Ocean’s Eleven & Learning from Other People’s Mistakes

A lot of improving our writing is learning from our own mistakes. But why stop there? Let’s learn from other people’s mistakes. If you want to try this, some of the most revealing pieces to examine are works in progress or works that were re-released.

Other than movies of Broadway musicals where the change is apparent over time (such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), most often, we don’t hear about remakes that are better than the original. Well, here’s one example to get you started.

Ocean’s Eleven

The original film came out in 1960, and the remake came out in 2001. Some serious changes occurred between – not only in film but also in society. Fans of the original are likely to be unhappy with how different the remake is, but the two do have several core concepts in common:

  • an all-star cast
  • a heist on Las Vegas Casinos
  • a team of 11 men
  • a surprise twist

That’s about it for similarity. Some changes merely reflect the change in society (such as reduced smoking and less overt chauvinism), others involve the date of the heist, or who’s married and has kids. I’ll let you discover those for yourself (should you so choose). Since I’m just whetting your appetite, I’m going to focus on the big ones.

The biggest lessons to be learned from a writing standpoint are for characterization, plot, and pacing.

Characterization

Watching the both versions is a definite lesson in 1. how to build an ensemble cast without losing individualism and 2. how characterization choices can be dangerous to audience empathy.

As far as individualism, if the original cast wasn’t played by major stars, the audience wouldn’t have been able to tell most of them apart. From minimal backstory to near exact dressing habits, the characters are more or less interchangeable. Especially since the majority of them are performing the same job with the same skill set. The new cast, however, is a group of distinct individuals. They have very specific looks, abilities, and quirks, which is one of the major draws to the film.

When it comes to characterization choices, having paratroopers turn to thieves (and make it clear they would’ve stolen on a war mission) is a dangerous choice. Many people hold soldiers up as heroes, so this is an instant turn-off. There’s also no major bad-guy to counteract that.

On the other hand, the new characters are all cons and crooks, but they’re more empathetic because 1. they’re distinct and interesting characters, 2. they’re nonviolent, and 3. they’re robbing someone who is an established bad guy. Once you’re going up against the bad guy, you’re automatically in position to be a hero.

Plot*

The main lesson from the plot is that if you’re going to frame the story around action (a heist, for instance), then there needs to be action. The first movie claims to be about action but is really about watching the Rat Pack hang out. Most of the scenes building up to the heist are them standing around slot machines casting worried glances around them and generally appearing nervous and suspicious (which makes getting away with the heist less believable).

In direct contrast, the new heist takes many more layers of work and runs into more hitches up front. The intricacy of the planning is part of the appeal of the film, and it is distinctly missing in the original.

Pacing

This lesson links directly to plot. When the plot isn’t flowing well or doesn’t have a lot of momentum or urgency, the pacing lags. Granted, most 1960s films are going to feel slower than modern ones; however, this one’s pacing is also hindered by scenes that either don’t add to the plot or start to add to the plot yet don’t get resolved. The 2001 version feels much more orchestrated and focused, and every scene comes back into play by the end (which is helped by the fact that the modern stars are not required to have singing cameos).

Summary

These points are only scraping the surface of this comparison. If you have the time and the interest, there’s plenty to be learned by scrutinizing any book, play, or movie that had changes from one version to another. What did the author feel the need to change? How did that change the audience’s response? How did it change yours?

*If you want to watch and compare, you’ll also notice that some plot points are moved to involve different characters, which changes the entire framing of the story.

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