Character Longevity & the Necessity of Reinvention

Remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations are more popular in modern entertainment than ever before. Calling upon familiar characters and well-loved storylines is the easiest way to hook potential audiences and hopefully guarantee a return on investment.

But while this method may often be the result of a cash grab, the reinvention of characters and their legends has existed for centuries before the invention of film.

The retelling and reinvigoration of characters is a natural part of storytelling dating back to the oral history of ancient Greek stories like The Iliad. Ancient mythical heroes like Hercules, Robin Hood, and Thor owe their centuries-long longevity to consistent reinvention. While their ancient tales may have been set in stone for some time now, these now-untouchable tales were tweaked and expanded across the span of hundreds of years. Today, these original stories are used as springboards for new interpretations in various forms of media while still preserving the long-loved originals. While not all of these new versions may pay proper due to the classic tales, consistent reimaginings are what add new blood and keep these characters alive.

However, reinterpretations are some of the most controversial stories around. Characters that are subject to reboots and their ilk are candidates for a reason – they are well loved by countless fans and have been for a very long time. Changes to personality, appearance, and their stories are sure to be met with outcries, both legitimate and unwarranted. But where is the line drawn between reinventions that keep characters relevant for new generations and those that tarnish the legacies of a perfectly fine creation?

When is it Finally Time for a Rebirth?

The truth is, any movie studio or entertainment company will jump at the chance to reboot or restart a franchise and a well-loved character at the first sign of interest from audiences. But that does not mean a character is truly ready for a redo. The most successful and deserved reinventions of long-lived characters typically involve at least one or more of the following factors, each of which can result in a reinvigorated and possibly better than ever take on someone who has existed for decades or possibly even centuries.

Exploring New Depths

While many of fiction’s most well-loved characters have interesting backstories and a vibrant personality, it’s surprising how many have vast parts of their story unexplored or who exist on a relatively shallow level. A character like Boba Fett has been loved by fans for decades, despite being basically a cool looking bounty hunter and not much more in the Star Wars films. So it’s clear that audiences are interested in having the character revisited and expanded upon through a new film, which will most likely happen sooner rather than later. While not every character needs to be given some sort of traumatic past and intense psychological profile (Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is the poster child of unnecessary exploration), new stories that expand a once shallow character can easily breathe new life when done right.

The Involvement of the Creator

If there is anyone who understands a character best, it’s most likely to be the person that created him or her in the first place. So a reboot of a series or a new entry into a long-dormant franchise that is either blessed by the creator or actually done by the original writer or director has a solid chance at being true to the spirit of the originals. However, the risk here is that the new entries may feel stale or be entirely misguided due to a lack of passion or understanding, as the creator may have simply lost his or her interest or investment in the project.

These two potential results are exemplified by the difference between two writers/directors named George. On one side is George Lucas, whose revisits to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises were met with hatred by fans due to poor quality and a general misconception by Lucas concerning what fans wanted in the modern era. On the other side is George Miller, who gave new life to the Mad Max franchise with the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, which blew the minds of both long-time fans and new arrivals to the franchise alike. While both were the result of creators who wanted to recapture the series that put them on the map, only one still had the drive, creativity, and willingness to listen to others in the moviemaking process in order to create something new and great.

Departing from Tired Interpretations

It seems like almost every reboot, remake, or restart of a franchise in the modern era takes the same approach. Take a beloved character, restart everything, set it in modern times, make everything darker, grittier, and more violent, and give everything a generally bleaker outlook. While this may work for compatible characters, such as Batman, it homogenizes fiction. When every franchise has been turned into the same dismal and dreary affair, why should anyone get excited about the rebirth of a beloved character?

While dark and gritty may be the trend in most remakes today, movie studios and creators are guilty of homogenizing properties across the decades, they just had a slightly different flavor that they all used. Many franchises in the ‘80s and ‘90s chose a lighter and more family friendly approach to reinvention, with a lovable kid character often thrown in. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, many new and old franchises were infused with aliens and space travel, tying in with then-modern obsessions and fears. The only reason these trends change is when a film or book decides to do something different and majorly succeeds, leading to everyone else following the brand new trend. Anyone who decides to ignore the tired trends in their new take on a character will not only be thanked for doing something fresh, they can become a tastemaker in the larger scheme of things.

