension with the casino owner which is a good element of the remake. The story is much more twisting too (something which was overdone in 'Ocean's Twelve' (2004) to detriment of the movie). I am so glad that they remade this movie. The original is an interesting historical artifact but it is not a fraction as entertaining as the remake (and that is a man, who as you can see from above is not averse to enjoying 1960s movies).
Less clear is the remake of 'The Thomas Crown Affair' (1968; 1999). I accept that the original has a real style in a way that many 1960s movies did that is impossible to replicate today partly as certainly in US films everything is too opulent, forgetting that real style means a degree of sleekness: less is more; more alone is just too much. The key difference between the two movies are the motivations and the actions of Thomas Crown. In the original he simply oversees mundane bank robberies. In the remake he personally carries out thefts of paintings. Now, with the original you keep asking, why if Crown is supposed to be so wealthy does he need to steal more money. In the remake it makes much more sense. He is a thrill seeker, searching for unique experience and in many cases even the most wealthy man cannot buy a unique piece of artwork. In terms of female characters both Faye Dunaway in the original and Rene Russo in the remake are international, well-travelled very strong women which makes them a match for the Crown character played respectively by Steve McQueen (who I think does not lack glamour, but certainly the suaveness for Crown) and Pierce Brosnan respectively. I think Brosnan consequently wins out in the sexiness of the role. Interestingly for a film made in 1999 there is no more overt sexuality than in the original, it is clever enough not to need that.
Another winning element of the remake is the visuals and sound track. Now, I recognise that in some ways it is unfair on the original as at the time, the split screen visuals were innovatory and they do add to the movie, however, the remake's visual referencing of classic artwork, notably at the climax, Magritte's work and the use of classic music from Nina Simone, I feel wins out.
This has been rather a ramble through remakes and their originals. I am sure that remakes across borders and through time will continue. In some ways it is a shame as every remake means another new story is not being made and there are lots of good stories out there. I do hope that directors encouraged to make remakes learn from the good examples and take the opportunity to sew up plot flaws and do not forget that what often made the movie so successful in its original context is its sparseness. Tight, focused movies are the ones which remain with us and to overload them with too much extra is to entirely miss the point and reduces the impact.