Why Remakes Are One of Our Greatest Achievements as a CivilizationS

Whenever a reboot or remake of a movie comes out, people complain that it's "not original." When creators turn a book or comic into a TV show, critics sneer at Hollywood for having "no new ideas." But they're wrong. What remake-mania demonstrates is that pop culture behaves the way folklore has for thousands of years.

That means remakes are part of humanity's oldest storytelling tradition. They are also, arguably, vital to civilization.

How Folklore Works

Today the term "folklore" has come to mean any beliefs that are traditional or based on superstition, but it has a very specific meaning to anthropologists who study it. Folklore refers to storytelling traditions that aren't written down. They are oral traditions, tales that are shared by talking, singing, acting, or whatever else you can do. That means folk tales, songs, and bits of wisdom are passed from one person to the other in an elaborate game of telephone. Your grandmother tells you a story, you tell it to your friend, she tells it to her son, and so on. This game of telephone, however, lasts for centuries and spreads over whole continents. And along the way, the folklore gets changed.

As an interesting aside, anthropologists also talk about "folkways," which are things like recipes, manners, and games that are part of oral tradition too. They aren't stories or narratives, but they are still an oral tradition.

Why Remakes Are One of Our Greatest Achievements as a CivilizationS

Variants

When you hear a folk tale, you aren't hearing the folk tale. You are hearing what's called a "variant." Because folk tales change each time they are told, anthropologists describe them as variations, or variants. Usually a popular folk tale will have regional variants that are recognizable. Take, for example, a common folk tale about a woman who kills herself after her lover leaves her at the altar. Her ghost dresses in white and tries to lure men to their doom at a particularly dangerous curve in the road. People retell this story over and over, and as it spreads it changes. A century after the first morbid person told the tale, you've got a variant with a happy ending that people tell in Germany (the ghost is sent to heaven), and a variant with a horrific ending in Hungary (the ghost eats a little boy). It's the same folk tale, but with two variants.

Often we don't realize this about folk tales and folk songs because today most of our information comes from books put together by anthropologists who listened to one or two variants of the stories and wrote them down. The infamous fairy tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm were simply the regional variants the brothers heard from peasants they talked to in Germany. The same goes for the incredible volume Folk Songs of North America, put together by folklorist Alan Lomax. As folk traditions died out, many of the variants of popular stories and songs were lost because nobody ever wrote them down or recorded them.

Why Remakes Are One of Our Greatest Achievements as a CivilizationS

Originality is a Myth

If you look at remakes and reboots in the context of how most people enjoyed stories for thousands of years, it's easy to see that they are a natural part of human storytelling. When we hear a good story, we long to retell it in a slightly different way. Historically, people might have heard different people performing the same folk tales and songs over and over again in their lives. What made these stories entertaining was hearing the familiar tales tweaked slightly. The fun was in the variants. But it was also in hearing the story again.

The idea that "originality" is what makes stories good is actually a twentieth century idea propagated by a bunch of radical artists and thinkers who called themselves Modernists. They wanted to jettison what they considered the superstitious, narrow-minded thinking of people who loved folklore. So they embraced art and narrative that valued weirdness and novelty over storytelling. Novelists like James Joyce and William Faulkner wrote deliberately difficult stories that tried to express ideas about human experience too complex for oral traditions. Philosophers like Theodor Adorno praised Modernism for refusing to use the tropes of pop culture that make a story easy to follow. Decades later, punk and indie rock embraced Modernist values too, scorning pop music as unoriginal. Even today, many of us are taught the Modernist perspective in school, and wind up believing that what makes a story "good" is originality.

Why Remakes Are One of Our Greatest Achievements as a CivilizationS

Why Remakes Are Good

While there's no denying that Modernist stories can be fascinating and beautiful, that doesn't make them better than folklore. In fact, when it comes to storytelling, one could argue that folklore has had a much more profound influence on civilization than Modernism. We've been telling and retelling stories for thousands of years. We enjoy seeing remakes of our favorite stories because there is pleasure in seeing a twist on a beloved story. But this isn't just about enjoyment. It's also about how we learn. By sharing stories, we explain to each other how we see the world, as well as how we define good and evil (after all, folklore usually has a hero and a Big Bad).

By retelling stories as variants, we do something profoundly important. We show how our views of the world change over time. We reveal that our definitions of good and evil aren't fixed; they can change to reflect new information. If you don't believe me, just compare the novel Dracula to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Oh yes, both are variants on the same story, about vampires from another world invading a nice city. Both are about gangs of vampire hunters who track down and kill the vamps. You could even argue that Buffy is a variant on Mina Harker, who is a heroine in the novel. In Dracula, the vampires are unambiguously evil, grotesque Eastern European monsters who want to steal our women and have no place in London. But in Buffy, you can see that our relationship to the vamps, those "others," has become a lot more complicated. Some vamps are good. Some humans are evil. Women aren't there to be "stolen" by anybody.

Unlike "original" stories, which remain frozen in the amber of history, folk tales are alive. They change with us, and pass along new stories about our evolving civilization. Every variant, no matter how bad, is a sign that our stories are still vital. And if you don't like this remake or reboot — well, there will always be another. Maybe you'll make it yourself.