Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Remakes, Reboots, and Reimaginings

The newest Spider-Man movie is in the theaters, with a new director, new cast, and new take on Spider-Man's origin story that invites us to forget the one presented to us back in 2002. In other words, it's not a sequel, but a reboot. In August, the remake of Total Recall arrives... or is it a reimagining? What exactly is the difference between remakes, reboots, and reimaginings?

I'm not the only one who's been wondering. A post from 2009 on the blog We Are Movie Geeks tackles the topic, getting its information primarily from the Wikipedia entry for remake. Just a couple of months ago, a post on the entertainment-oriented blog Nukes and Knives got into the topic as well. An informative post on the site CHUD.com gives the most concise comparative definitions I've found. (CHUD, by the way, stands for "cinematic happenings under development"; another indication of the site's focus on movies is the fact that CHUD was also the name of a 1980s horror flick, and stood for "cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers".) The post's author Sebastian OB defines the three terms as follows:

Remake: A straight re-telling of a story for the purpose of updating it for a contemporary audience, or making it accessible to a different culture or region.

Reboot: A course correction done with the purpose of restarting a franchise. A reset. Fealty to the original story or film is not a priority.

Re-Imagining: A re-telling of a story, but only in the broadest sense. Characters and some story elements may be retained, but mostly plot and story have been repurposed.

To get the perspective of someone in the entertainment industry, I talked to Bob Orci, who has had firsthand experience with movies and TV shows that have in some way or another been redone. He and partner Alex Kurtzman wrote the screenplay for the 2009 Star Trek movie, which introduced a new cast for the classic characters and paved the way for new storylines involving them. Kurtzman and Orci also created and continue to produce the TV series Hawaii Five-0, inspired by the 1970s TV show of the same name (except for the change of the O to a zero in the current title). What's more, they are currently at work on the script to the sequel to this summer's re-created, re-invented, revamped Spider-Man movie.

I asked if producers and directors still called anything a remake. They do, Orci confirmed. He listed a few clear examples of remakes from recent years: Gus van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998), James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and the Coen brothers' True Grit (2010). They fit the definition from CHUD.com, in that each is a "straight re-telling of a story." Another commonality is that these movies were not part of a series, which brings us to the semantic territory of reboots.

A reboot, first of all, tells a different story from the original movie. Of course, so do sequels and prequels if we're talking about a series of movies. The different is that these fit together with those told in the original movie, whereas a reboot tells a story that is inconsistent with the earlier-told stories, and requires you to forget about them (at least, for minimum cognitive disruption and maximum enjoyment).

The term reboot comes from computer science, where it all started with the idiom "to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps." According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a bootstrap is "a tab or loop at the back of the top of a men's boot, which the wearer hooked a finger through to pull the boots on," and in the 1800s, the idiom about using them to pull yourself up "was figurative of an impossible task." In the 20th century, the meaning shifted to "metaphoric senses involving ‘bettering oneself by unaided effort.'" In computer science, this idiom was shortened to bootstrapping, to refer to loading the first few instructions of a starting program into a computer, and allowing its subsequent unaided effort to load the rest of its instructions and other programs. Bootstrapping became booting up, which then led to the computer-science sense of the noun boot, and reboot by prefixation.

For ordinary computer users of the 1980s, though, the main thing about a reboot was not that it proceeded on its own after a few initial instructions, but that it was a restart in which you lost any unsaved data. That became the basis of another metaphorical extension to comic books and other serial fiction: You keep the characters (i.e. the programs), but start over as if the earlier stories (the unsaved data) don't exist. In a message to the American Dialect Society email list, Garson O'Toole noted that its "usage was already established by 1996 when it appeared in an FAQ" for a newsgroup devoted to comics.

Reboot was first used in relation to movies, according to the post on CHUD.com, with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins—whose reset chronology continued with The Dark Knight in 2008, and concludes with The Dark Knight Rises this summer. As Sebastian OB writes,

Aside from characters and the vaguest of elements … Batman Begins bore no resemblance to the '89 Burton film. It basically tells you the viewer that what happened in the previous films did not happen. This sort of thing is so commonplace now that it doesn't seem like a big deal; hell, we're getting a Spider-Man reboot this year … and the original is a mere 10 years old. But back in 2005, this was a quasi-revolutionary move. Not even the James Bond series actively contradicted the previous films.

The idea of a series being rebooted even occurs in the auto industry: Data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English turns up makes of cars that have been "rebooted" in the past two or three years.

As far as movies go, then, Orci's guidelines is this: If it's not a sequel or a prequel, and is not the same story as the original, then it's a reboot. Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man fits these criteria; it retells the origin story of Spider-Man, but in a way that's inconsistent with the story told in Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man. Other reboots would include The Pink Panther from 2006, starring Steve Martin. That same year, James Bond finally got a reboot in Casino Royale, the first Bond movie with Daniel Craig in the title role. In the realm of TV, Kurtzman and Orci's Hawaii Five-0 is a clear example of a rebooted series.