Picking a Weak Character for Reinvention

By far the easiest way to find success in rebooting an old character is to perform the process on one that has lost favor with fans or was never that interesting to begin with. While the argument can be made that creators should just create a brand new character altogether, not every reinvention has to be a matter of finances. Rather than picking a well-loved hero or villain that fans believe does not need to be rebooted, writers and directors can dig into the movies, books, or TV shows that they loved years ago and find a diamond in the rough – something or someone that has been overlooked by most people, but has true value hidden deep within. While this may not have the best track record for success, the concept of reinventing weak characters and franchises is most often applied to properties from the 1980’s, such as The A-Team, Robocop, and more. Many of these franchises are very much dead, but still have love from fans. Maybe going back further in time and finding less known ideas can help the chances of this process.

However, even the best intentions behind a rebirth can lead to poor results. From bad execution to fatigue from sequel after sequel, there are countless ways in which these reinventions can go horribly wrong.

The Best of Reinvention

Yes, there have been plenty of poor reinterpretations of characters both old and relatively new over the years (see my Gritty Reboots post for many of those), but we’re going to focus on the positives of reinvention.

Sherlock Holmes – Easily one of the most recycled characters in all of fiction, Holmes has been the subject of countless interpretations ranging from faithful to nearly unrecognizable. The most successful clearly is the modern day-set Sherlock BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Mad Max – The newest entry on the list, Max Rockatansky and his post-apocaluptic wasteland have been given new life thanks to Mad Max: Fury Road. Creator, writer, and director George Miller has brought the series roaring back to life in a film that isn’t a reboot, but helps reinvigorate the franchise with a bold new vision and new star – Tom Hardy.

Lara Croft – Long known for her audacious pixelated looks instead of personality, the titular Tomb Raider was reborn in 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot video game. Here, Lara is human in looks, actions, and personality, instantly making her one of modern gaming’s leading ladies.

Link – If it wasn’t apparent in the first few game, it’s clear now that Link is a videogame character that is heavily tied to reinvention. While it’s not made explicitly clear, the hero of Hyrule played in The Legend of Zelda videogame series is actually multiple characters, each of whom is a reincarnated version of the hero destined to battle evil and save the land in a literal monomyth that repeats the heroic cycle again and again.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – They may have only been around for less than 30 years, but the unending popularity of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo is due to a continuous remaking of the turtles and their world. From comics to cartoons to movies, TMNT has been remade literally dozens of times, ranging from violent and dark to campy and colorful, each of which having their own strengths and devoted followers.

Batman – The pillar of reinvention in modern day heroes, Batman has been remade more times than can possibly be counted. While the character has been rebooted in both the world of DC Comics and the many    movies based on him, The Dark Knight has also undergone a multitude of shifts in his ongoing stories, which change him from lighthearted do-gooder to near-psychotic engine of vengeance, depending on who is writing him.

The Planet of the Apes – Not only was this a franchise that was long dead, it was one that was seemingly killed forever at the hands of a truly terrible remake – Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes in 2001. So it’s even more surprising that the Apes franchise has been reborn into something new and exciting  thanks to the back-to-back successes of Dawn of and Rise of the Planet of the Apes and a grounded focus on Andy Serkis’ Caesar set in modern times.

James Bond – Agent 007 is a character whose constant reinvention is the key to his longevity, a fact that is known by creators and consumers alike. While the casting of a new actor as Bond is the hard reset for the series, which can often take the franchise from the mercilessly campy to the shockingly stoic, each Bond film is a slight reinvention of the character and the world he operates in. After 50 years, it’s a film series that has ranged from the kitschy Moonraker to the brooding Casino Royale. Your preference is up to you … It’s Casino Royale. Casino Royale is the best one.

Green Lantern – Starting in 1956, DC Comics reinvented almost all of their long-standing superheroes, giving birth to the Silver Age of Comic Books. No hero is more emblematic of that rebirth than Green Lantern, who was created as a magical hero with a ring carved out of a magical meteor. He was then remade as a member of an intergalactic police force whose ring was advanced technology based on the user’s will power. That’s a hard shift and one that is responsible for 60 years of stories that span the universe.

Robin Hood – It’s not an exaggeration to say that Robin Hood has been the subject of hundreds of films since the creation of the medium, just go look it up. While that overwhelming flow of adaptations has slowed in recent years (probably due to audience fatigue), they are what keep the character moving forward and expanding. Of course, the legend of Robin Hood was something that was pieced together through many stories written across the centuries, which turned a simple character into a thriving myth.

Most characters who are decently made will undergo at least one reimagining at some point. However, it’s the best of the best who will be consistently reinvented and spark the love of audiences across the decades. Even a bad reboot can’t keep the true nature of a great creation dead forever. Someone, somewhere will bring him or her back to the core truths and possibly even make that character better than ever. That’s the true power of reinvention. It makes someone’s creation into a living and breathing person that outlives us all.

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