How Hollywood Reboots Are Flipping Gender
The plan for an all-girls remake of the dystopian 1960s classic Lord of the Flies is just one of many new projects reimagining hit films with female leads
For a film that hasn’t even been written yet, the news that there will be a Lord of the Flies remake has certainly provoked a strong reaction on social media, the home of strong reactions. Remakes are nothing new, of course: the 1990 version of the film was a remake of the 1963 original, which was an adaptation of William Golding’s novel about a group of boys stranded on an island. Except this new version – unless the reaction hasn’t just knocked the whole idea off a cliff – has what until recently was a twist but now seems to be a given: its male roles will now be female.
“Taking the opportunity to tell it in a way it hasn’t been told before, with girls rather than boys … it shifts things in a way that might help people see the story anew,” Scott McGehee told the Hollywood news site Deadline. “It breaks away from some of the conventions, the ways we think of boys and aggression.”
It may be a little early to see whether the two middle-aged men behind it, McGehee and his fellow writer/director David Siegel, can really get into the perspectives of a bunch of prepubescent girls, but the news started trending on Twitter, where everyone holds their own conch shell. It wasn’t even the predictable stuff about how women are supposedly invading male space (though you don’t have to look far to find people who think this remake is the work of “feminazis”); feminist Twitter wasn’t exactly rapturous either. “An all-women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because … the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women,” tweeted the writer Roxane Gay. We will have to wait to see how the film about masculine barbarism will work with girls in what will be, according to Siegel, “a very faithful but contemporised adaptation”.
It is just the latest in a slew of gender-flipped reboots we’ve been promised. The glossy Ocean’s Eleven heist brand is adding Ocean’s Eight, with an all-female cast. The line-up is as heavyweight as the Rat Pack original (which starred Frank Sinatra), and the 2001 version (with George Clooney and Brad Pitt): this spin-off has Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett leading a gang that includes Rihanna, Mindy Kaling and Anne Hathaway. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the 1988 comedy with Steve Martin and Michael Caine, is being remade with Rebel Wilson in one of the roles. Disney is rebooting the 1991 action film The Rocketeer, based on a retro comic book series, with a woman in the stunt-pilot main role. A new Splash is planned, this time with a merman (Channing Tatum) taking on Daryl Hannah’s character in the 1984 original, who falls in love with a landlubbing human (Jillian Bell in Tom Hanks’s role). And the most high-profile example so far was last year’s Ghostbusters remake, in which an all-woman cast – Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon – took on the male roles from the 1984 original.
In one sense, all this seems like good news – it means there are more women in blockbusters. But you could also take the view that these remakes signify not only a complete lack of creativity but, worse, that studios are using them as somewhere to funnel female talent because they are unwilling to take a risk on original big-budget female-centric films.
The thing is, female-led films are profitable. “What we’ve shown in our research is that they have generated more money at the box office,” says Madeline di Nonno, chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In 2015 female-led films made 15.8% more on average than male-led films. In 2016 the figure was smaller – 7.3% more – but it still showed that female-centric films are bankable. “Films that are led by females, can they generate box office? Yes. Do they generate more revenue at the box office? Yes, they do. On top of it, [the question about] where does the source material come from – should it be original or can it be a remake? – is very subjective.”
“I think [an all-female reboot] is a lateral move: I don’t feel like it’s a step forward,” says Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, which advocates for gender equality. “I would like to see more original movies, like Hidden Figures or Girls Trip, that are diverse, that allow us to see women as we are.” Why, she adds referring to the Lord of the Flies, “don’t you write an original script about girls on an island?” Simply remaking a previously male-dominated film isn’t progressive in itself. “We shouldn’t follow in the footsteps of anything. We have our own footsteps, and our own path we draw and make in the world.”
But these films will go some way to improving the number of women in leading roles. According to annual research by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSC), of the top 100 films of last year just 34 had a female lead or co-lead – and of those just three were from an ethnic minority.
