The supernatural comedy-horror Ghostbusters (1984) has a fan base that propelled it to cult film status. So, when the reboot was announced it was a shock to some people that Ghostbusters (2016) would feature an all-female ghost-busting team with a token male secretary to man the telephone. Something of a reversal, you might think? For some fans it was too much, a betrayal of the original story — to others an all-female band of heroines made a refreshing twist on the original concept. Wasn’t it about time women played the leading roles in a big budget, Hollywood action-comedy?
Gender-reversing a classic can be a risky thing. It can take one of three routes. One: a complete reimagining of the story that goes down its own path — usually a risky move. Two: a like-for-like recreation, the same story but with women in the leading roles. This can feel wooden and contrived with the female actors mechanically slotted into what were previously male roles. Three: a combination of both, incorporating most of the old story with some twists, and the female leads making comic references to the original. As you might have guessed, most writers would probably hedge their bets and opt for the third route; building on what came before while having enough room to do something new.
The rebooted Ghostbusters was not purely about bringing back a beloved story, it was a calculated investment to re-establish a previously successful franchise. The thinking with the new version of Ghostbusters was that fans would always have the original — no one could take that away from them. An all-female crew could build on the Ghostbusters brand and audience familiarity, while maintaining sufficient distance to ensure differentiation from the source material. As a creative challenge writing an all-female Ghostbusters would offer creative opportunities, and a space to have some fun reimagining a beloved classic. Or perhaps not, as the case may be. The risk is that the old fans are put off by the ‘betrayal’ of the gender change, while a new audience might see it as ‘new’ enough.
More recently, a reimagined version of Lord of the Flies has been green-lighted for production. This time the survivors are from a girl’s school. The Lord of the Flies uses the plight of children struggling for survival on a deserted island to explore the descent from civilised values into ‘the rule of the jungle’, and the development of a primal, power-based hierarchy (based on abuse and violence) in the absence of the rule of law. If people were put off by an all-female Ghostbusters team, because that was seen as a gimmick, the same thing could be said for an all-girl Lord of The Flies. How will the writer make the gender change significant and meaningful?
This begs the counter-argument: why does this new story have to prove itself in a way that previous versions didn’t? Why does it have to be ‘more’? Ideally, any story will ‘go somewhere’ with its characters and the predicament they are in. With ‘fiction is fiction’ as the mantra, the writer can do what he or she likes. Why should an all-girl Lord of The Flies have to provide a new angle? A good story, which Lord of The Flies is, reveals something about the characters through the situation they are in. The change in gender does not necessarily change anything. But, what if the school was mixed? The writer could explore gender tension as well as social disintegration into ‘the rule of the jungle’. This new version is probably as much about marketing, and how the producers hope to sell the film, as any meaningful reinterpretation of the original novel.
Hollywood is famous for regurgitating old stories, especially ones that have been successful in the past. Updating a proven story to accommodate shifting fashions, social expectations and today’s zeitgeist, is one thing, but superficially dressing it up to give it the veneer of something new is another. Why not just write a new story? Because, selling a famous story we are already familiar with is easier. Having ‘Girl Power’ versions of classic male-centric stories is a positive thing, and should not be an issue in itself, so long as it’s not a ‘lazy’ and cynical marketing exercise to sell an overhyped and mediocre product.