Consider the Academy Award-winning film, Silence of the Lambs (1991). With a running time of one hour and 58 minutes, it was not only an entertaining, well-paced movie, it was one of only three films ever to win an Oscar for Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jody Foster) and Best Picture. The other two were It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
What if, 20 years from now, an ambitious movie director were to remake Silence of the Lambs? What if he remade it as a three-hour epic by adding such convoluted story points as Agent Starling (Foster) having a deranged boyfriend who vowed to capture Hannibal Lector and decapitate him, and FBI agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) being a closet heroin addict and Ku Klux Klansman who owed the mob $100,000 in gambling debts?
Would any of those additional subplots improve this brilliant movie? Of course they wouldn't. All they would do is clutter and arbitrarily lengthen an already exquisitely crafted finished product, which is more or less what happened when James Cameron chose to remake the great 1958 film, A Night to Remember, the story of the April 15, 1912, sinking of the RMS Titanic.
The original film, starring Kenneth More, was shot in black & white, and had a running time of two hours and three minutes. And believe me, those two hours flew by. The movie was absolutely riveting, managing to tell the full story of this historic event accurately and dramatically, and, because we viewers already knew how it ended, was able to impart an understated yet panicky sense of urgency and doom.
Let's consider the actual, unembellished, un-Cameronized facts: The year was 1912. It was the biggest, most luxurious ship in the world. This was its well-publicized maiden voyage. The vessel was advertised as being "unsinkable." Yet, it sank, after colliding with an iceberg, killing 1,503 passengers. It's an amazing story, almost too preposterous to be true. Given all these built-in (and absolutely factual) dramatic elements, why on earth would anyone think they needed to jazz it up?
But Cameron's bloated version of Titanic (1997) had a running time of three hours and 15 minutes. He not only added a Romeo and Juliet love story, a jealous suitor, an evil accomplice, and a desperate mother, he presented a clumsy and cliched depiction of class warfare -- sort of a maritime version of Upstairs, Downstairs -- all within the context of a modern-day salvage crew locating the wreck and interviewing one of its survivors who supplied the story.
Instead of being presented straightforwardly and fatalistically, Cameron's opus drags along interminably. Yes, it was lavishly attractive and attentive to detail, and yes, it had some memorable music, but it made the fatal mistake of falling in love with itself, devolving into an overdone vanity piece. In fact, the ship doesn't even hit the damn iceberg until one hour and 40 minutes into the movie. I timed it.
I urge everyone who hasn't seen A Night to Remember to rent it, watch it, and compare it to Cameron's overblown remake. You be the judge. Bigger isn't always better.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd Edition), was a former union rep.