About a week ago, MGM announced their intentions to remake Don Bluth’s animated classic, Secret of NIMH, a wonderful fantasy movie that everyone should see at least once. The studio just reaquired the rights to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, a genius sci-fi novel that I think everyone should read at least once, and they would like to build a CG/live action film franchise out of the property.
Now, let us gloss over the fact that the screenwriter’s most notable credit is Ice Age 5, and the story’s focus indicates that the creators do not understand the source material, as it follows an “’imperiled mouse protagonist’ who ‘befriends a comical crew of lab rats as they turn hyper-intelligent.’” The original movie is a great classic that still holds up today.
Both the original film and the novel, on which it is loosely based, are favorites of mine, but instead of bemoaning MGM’s decision and cringing over the implications of the word “comical” in our current age of family movies, I would like to use this opportunity discuss the larger question of remakes and adaptations,with Secret of NIMH, as an example. As it turns out, I am not opposed to remakes. In fact, in my thesis concerning Heart of Darkness and its adaptations, I examine adaptations and their functions. Remakes and adaptations can improve upon the source material, refining the story and correcting problems of the original; reexamine the previous the source material from a new perspective, fleshing out the story; and/or update the story for a current audience.
Improve the Source Material
The first option is not one that many creators of remakes embrace, because improving on the original takes thought, consideration, and work (and who wants to do that). Let us consider the following mathematical equation:
If works of art are created by people,
and people are inherently flawed,
then works of art are flawed.
If you accept that premise, then it stands to reason that any work of art can be improved upon. A remake can make the improvements that a work needs, but before you begin your remake or adaptation you need to determine if the flaws are significant enough to merit being remade. For instance, Secret of NIMH‘s flaws (Jeremy is kind of annoying and his scenes run a bit too long) are rather insignificant, and a remake to fix issues is not warranted. The film, in story, aesthetic, and execution, is quite strong and still holds up today.
Okay, you watch a movie or read a book and ask yourself, “what if this story focused on a different aspect of its narrative?” You have just wondered about the perspective of the story, in a kind of a non-specific and vague way, but as least you are asking questions. The NIMH-verse, which I am sure it will be called if this catches on, has done a perspective shift before. The film has a strong fantasy, swords and sorcery, vibe with a science fiction background, allowing the fantasy to exist, but the novel is more rooted in its sci-fi conception. Both iterations of the story take a different narrative through-line, and therefor have different narrative perspectives.
Based on what little we know about the story at this point, this new film looks to be trying a new perspective, though I am not sure around whom it will center, as the announcement (a ploy typically used to generate excitement) was devoid of recognizable names. The story will likely be about Johnathan Frisby/Brisby (novel/film) because he is a mouse, and his heroic deeds follow his wife, Mrs. Frisby/Brisby around long after she becomes a widow. If they decide against the mouse option, the movie could be about Nicodemus or Jenner (both of whom were at NIMH), but all of these names are recognizable and would contribute to the hype and excitement that the announcement intends to generate, leaving zero reason to not give their names. They could also use Justin, though I do not remember him being in the NIMH flashback of either work, because he is a young male rat, with potential mentor (Nicodemus) and villian (Jenner, only in the movie. He wasn’t that big of a deal in the book.). Unfortunately studio bigwigs are good at spotting leading man material (both the novel and film are about a single mother).
It seems like we will get the backstory of the titular rats of the National Institute of Mental Health, but there are multiple reasons that neither the book or film spent a lot of time on this aspect of the narrative: impetus, mystique, and disturbing content.
The experiments that took place at NIMH are the impetus of the story, as they imbued the rats (and a few mice) with the intelligence that makes the rest of the story possible. Other than background and launchpad NIMH and their experiments are not the focus of either the novel or film.
Telling a backstory as a whole story sounds like a good idea but telling the mysterious past ruins the mystique. The mystery of “what happened at NIMH?” is intriguing, and telling it removes questions from your audience (which is bad because questions keep the audience coming back to the story. You do not want to know how many times I have watched Secret of NIMH because the mystique keeps me coming back to it.), which is why I always encourage minimalist writing and never telling the whole story in any narrative medium.
If this new film wants to tell the story of the NIMH experiments, I hope the writer, of the fifth movie in a franchise that stopped being funny or good after the first one, understands that it will be a story about medical experimentation on animals from the perspective of the animals. The content will be quite disturbing for any audience, let alone the family viewing crowd. Furthermore, I doubt the writer and the production team behind Brothers Grimm (are you getting depressed yet?) have the skill or temerity to write that kind of story.
Update the Story (the brevity of which totally justifies the length of the digression)
The film Secret of NIMH is a timeless classic that needs no updating. It is just as potent today as it was in 1982, and no amount of pop culture references and insufferably smug irony will help.
The new NIMH film could be a surprise hit, wowing both critics and audiences alike, but I am holding no hopes for it. I suppose we will have to wait until that fateful day, to see what the Hollywood film factory churns out.