Is a ‘Birds’ Remake a Bad Idea for Universal?

In the past, remakes of Alfred Hitchcock films have not been well received. Is Universal Pictures taking too much of a risk by moving forward with "The Birds"?

Mar 3, 2014 at 11:25AM

In general, Alfred Hitchcock's films tend to stand alone. While sequels, remakes, and adaptations have been made of his work, they typically pale in comparison to the originals and are sometimes even met with hostility from Hitchcock fans. Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Pictures learned this the hard way in 1998 when it released director Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho; the $60 million film was panned by fans and critics and was a commercial flop that earned only $37.1 million worldwide.

Despite this, Universal is ready to try again with a remake of The Birds. Produced by Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes and Mandalay Pictures, the film has been trying to get off the ground for over a decade. Is it finally time for The Birds to spread its wings, or is it doomed to crash and burn?

Avoiding the Psycho approach
The Birds does have one thing going for it that Psycho didn't: it's not a direct remake of the Hitchcock film. Psycho attempted to largely recreate Hitchcock's film, going so far as to use the same camera motions and largely attempting a shot-for-shot remake. The Birds, on the other hand, is simply a new adaptation of the short story of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier that inspired Hitchcock's movie.

This works to the film's advantage in two ways. With Psycho, the similarities between the two films made it very easy to compare them and see which was superior; The Birds won't have that direct comparison, giving it a greater chance to stand on its own merits. With it being an adaptation of the short story instead of Hitchcock's film, it also can take a different direction on the story and separate itself from Hitchcock's version even further.

The focus on readapting the short story may even allow it to be closer to the original story than Hitchcock's film was. If the film manages to pull it off, this literary accuracy could be a marketing point for Universal when it comes time to promote the film.

Birds of a feather
Universal isn't the first studio to release a remake or new adaptation of works considered to be a classic. Disney's (NYSE:DIS) 2013 film Oz the Great and Powerful received criticisms early on from fans of the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, and the film's promotion did a lot to separate it from the classic by establishing it as a prequel to the book series by L. Frank Baum. (The film couldn't be done as a direct prequel to The Wizard of Oz due to that film being owned by Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) Warner Bros.)

Of course, Warner Bros. isn't immune to the desire to remake films either. It was recently reported that Alcon Entertainment and Warner had cast Luke Bracey opposite Gerard Butler in the upcoming remake of the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze film Point Break. Fans of the original have been less than kind to the possibility of a remake, especially with a relative unknown like Bracey taking one of the lead roles.

Can The Birds buck the trend?
Remakes often suffer from comparisons to the original films, regardless of whether those comparisons are justified. In the case of The Birds, because it's a readaptation of the original short story instead of a true remake of Hitchcock's classic, it's possible that the inevitable comparisons will miss the point since director Diederik Van Rooijen isn't trying to remake the 1963 film.

While Van Rooijen isn't well known in the U.S., his Dutch films such as Taped and Daylight have received positive reviews that attest to his ability to create tension and suspense on the screen. That could give The Birds a chance to shine as a worthy adaptation alongside Hitchcock's take, provided that there isn't too much of an attempt to make it into an action film or stereotypical horror movie (which some moviegoers worry about as soon as Michael Bay is listed as a producer).

Universal may have a really solid film on its hands, provided that it can escape from development hell and actually get made while Van Rooijen is still attached. The bigger problem will be whether it can promote it well enough that it can escape Hitchcock's shadow and be seen as its own film instead of just another "remake."

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John Casteele has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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