So, what are we to make of the NBC TV Network decision to commit to a remake of the 1968 Roman Polanski movie “Rosemary’s Baby”? Should we follow the quick example many fans of the original had when NBC unveiled these plans — and simply roll our eyes?
It’s true that Polanski’s film is considered a genuine cinematic classic. When The Criterion Collection re-released the movie on DVD in 2012, it drew rave reviews from critics who said it had aged remarkably well, and remained one of the greatest and most influential horror movies ever made – one that not only appears to have inspired 1970s devil movie hits like “The Exorcist” and “The Omen,” but continues to inspire filmmakers today, including the newly released “Devil’s Due,” which the site Fearnet.com called “Virtually a remake (perhaps even a ‘literalization’) of Roman Polanski’s classic Rosemary’s Baby.”
Now, in fairness to the executives at NBC, they might be thinking that while it’s easier to remake a lousy movie and improve on it, the sour reputation given to the original might scare off the audience you want to attract for the new version. So why not ride on the backs of a proven commodity — even if the television version ends up as a stinker?
Television execs actually tried this once before. In 1976, Sam O’Steen, the film editor who had edited “Rosemary’s Baby” and Polanski’s 1974 film noir “Chinatown,” was hired to direct a loose sequel called “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby,” and he even managed to attract the original movie’s Oscar-winning actress Ruth Gordon to reprise her role as Minnie Castevet. Critics wrote it off as an abysmal attempt to cash in on the success of the Polanski hit.
So can NBC do a better job? The executives have already said they want to make a version that’s loyally faithful to author Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, although Polanski’s version was already considered to be one of the most faithful novels-to-cinema adaptations on record; and besides, NBC has already muddied the faithful argument a bit by relocating the action from New York City, as in the book and movie, to Paris.
To be truly faithful to the source material, NBC insists, they’re providing audiences with a lengthy four-hour miniseries that will star Joe Saldana as Rosemary and Patrick J. Adams as her husband Guy, and will be directed by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Agnieska Holland (“Europa Europa”).
NBC might also think they’re on to something considering the success of “The Sound of Music Live,” a live telecast of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that, not coincidentally, is easy to find around Christmas time when many television stations re-air the Oscar-winning 1965 movie version starring Julie Andrews.
It doesn’t always work. TV executives turned the beloved and seminal 1943 movie “Casablanca” into a 1983 TV series with David Soul in the lead, a project that virtually everyone seemed to define as dreadful and not much more.
Then in 1997, we had a miniseries version of Stephen King’s book “The Shining,” which the author himself wrote and which was intended to be a far more faithful version than the 1980 Stanley Kubrick movie. Few critics, though, felt the longer TV version did much to surpass Kubrick’s horror classic with Jack Nicholson.
So it remains to be seen if NBC is on to something here: to take good material and rework it, even at the risk of alienating those who love the original, rather than try to turn a lemon into lemonade. No doubt some fans of the movie, and of Polanski’s work in general, will skip the miniseries altogether and simply presume there’s no way a TV remake can outdo the original – and why mess with success? Younger viewers with no memory of the now 45-year-old “Rosemary’s Baby” are likely to be the best target audience for this one.
Still, it’s interesting that this is not the first Polanski movie to find new life in another medium, either television or the stage. Here are four other examples of Polanski movies that experienced a similar crossover.
DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES – Polanski’s 1967 spoof of vampire films did not do well at the box office, but it has developed a cult following (perhaps partly due as well to the fact that it was the only movie that Polanski made that featured his wife, Sharon Tate – who was murdered by the Manson gang – in a lead role), and it has always remained one of the director’s personal favorites. So much so, in fact, that Polanski was inspired to turn his original script (co-written by the late Gerard Brach) into a musical called “Tanz Der Vampire,” which premiered at the Raimund Theater in Vienna, Austria on Oct. 4, 1997, and continued to run successfully until January 2000. It was also a hit at theaters in Germany and Estonia, although a 2002 Broadway version starring Michael Crawford failed to attract an American audience.
