You can hear the collective groan from all the way across the internet whenever Hollywood announces a new remake. No, their success rate isn’t great. Critics and groaners get one thing wrong, though: Remakes are nothing new. Studios have been remaking their own stories since shortly after creating their first stories. The effect gets multiplied with adaptations of novels and plays, with some films getting cloned so much that we eventually forget all about their origins on the page or stage in the first place.
While no single genre has a monopoly on remakes or quality, there are some that manage to improve upon the film(s) that came before them. From horror films to musicals, everything is fair game for copying. Here are 20 of the best cinematic versions of déjà vu (in chronological order).
1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Believe it or not, it's entirely possible that the most iconic film noir Hollywood ever produced exists only because Warner Bros. couldn't re-release their original version of The Maltese Falcon. The 1931 adaptation of Dashiell Hammet's story, featuring famed detective Sam Spade, was made just before the Hays Code severely disrupted the industry's ability to show racier elements. When the studio couldn't re-release it because it failed to pass the censors, the studio attempted to make an incredibly forgettable comedic version of the story, then smartened up and hired John Huston to make his directorial debut with the now-legendary film featuring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and not nearly as much sexual innuendo as the first.
2. A Star Is Born (1954)
Unique among remakes, the original 1937 version of A Star is Born wasn’t based on a book or any other source material, but it’s been remade four times (once in India as 2013's Aashiqui 2). Something about this story has captured our imagination so thoroughly that every generation seems to get a new incarnation. Yet, with apologies to Bradley Cooper, George Cukor's 1954 remake starring Judy Garland is still the gold standard thanks to the actress's searing one-woman performance epic.
The film was nominated for six Oscars and won none of them, with Garland’s loss to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl immediately considered one of the Academy’s most famously bad decisions. Janet Gaynor was magnificent in the original; Barbra Streisand soared in the limp 1976 version; and Lady Gaga scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Cooper's 2018 version, but Garland still reigns supreme.
3. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
A few famous directors have remade their own work, and it's not always the remake that wins out. In the case of The Man Who Knew Too Much, it’s abundantly clear that 20 years of experience helped Alfred Hitchcock create something more tonally complete and engaging than his original 1934 effort. The 1956 version, starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, has significant differences from the earlier version, but the high concept is still there: Unremarkable people learn of an international conspiracy that they have to solve. It's one of Hitchcock's favorite plots (see Rear Window, North by Northwest, The Lady Vanishes, etc.), but it's at its slickest here.
4. An Affair To Remember (1957)
In 1939, Leo McCarey crafted a stirring romance about two engaged artists falling deeply in love while traveling on an ocean liner. The only problem? They’re not engaged to each other. McCarey remade his own film, Love Affair, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr taking the leads from Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, which ups the charm factor by at least 25 percent. It’s a silly, sweet set-up that has gifted every generation since with the trope of lovers agreeing to meet at the Empire State Building if they still want to be together after a few months apart.
5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
A 1950s B-movie turned 1970s feast of prestige paranoia, Philip Kaufman’s unforgettable version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which stars Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, manages to break out of the singular science fiction mold to borrow elements from film noir, horror, thriller, and other classic movie genre tropes. Complete with a late-in-the-game twist, this remake also luxuriates in nihilistic tragedy, whereas Don Siegel’s original 1956 film at least attempted to offer up some semblance of a hopeful ending.
6. The Thing (1982)
Itself a remake of An Affair to Remember (just kidding), John Carpenter’s paranoid horror film captured a Cold War sensibility of neighborly distrust. Its predecessor, The Thing From Another World, stood out even among the mountain of now-cheesy 1950s sci-fi creature features, but Carpenter injected the zeitgeist even deeper into the film’s tissue to create a movie with complexity and a radical flamethrower.
7. Scarface (1983)
The movie that spawned a million dorm room posters and impressions of Al Pacino is a remake of Howard Hawks’s 1932 film that was neutered by the Hays Code. That version still shows the violent rise of a gangster based on Al Capone, but it had to explicitly condemn everything shown on screen and tack on the subtitle The Shame of a Nation (just in case audiences thought killing people was something to aspire to). It’s absolutely one of the most important genre pictures in the vault, but Brian De Palma’s Miami-set festival of bullets successfully updated it with a slathering of drug-fueled, 1980s greed. Like its forebear, De Palma’s movie had its own struggles with the ratings board, leading to it earning a debilitating X rating because of its intense violence.
8. The Fly (1986)
Like The Thing, the David Cronenberg switcheroo is a strong signal of how 1950s shockers could be converted into slick, profoundly terrifying films that get under your skin—in this case, almost literally. A big part of The Fly's power lies in the special makeup effects that allow Jeff Goldblum to deteriorate before our eyes, but it's also a much deeper exploration of what it means to be human—and did both of those things while staying true to its predecessor's message that the search for truth is both the most important thing in the world and the most dangerous.
9. Scent of a Woman (1992)
Profumo Di Donna, Dino Risi’s 1974 Italian film, is an excellent movie in its own right. It earned several major Italian awards and was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay (it lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Best Foreign Language Oscar (where it lost to Dersu Uzala, an epic Russian film … directed by Akira Kurosawa). However, a slight edge goes to Scent of a Woman, the 1992 remake from Martin Brest which features an all-time performance from Al Pacino, a bittersweet coming of age for Chris O'Donnell's poor prep school kid, an early glimpse at the raw talent of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a famous tango scene.
10. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Throughout dozens of takes on Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola's version manages to stand out prominently because it essentially turned the monster into a hyper-passionate human being. Bela Lugosi may have launched the iconic horror figure into moving picture pop culture as a courtly bloodsucker, but Gary Oldman's portrayal in a film littered with gorgeous set design and expensive clothes deepened everything about the famous figure: the lust, the seduction, the greed, the charisma, and—perhaps most importantly—the fear.
11. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Unlike many other adaptations of frequently filmed classic novels (think the aforementioned Dracula), Michael Mann's epic version of The Last of the Mohicans is more an adaptation of George B. Seitz's 1936 original movie than of James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel, which is why the writers of Seitz's film are given story credits on Mann's rendition. Daniel Day-Lewis starred in the version that elevated a pulpy western adventure into an Oscar-worthy romantic drama with its painstaking recreation of French and Indian War period weapons and stellar performances from its cast.
12. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)
A watershed moment for Millennials, Homeward Bound’s talking dogs and cat (Don Ameche, Michael J. Fox, and Sally Field) tugged hard on kids' heartstrings a few years before the internet took over our homes and a decade before YouTube would flood them with dog and cat videos. The four-legged trek was a remake of 1963’s The Incredible Journey, which Disney based on Sheila Burnford’s novel of the same name. Just as harrowing, the remake had even greater charisma, stronger chemistry between the animals (since they could talk), and a better tie back into the human story. They also made a sequel where the pets get lost in San Francisco which, like Home Alone 2, proves the owners were just super irresponsible. Once is forgivable, twice is a call to ASPCA.
13. True Lies (1994)
True Lies is essentially the reverse of The Man Who Knew Too Much, as its main character is an international man of mystery who is trying his hardest to pretend to be wholly unremarkable. The French may disagree, but James Cameron's remake of Claude Zidi's La Totale! is a superior movie in spite of its injection of Hollywood steroids. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis are perfectly cast here as a fake-nebbish secret agent and his clueless but secretly skilled wife.
14. The Birdcage (1996)
Édouard Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles (1978) is a very funny, very heartfelt movie about a conservative couple meeting their daughter's boyfriend's gay parents, but The Birdcage is an all-timer. Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest are all acting at 100 mph and putting their faith in the fact that acclaimed director Mike Nichols won't let them crash. The result is a perfection explosion of absurdity with a disco drag finale full of pure joy and love.
15. Chicago (2002)
Rob Marshall's Chicago was the first musical to win a Best Picture since Oliver! did it in 1968. The all-singing, all-dancing crime spree is a remake of a 1927 silent film version of the events, by way of a joyously popular Broadway show. Then again, all of them are based on the real-life suspected murderer Beulah Annan, who captured press attention after shooting her lover. Marshall’s gorgeously choreographed riff includes a swell of talented performances from Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly, who literally bend over backwards to entertain.
16. Insomnia (2002)
Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 film exhausted the viewer by placing them in the restless mind of a detective who kills his partner in a small town where the sun never sets. Christopher Nolan's remake Americanizes everything and sends two Los Angeles police officers to Nightmute, Alaska, to endure the guilt and perpetual daylight. Al Pacino stars as the dishonorable detective and Robin Williams played against type as a disturbed serial killer who exploits the detective's murderous act to his own benefit.
17. Unfaithful (2002)
Claude Chabrol’s 1969 film La Femme Infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife) got a sleek makeover courtesy of Adrian Lyne, who brought a seasoned arsenal of soap opera thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal to audiences. Richard Gere and Diane Lane star as a seemingly happy couple whose relationship careens out of control when she begins a steamy affair with a stranger. The new version placed greater focus on the wife’s character, particularly how she navigated the emotions of her infidelity, and Lane devastated in the role.
18. Man On Fire (2004)
Despite boasting Scott Glenn running point, the 1987 adaptation of Man on Fire, based on A.J. Quinnell’s novel, was hollow and dull. All of that got turned around with a screenplay by world-class writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River), direction by the late action guru Tony Scott, and no-need-for-an-adjective-because-he’s-Denzel Denzel Washington owning the role of alcoholic Marine-turned-bodyguard for an adorable little girl who’s abducted by a gang in Mexico City.
19. The Crazies (2010)
Fans chewed their fingernails off when Overture Films announced they were remaking George Romero’s 1973 zombies-by-another-name horror flick The Crazies, but it turned out to be ripe for a remake. The government assault on a town suffering from the military’s own biological weapon was effectively moody but had problems that Breck Eisner’s version cleaned up considerably. Justified star Timothy Olyphant is perfect as the beleaguered small-town sheriff, and the film works as a tense survival thriller with a boatload of spine-jolting scares.
20. Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Disney loves converting animated favorites into live-action hits, and indie writer/director David Lowery crafted a gem for them with this tale of a boy and his scaly best friend. The 1977 original was a fun, musical escapade. The update transformed a toothless delight into something deeply moving with gorgeously integrated CGI animation, drawing from E.T. and other stories where the misunderstood are hunted by exploitative powers.