Every now and then one is faced with the difficult question of movie remakes; completely pointless exercise or the chance to take a piece of cinema that hadn’t quite achieved its full potential and transform it into something truly great? More often than not, the first of the two ends up being true. Cinema history is replete with examples of film re-imagines gone horribly wrong and the sheer number of these failed attempts at breathing new life into something already great, hardly fills you with confidence. It takes a lot of skill and the right kind of approach to truly succeed in this task. But, as they say, exception proves the rule and in the sea of the tediously boring and just down right offensive (offensive to the original material that is), there is a handful of films that give you a glimmer of hope; a hope that if we absolutely need to keep remaking classic films, at least there are few talented individuals out there who can do it right. The first films to pop to most people’s mind are John Carpenter’s amazingly claustrophobic sci-fi classic The Thing (1982), Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (although technically based on a science fiction novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, so whether Kaufman’s film truly counts as a remake is debatable) and of course, David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986).
The story of how The Fly came to be is certainly an interesting one and Emma Westwood has done a superb job in documenting that story in her new book, simply titled The Fly. Published by Auteur Press as part of their horror themed Devil’s Advocates series, it offers an interesting insight to the background of the film and its director, as well as filming process itself. With only 133 pages, this little volume might not seem like it could be the cornucopia of movie knowledge that it actually is, but do not be fooled by its size; good things come in small packages, and that is assuredly true about The Fly.
The book starts with a little anecdote about the producer Stuart Cornfeld and how he, almost by accident, got The Fly off the ground; an off-the-cuff conversation between Cornfeld and studio executive Scott Rudin over some morning coffees lead to all of us being able to enjoy this classic of sci-fi cinema today. The intended director Robert Bierman had to drop out of the project and as far as Cornfeld knew, David Cronenberg was unavailable. But as luck would have it, Rudin had more detailed intel about Cronenberg’s current employment status, and so the story of The Fly started to take shape.
The story of the production’s origin is returned to again later on in the book, but first it is only fitting to delve into the world of David Cronenberg in a bit more detail. Westwood chronicles Cronenberg’s career, from the early days of Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), through his better-known works such as The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), all the way to The Fly (1986), all the while exploring the recurring and progressively developing themes throughout his work and the reasons why Cronenberg was so perfectly matched to direct The Fly. This works as a solid starting point for the book and leads the reader quite nicely to the next two chapters about the film’s somewhat tortured script writing process and the origins of The Fly; the 1957 George Langelaan short story, as well as the 1958 Kurt Neumann film that followed. Not knowing too much about the script I found this part a very interesting read indeed, as it gives great insight into how The Fly became a true Cronenberg film. The look into the origins, from which this sci-fi classic came from, is as fascinating as it is important, adding to the bigger picture of the whole story. It’s filled with great little details about the elements that were taken from the original concepts, finding their way into the 1986 version, mostly as little nods towards either the Neumann’s film or Langelaan’s short story, and will very likely make you want to watch both versions just to compare the two (I know I did). There’s also a short segment about the two sequels that Neumann’s film inevitably generated, which made me quite keen to seek out the third in the series Curse of the Fly (1965), as I have never even heard of it and out of the three, sounds like the most interesting one.
Next the book delves into the making of process and a scene-by-scene look at the film. The making of is without a doubt the most intriguing read and sure to please all those fans out there who for years have wondered about some of the more outlandish special effects used. There’s plenty of trivia about the said special effects and animatronics process, as well as detail about the cinematography, stories about the actors and problems that the production encountered. The scene-by-scene review of the film continues to offer an insightful look at the story in the context of its themes and character development, as well as some of the more prevalent theories that have formed around it over the years (most notably the story of The Fly as a metaphor for cocaine use and/or AIDS). There’s also references to cut out scenes, some of which will make you wish that they were still there. It’s also worth going through all of the footnotes, as they are quite literally riddled with fantastic little facts.
The book quite naturally concludes with a look at the aftermath and legacy of The Fly. It goes through the reception of the film, it’s success in the box office and also has a slightly more detailed glance at the formerly mentioned AIDS comparison. There’s also a mention of the less successful 1989 sequel, but only to a degree that it deserves (which is not much).
As a whole, Westwood’s The Fly is a very comprehensive look at all aspects of this beloved body horror classic and I can only recommend it. It’s packed with fascinating film knowledge but doesn’t fall into a trap of being pretentious. Instead it’s a fun and easy read and a definite must for any fans of The Fly, or indeed, Cronenberg.