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The challenge of an old film role made new

As Colin Farrell prepares to reprise an Arnold Schwarzenegger role, a look at the triumphs and not-so triumphant attempts when new actors are placed in already established roles.

As if being newly unemployed wasn't enough, the Austrian muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger will now have to deal with the news that one of his most popular movies, Total Recall, is being remade.

Len Wiseman, whose previous works include the Underworld series and Live Free or Die Hard, will direct the latest version of the 1990 sci-fi movie - which is based on the Philip K Dick novella We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Due to begin filming later this year, Total Recall will star Colin Farrell, in the role made famous by Schwarzenegger.

The debate over the merits - or lack of them - of most remakes is one thing, but this project raises a different question: when one actor has made a role thoroughly their own, can anyone else realistically hope to make a success of stepping into their shoes?

Picture the scene: The year is 2084. A lowly construction worker, Doug Quaid, makes his way to Mars (which has since been colonised by humans) to recover his memory, defeat the bad guys, and save those people living under their tyrannical rule. Can Farrell, a relatively slender gentleman, really measure up to Schwarzenegger, with his rippling pectorals and unmistakable accent?

While Schwarzenegger might cast a particularly long - and wide - shadow, it won't be the first time an actor has faced such a challenge - and they are not necessarily doomed to fail. One of the most famous examples of recent years must be the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. It was a part Jack Nicholson had made utterly his own in Tim Burton's 1989 film, and it was almost impossible to imagine how anyone else could hope to make a decent fist of the villain. But Ledger took the Joker in a totally different and much more unsettling direction to Nicholson, describing his take on the character to The New York Times as "a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown". Ledger's untimely death in 2008, before the film was released, didn't stop his triumph being recognised by awards committees, and his posthumous plaudits included a Golden Globe for best supporting actor and an Oscar nomination in the same category. Proof that even the most iconic performance is not a barrier to a successful reinvention.

Of course, most don't reach those heights. The wiry Richard Gere hadn't a hope of achieving the louche, wide-boy cool of Jean Paul Belmondo in the 1983 remake of the 1960 French new-wave classic bout de souffle (Breathless). And the rent-a-hunk Sam Worthington added nothing to the woeful 2010 remake of the 1981 epic Clash of the Titans, which originally starred Harry Hamlin.

Sometimes the more striking the reinterpretation, the easier it is to pull off, though. Nicolas Cage got away with replacing Harvey Keitel in Werner Herzog's radical remake of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, but was panned for his turn in Edward Woodward's role in the 2006 remake of the horror classic The Wicker Man.

Other classics murdered by an unnecessary remake and badly chosen cast include the 1963 comedy caper The Pink Panther. Starring the mesmerising British actor Peter Sellers in the role of the hapless French detective Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the movie and subsequent sequels starring the actor have only continued to grow in popularity as the years have passed.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the critically panned 2006 remake, starring Steve Martin. Endearing as he is, Martin is small fry compared with Sellers. Martin also struggled to step into Phil Silvers' shoes in the 1996 remake of Sgt. Bilko.

As for Total Recall, even in the event that Farrell manages to add a respectable amount of muscle to his frame, as well as adopt an Austrian-slash-American twang, die-hard Schwarzenegger fans are unlikely to allow him much room for error. But maybe Wiseman and co can persuade the former action star to come out of retirement? Something tells us he'd be able to, er, recall the role easily enough.

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