Lord of the Flies to Oceans Eight: how Hollywood reboots are flipping gender


The plan for an all-girls remake of the dystopian 1960s classic is just one of many new projects reimagining hit films with female leads

For a film that hasnt 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 Goldings novel about a group of boys stranded on an island. Except this new version unless the reaction hasnt 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 hasnt 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 wasnt even the predictable stuff about how women are supposedly invading male space (though you dont have to look far to find people who think this remake is the work of feminazis); feminist Twitter wasnt exactly rapturous either. An all-women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because … the plot of that book wouldnt 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 weve been promised. The glossy Oceans Eleven heist brand is adding Oceans 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 Hannahs character in the 1984 original, who falls in love with a landlubbing human (Jillian Bell in Tom Hankss role). And the most high-profile example so far was last years 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 weve 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.

Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones in 2016s all-female Ghostbusters. Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/Columbia Pictures

I think [an all-female reboot] is a lateral move: I dont feel like its a step forward, says Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, which advocates for better gender representation. I would like to see more original movies, like Hidden Figures or Girls Trip, that are diverse, that allow us to see women are we are. Why, she adds referring to the Lord of the Flies, dont you write an original script about girls on an island? Simply remaking a previously male-dominated film isnt progressive in itself. We shouldnt 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.

Two of this summers hits were Wonder Woman and Girls Trip, so there is an appetite for women driving the action in Hollywood blockbuster films, she says.

Hollywood a business, after all wants to capitalise on that, but at the same time it is also increasingly reliant on franchises and remakes. Theres 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 hasnt always worked. Its a great step in terms of thinking about what the audience might want to see, but its 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%, theyre not being given the opportunity to help shape those narratives, says Smith. Theyre often being written from a white male perspective and an audience can sense a lack of authenticity.

Gender-swapping becomes a gimmick if theres 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 arent given those opportunities to the same degree that their male peers are.

If a female reboot doesnt 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.

Steve Martin and Michael Caine in the original Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photograph: Orion/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Ghostbusters wasnt a bad film (it had largely warm reviews from professional critics), but it wasnt brilliant and, unjustly, it had to be. Its unfair that women have to be put through litmus tests all the time. What if Ghostbusters doesnt work? said its director, Paul Feig, last year. If a giant tentpole starring men doesnt do well, people dont go, oh well, we cant 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 Feigs film Bridesmaids in 2011. We were all anxious about that being a hit, because it was like, if its a hit, then well get to make all our female-driven stories. And it was a hit, but then we didnt get to make our stories. Five years on, she says, theres 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 dont want to blast female reboots because I feel its a means to an end. Eventually we can get through this phase so that female original [big pictures] wont be such an anomaly.

And done well, for the right reasons, theres no reason why swapping chromosomes for a remake cant work. One of Smiths 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. Thats something I want to see, because I want to see a comedy about a female president that is also inspiring andpoignant.

Another idea and this is bound to send the ghostbros into a rage is to have a female teen treasure hunt based on 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 doesnt 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 Ive never seen a woman in that role before, then I think: why not?

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