How many times have you seen a movie and gone, not bad, but I’d rather re-watch the original.
Remakes are a tough act. Whatever you do, you’ll be compared to the original which must have been great to deserve a remake. Let’s face it, remakes are almost always disappointments.
Unfortunately the same is true for books. Did you read Jurassic Park? No I don’t mean did you watch the film (I won’t descend to discussing the sequels), I meant did you read the novel by Micheal Crichton?
Jurassic Park and The Great Zoo of China
Micheal Crichton can make a mathematician look like the coolest job in the world. A fast paced plot was interspersed with nuggets of genuine science including speculation about the origin of birds, the causes of the dinosaur extinction, DNA replication and computer systems. Though much of the science is outdated, it is still a lot of fun as Crichton plays around with many technical, scientific and philosophical ideas in Jurassic Park.
Matthew Reilly wrote about an overaggressive inferiority complex driven Chinese Zoo full of dragons. Unfortunately for Reilly, dragons are made up creatures. So he relies on made up science and made up gobbledygook technobabble. None of which is as interesting or educational as Crichton’s book about dinosaurs. A well placed fact has tremendous power in a speculative narrative. It holds the action together, it lends plausibility to the visibly absurd scenario, it makes the reader think, really, I didn’t know that … maybe it would turn out that way. A pseudo fact delivered with the same certainty just doesn’t hold up, well it is your story so you can make up what you want. It separates the hard science fiction from the fantasy.
Crichton has justly been criticized for underdeveloped one dimensional characters. Reilly took this to another level. A lower one. The stock characters are sad caricatures of older stock characters who made frequent appearances in Crichton’s works.
To top it off, I found The Great Zoo of China unbearably patronizing to China. The story starts with a discussion of how China for all its growth has yet to produce iconic companies like Apple or Disney. This ignores the fact that practically all these ‘iconic’ companies are dependent on Chinese suppliers and increasingly designers. As someone who has to regularly track the doings of telecom giants like Huawei and ZTE, I found such a view ignorant.
Reilly claimed his inspiration came from a visit to a Swiss museum. I’m not buying it (unfortunately I did buy his book). I think he re-wrote Jurassic Park with just enough changes to avoid a law-suite.
The Nine Princes of Amber and Family Trade
Imagine you wake up in a hospital with your memory lost. Only bit by bit you piece together that you are not what the records say. You are instead the youngest in a line of superhuman royalty who travel through universes and fight for a fabulous throne at the heart of all creation. This is the launching pad for Roger Zelazny’s Amber series.
Charles Stross’s Family Trade also provides a similar pretext where a journalist learns she was adopted and comes across an old family heirloom from her original parents which allows her to enter a parallel universe where she meets her extended family. Again, this is feudal nobility with links to inter-dimensional smuggling and crime syndicates. Sadly, Stross fails to maintain the light and jaunty touch which distinguished Zelazny’s work. The book rambles over uninteresting territory for far too long without seriously moving the plot forward.
At least Stross openly admitted he took his idea from Roger Zelazny and developed it in a different direction.
The Haunting of Hill House and Rose Red
Ok, Rose Red is a TV mini-series and hence doesn’t belong in this list. But I have to talk about this. Shirley Jackson’s 1979 novel is a classic of the terror genre. It was turned into the 1963 film The Haunting and has been endlessly copied and parodied since.
A university professor gathers a team of psychic researchers to spend time in a haunted house with terrifying consequences for all involved. Shirley Jackson got there first and wrote the original and the best version.
Stephen King made Rose Red in 2002 with much the same idea. Even the starting scene where a torrent of stones fall on a house is taken from something mentioned in Shirley Jackson. King did not hide his influence and praised Jackson’s book in a lengthy review declaring it as one of the finest horror novels of the 20th century.
Rose Red is also the only remake of the ones I have mentioned I was able to finish. At some point, the other rewrites just became too tedious to continue.