“We know that females are grossly under-represented on screen and in all speaking characters,” says Professor Stacy Smith, founder and director of the MDSC initiative at the University of Southern California. “If you compare our percentages to another study that was done in the late 40s/early 50s, there has been no movement for half a century.”
Hollywood – a business, after all – wants to capitalise on that, but at the same time it is also increasingly reliant on franchises and remakes. “There’s a real opportunity here to think about females driving stories, but often the Hollywood model is to just retrofit whatever seems to be the idea into existing [intellectual property] and assume that will be a market success, and that hasn’t always worked. It’s a great step in terms of thinking about what the audience might want to see, but it’s not always executed in a way that makes a lot of sense.”
Storytellers matter, and therein lies another problem. “When women write less than 15% of the top 100 films each year, and when they direct fewer than 5%, they’re not being given the opportunity to help shape those narratives,” says Smith. “They’re often being written from a white male perspective and an audience can sense a lack of authenticity.”
Gender-swapping becomes a gimmick if there’s nothing much to back it up. “The script has to be solid and people need to be given opportunities to write – not based solely on their gender, but because they have the prowess to deliver a narrative that will sell. And women aren’t given those opportunities to the same degree that their male peers are.”
If a female reboot doesn’t do well, does that have wider consequences for women in the industry? Ghostbusters has been at the frontline of the current crop of gender-flipping reboots: from the start, it was dogged by an astonishing amount of sexist vitriol, and there was a small but vocal number of people – almost entirely men, the “ghostbros” who claimed their childhood memories of the film had been sullied – who wanted to ensure its failure.
Thanks to a whipped-up social media campaign, its YouTube trailer became the most “disliked” in history and thousands had “downvoted” it on IMDb before it had even opened. It is still ranked lower than a universally panned reboot released the same year, the still-male Batman v Superman.
Ghostbusters wasn’t a bad film (it had largely warm reviews from professional critics), but it wasn’t brilliant and, unjustly, it had to be. “It’s unfair that women have to be put through litmus tests all the time. What if Ghostbusters doesn’t work?” said its director, Paul Feig, last year. “If a giant tentpole starring men doesn’t do well, people don’t go, ‘oh well, we can’t have guys in movies any more.’”
The screenwriter Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, who co-wrote Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You, remembers nervously watching the reaction to Feig’s film Bridesmaids in 2011. “We were all anxious about that being a hit, because it was like, ‘if it’s a hit, then we’ll get to make all our female-driven stories’. And it was a hit, but then we didn’t get to make our stories.” Five years on, she says, there’s a push to get more female film-makers. “Naturally, women behind the camera will result in more stories about women in front of the camera.”
At the moment, the all-female reboot is “a safe way for studios to create female-driven content,” she says. “I don’t want to blast female reboots because I feel it’s a means to an end. Eventually we can get through this phase so that female original [big pictures] won’t be such an anomaly.”
And done well, for the right reasons, there’s no reason why swapping chromosomes for a remake can’t work. One of Smith’s “dream projects”, she says, is to remake the 1993 Kevin Kline film Dave – about a man who looks identical to the president and ends up impersonating him as part of a plot – with a female protagonist. “That’s something I want to see, because I want to see a comedy about a female president that is also inspiring and poignant.”
Another idea – and this is bound to send the ghostbros into a rage – is to have a female teen treasure hunt inspired by the beloved film The Goonies. She has already published the story as Misfit City, a series of comics set in a town made famous as the location for an 1980s kids’ adventure movie. An all-female reboot is only a gimmick, she says, “if it doesn’t give you that ‘aha’ feeling. A heist movie with all female characters makes me really excited. Some of the others feel a little more cynical to me: but if it gives you that feeling of ‘I’ve never seen a woman in that role before’, then I think: why not?”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: The all-star, all-female cast of Ocean’s Eight, the latest entry in the glossy heist franchise, starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway and Sarah Paulson. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros.
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