It happens all the time. Actors fight with their directors and quit or get fired. Budget constraints mean a high dollar star won’t be returning to a role. Family crises cause actors to drop out just before filming. Actors die mid-series. Sometimes it’s been decades and a movie is getting a reboot.
Recasting is generally loathed by moviegoers, and there’s a good reason for that. Robin Curtis as Saavik in Star Trek III and IV lacked the charm and wit that made Kirstie Alley’s version of the character a success. The ever-changing ages and appearances of Audrey and Russ Griswold in the Vacation series makes for a strange experience that takes viewers right out of whichever movie they’re watching (if it’s Vegas Vacation, that might be a blessing). Dumbledore went from being friendly and wise in Richard Harris’s hands to belligerent and abusive in Michael Gambon’s.
The list goes on. James Rhodes in the Iron Man series. Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs versus Hannibal. Rachel Dawes in the Dark Knight trilogy. All of these are jarring and unnecessary.
Occasionally, though, recasting works just fine. After careful analysis using highly unscientific methods, I believe there are three criteria that must be met for a successful recast.
1. It has to be a main character.
It may seem backwards, but keeping the lead actor or actress and recasting those around him or her is much more upsetting than simply recasting the lead. Films are about their leads. We want to see more James Bond adventures and understand that actors will get tired of the role, so it’s easy to accept that Sean Connery becomes Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan becomes Daniel Craig. It sets the stage for a new tone and if the other characters also change then it’s not a big deal.
It’s much more difficult to accept that Marty McFly didn’t notice that his girlfriend Jennifer morphed from Claudia Wells into Elizabeth Shue within seconds of his return from 1955.
2. The character has to be adaptable.
There have been hundreds of different interpretations of Batman over the years, which makes it easy to accept Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale or even (sigh) Ben Affleck in the role. Sherlock Holmes can be Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. at the same time, and that’s okay. When it comes to recasting, the more iterations a character has had, the better.
Now picture Freddy Krueger. He’s not Jackie Earle Haley, is he? Even if the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street had been good (it wasn’t ), nobody would want a new Freddy. Take a character like Han Solo. Han would barely be a character at all if it weren’t for Harrison Ford’s iconic portrayal. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is probably the reason Alien received the ol’ prequel treatment rather than a reboot. Some characters were captured so iconically the first time around that recasting them is a futile effort.
3. The movie has to be good.
Seriously. If you’re going to re-cast a character, there had better be a damn good reason for it. Using the criteria above, The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Klaatu was ripe for an unobjectionable recasting. Then they cast Keanu Reeves. Val Kilmer and George Clooney might have made acceptable Batmen, but thanks to the directorial choices of Joel Schumacher, the world will never know. The Absent-Minded Professor could have been a fun remake, but it became Flubber, starring Robin Williams with a score by Danny Elfman and KILL. IT. WITH. FIRE.
There’s a thin, careful line to be treaded when recasting characters. On paper, there’s little difference between Professor X and Magneto being recast for X-Men: First Class and Peter Parker being recast for The Amazing Spider-Man. Both films were quasi-reboots of franchises that had taken turns for the worse. Both consisted of good choices for the characters. In practice, however, the latter film is perceived as an unnecessary cash grab and so Tobey Maguire remains the Peter Parker for many. On paper, the 2009 reboot of Star Trek should have been a hideous disaster, but somehow its perfectly executed casting, use of alternate timelines, and the presence of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock made it not just acceptable but well-liked. The sequel, on the other hand, failed by trying too hard to be like the iconic Star Trek II and recasting Khan without realizing who Khan actually is.
There are innumerable other recastings in movie history, each with its own complicated background and reactions. It’s not something many people have investigated beyond saying “Timothy Dalton sucked,” and that’s a shame.
Have a favorite or least favorite recasting? Disagree with the formula? Sound off below.