Orci singled out some unusual cases of reboots. One was 2006's Superman Returns, which rewound the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve not all the way to zero, but just to the end of 1980's Superman II, a situation sometimes called an alternate sequel. Continuing the computer-science metaphor, I might call it a rollback, much as you might use the system recovery system to roll your software back to an earlier, less buggy version without ridiculous plotlines involving Richard Pryor.

Another unusual case was Kurtzman and Orci's own Star Trek script. It's widely regarded as a reboot, because it tells a story that hasn't previously been on film, and makes it clear that subsequent movies are going to ignore stories from earlier Star Trek movies or TV episodes. However, as Orci told interviewers in 2009, and reiterated for me when we spoke, this was done by way of time travel and alternate universes, plot devices that have been used in numerous Star Trek plotlines. In other words, because of the unique features available in the Star Trek franchise, the most recent movie was "both a sequel and a prequel," not a reboot. For an entry point that will lead you to a whole web of terms applying to various kinds and degrees of reboots, I refer the reader to the entry for continuity reboot on the TV Tropes and Idioms website.

So how does reimagining fit into the picture? Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes from 2001 was the first movie I heard described this way. It struck me as a term that Burton wanted to use because a reimagined movie sounded cooler, more creative, and more artistic than a mere remake. My impression has been strengthened since then, as reimagining has been applied to other movies, including 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (another Burton project) and even Disney's forgettable Race to Witch Mountain from 2009. Orci, though, judges that reimagining is also used by producers and directors who don't have the conviction to use the word reboot, which carries the danger of angering fans of a franchise.

However, not every reimagining is a reboot. For one thing, reimagining can apply to stand-alone movies as well as series (such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Among people who make a distinction between reimaginings and remakes, the criterial distinction is more specific than CHUD.com's "broad re-telling"; it's whether the source and inspiration is an earlier movie, or the book or other original source for that earlier movie. If an earlier movie is the source, it's a remake; if the original book or other material is the source, then it's a reimagining. As one online review mentions regarding 3:10 to Yuma, it's "a remake of the 50-year-old film of the same name … or a reimagining of the early Elmore Leonard short story, take your pick." So some pre-2000 movies that were called remakes when they came out would probably be called reimaginings if they were to come out now. The 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau would be a good candidate.

Having gone through all of this, I have to acknowledge that many writers and speakers are unaware of these distinctions (as I was until I undertook this column). You can find examples of the new 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit referred to as reboots and reimaginings. The new Pink Panther movie, listed as a reboot above, has also been called a remake and a reimagining, as has The Amazing Spider-Man. The reimagined Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has also been called a remake. All three terms have been applied to the upcoming Total Recall. These three terms may ultimately settle into the semantic cubbyholes described here, or some or all of the terms may end up as synonyms, with connotations and sociological considerations determining which one to use when.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 6th 2012, 3:54 PM
Comment by: LORENZO S. (PALM DESERT, CA)
I think an inclusion and explanation of adaptation, appropriation, and maybe even remediation would have been helpful.
Friday July 6th 2012, 7:03 PM
Comment by: Licia C. (Milano Italy)
A related term I like is retcon, short for retroactive continuity, "the alteration of previously established facts in a fictional work" (Wikipedia).
Monday July 9th 2012, 4:19 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Do you suppose the theatrical staple of setting Shakespeare (or some other well-known theatrical work) in a different era or context would qualify as a "reimagining"? What about works like "West Side Story" as a reimagining of "Romeo and Juliet," or the film "Scotland PA" as a reimagining of "MacBeth"? Maybe if you stick to the original script, it's just an interpretation, but if you take the story but write new dialog it's a reimagining?

And now I wonder how any of this pertains to the music industry. Golly, such interesting things to think about. :-)
Monday September 3rd 2012, 1:06 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
That's true. This column clarifies nicely why the movies with identical names reappear time to time.I asked so often that question to me regarding movies having identical names but displaying completely different scenario in some cases.
Is "Titanic" falls under Re-imaging category?
I liked the abbreviated word CHUD (cinematic happening under development)most here. Science based fiction movies will undergo these changes at the same time we expect to see some rebooting for WWII movies and also movies on Roman ruled era, and era of Ferrous and so on. All will be welcomed.

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Payback Time
- 5 Comments
In the world of movies, vengeance is for good guys and revenge is for bad guys.
"Regime alteration" instead of "regime change"? Why not "regime reimagining"?
A look at words associated with the movies "Up in the Air" and "Avatar."