Camera Obscura 16.2 (2001) 133-175
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A Pygmalion Tale Retold: Remaking La Femme Nikita
I was falsely accused of a hideous crime and sentenced to life in prison. One night I was taken from my cell to a place called Section One, the most covert antiterrorist group on the planet. Their ends are just but their means are ruthless. If I don't play by their rules, I die.
--Opening voice-over to La Femme Nikita (TV series)
One of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows ever to appear on basic cable, La Femme Nikita has an interesting textual pedigree. It is based on Luc Besson's 1990 French film of the same name, which was remade as a Hong Kong action movie titled Black Cat (dir. Stephen Shin, 1991), followed by the sequel, Black Cat II (dir. Shin, 1992), and then remade again by Hollywood as Point of No Return (dir. John Badham, 1993). The original film tells the story of a young street waif, Nikita (Anne Parillaud), who runs with a gang of thuggish drug addicts and kills a police officer in the course of a heist. She is caught and sentenced to die, but the authorities are so impressed with her ruthless [End Page 133] savagery that they fake her death so that they may retrain her as a covert government assassin. Aided by her two mentors, Bob and Amande, she learns the finer points of espionage and etiquette. However, her transformation from gutter snipe to professional hit woman is not without its price, for once tamed and released back into society she falls in love, and the rest of the film deals with the strain of leading a double life, and the irresolvable conflict between duty and desire. Significantly, then, the Nikita narrative that has inspired so many remakes is itself a kind of remake about the process of remaking: it is a high-tech Pygmalion tale about a woman who is rescued from her lowly circumstances and made over into something "better."
Loosely defined as new versions of existing films, remakes appear to occupy a place in American consumer culture much like that of Barbie dolls or Beanie Babies: if it worked once, do it again. Why mess with a good thing? As Michael Brashinsky puts it, "the remake is the most explicit gesture of a culture that . . . cannot express itself through anything but a quote." 1 Hollywood, long accused of prioritizing profits over artistry and imitation over innovation, would seem to epitomize just such an attitude. Indeed, Molly Haskell has dubbed Hollywood's seemingly insatiable appetite for remaking other countries' films "the remake craze." 2 Yet the remake is also a rich site for critical analysis precisely because its derivative status, its very secondariness and duplicity, forces a certain assessment of conventional notions of authorship, authenticity, and originality.
On the one hand, the existence of a remake only seems to confirm the fact that originality lies elsewhere--in the other, prior text. On the other hand, the remake helps expose originality as a relative, not absolute, concept. The play of theme and variation is endemic to commercial storytelling, and notions of "original" and "copy" make sense only within particular frames of reference. While most people are familiar with the case of the classic film remade by a contemporary director, or the foreign-language film remade for an English-speaking audience, a new film can also borrow more loosely from an older one such that it is not officially acknowledged to be a remake at all--as with Body [End Page 134] Heat (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, US, 1981), based on Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, US, 1944), or Dressed to Kill (dir. Brian De Palma, US, 1980), based on Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1960). The concept of "remake" can also extend beyond the immediate cinematic context, since films remake popular television shows (The Brady Bunch, Mission Impossible, South Park), television shows remake popular films (M*A*S*H, The Odd Couple, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and both films and television shows...