MACBETH – Polanski’s 1971 cinema version of William Shakespeare’s bloody drama divided critics initially. Some American critics felt the movie’s very realistic and gory violence was designed to be a cathartic effort on Polanski’s part to deal with the Manson murders, while other critics sneered at the fact that Polanski filmed Lady Macbeth in the nude – and that the movie was financed by Playboy magazine. Today, its reputation as a brilliantly vivid and horrific nightmare version of Shakespeare’s drama appears to be on the increase. Last November, author and critic Martin Amis paid tribute to it by presenting a screening of Polanski’s “Macbeth” at BAMcinematek in New York. Polanski’s version was also seen as a possible major influence on the current Lincoln Center production of “Macbeth” starring Ethan Hawke, which critic Noah Millman, writing in The American Conservative magazine, said puts the same emphasis on witches and the supernatural that Polanski did.
CHINATOWN – Robert Towne’s original “Chinatown” script, which won an Academy Award for best screenplay in 1974, was supposed to be part of a trilogy that followed the history of Los Angeles through the eyes of private detective Jake Gittes. “Chinatown” was set in the 1930s and the second in the series, “The Two Jakes,” revisited the story in the 1940s. The producer of “Chinatown,” Robert Evans, and lead actor, Jack Nicholson, were keen on making the sequel, but Polanski was not, so Towne himself, after having directed the movies “Personal Best” and “Tequila Sunrise,” felt he could handle the directorial chores. But a falling out between Evans and Towne left Nicholson to assume the director’s chair, and the movie released in 1990 drew none of the acclaim that the Polanski prequel had — or any awards, or much in the way of box office tallies. The final movie in the trilogy, “Cloverleaf,” has yet to be made and probably never will.
THE TENANT — Polanski’s adaptation of the novel by Roland Topor failed at the box office in 1976, but quickly became a cult movie, and has found considerable acclaim since its release on DVD in 2003 as a masterpiece of the horror genre, the third in a trilogy (following “Repulsion” in 1965 and then “Rosemary’s Baby”) about the horrors of urban apartment living. There are critics who consider it the director’s best film, better even than “Chinatown” or “The Pianist,” for which he won the Best Director Academy Award.
Other critics have noted that the central theme of “The Tenant” – a shy, introverted man named Trelkovsky hiding in his Paris apartment, fearing persecution from his neighbors – was a good practice run for “The Pianist,” a Holocaust drama about a Polish Jew, Szpilman, hiding in an apartment in Warsaw, fearing that his neighbors will discover him and turn him over to the Nazis. Both Trelkovsky and Szpilman walk on tip-toe and in hushed silence in their apartments out of fear of making the slightest noise.
In the summer of 2011, the theater group Woodshed Collective used Topor’s 1964 novel as the basis for a stage adaptation, one that was staged inside the West-Park Presbyterian Church and adjoining Parish House in New York City. Woodshed Collective noted when the production was first announced that this play was “inspired by Roland Topor’s book which was famously adapted into a film by Roman Polanski” — indicating a clear debt not only to the original source novel, but to Polanski’s vision of it as well.
Woodshed Collective came up with a script written by six up-and-coming playwrights — Steven Levenson, Tommy Smith, Dylan Dawson, Sarah Burgess, Paul Cohen and Bekah Brunstetter — and employed a company of more than 20 actors on five floors and nearly 40,000 square feet of performance space. Critics loved the result, and the play was named one of the “10 Best Things on Stage in 2011” by The L Magazine. In fact, more than a few critics seemed far more familiar with the Polanski movie than Topor’s book.
Then in 2013, French filmmaker Marek Nurzynski began filming a new adaptation of Topor’s novel, “Le Nouveau Locataire”. The movie, starring actor Francois De Brauer as Trelkovsky, is now in the post-production phase for a 2014 release.
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