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Face off for Freddy

The latest incarnation of A Nightmare On Elm Street sees Robert Englund ditched from the Freddy Krueger role that he has become synonymous with and replaced by Jackie Earle Haley.

Changing the actor playing a famous character has become the vogue in Hollywood, where studios will try anything to keep a franchise going, and this is a trend that actually seems to be finding favour with audiences.

Jackie Earle Haley's career has had something of a renaissance ever since he chilled as a convicted sex offender in Little Children opposite Kate Winslet in 2006.

He seems a good candidate to play the famous horror character, yet there is a sense of sacrilege that Englund has been ditched. Movie fan site Ain't It Cool News captured the mood of the public when it posted: "Once one looks beyond the 'Freddy Isn't Robert Englund!' prejudice. . . this isn't altogether unreasonable casting at all."

The phenomenon of actors bringing new life to a character is something that has always been apparent in theatre, and there has for a long time been a sense that, if an actor gets too old to play a part that he made famous on screen, then the character should be retired too.

William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk was once the prime example of this.

It used to be that audiences would only be able to argue over which James Bond was the best. He was the cinema character who seemed fun to compare, and which actor one preferred as Bond said a lot about an audience member's taste and age.

It was helped by the fact that Bond stories usually worked as stand-alone films. Yet this did create the bizarre situation in 1983 when both Octopussy, starring Roger Moore, and Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery, were released within months of each other.


Now, though, it's not just James Bond who has had as many face changes as Doctor Who.

With the increasing number of remakes, reboots and sequels, audiences are getting more used to casting changes. It's also the clearest sign that, over the past decade, actors have become less important in terms of getting bums on seats.

In the eight years from Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 until 1997's Batman and Robin, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney all donned the tights without the merest hint of a "holy cow" from Robin.

When Ang Lee's Hulk, starring Erik Bana, didn't live up to box-office expectations in 2003, the studio tried again five years later with Ed Norton in the title role trying to give the franchise a new lease of life.

Actors are not yet completely defunct, as the right actor in the right role can still make it difficult for a franchise to replace them. For example, when Matt Damon announced that he was following the lead of Paul Greengrass and refusing to do another Bourne movie, it seemed to signal the end of the franchise.

The caveat is that studios have become adept at keeping franchises going through a reboot. A reboot is the restarting of a franchise from the beginning.

Last year, JJ Abrams did a remarkable job with his reboot of Star Trek, successfully managing to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Shatner with Chris Pine.

Christopher Nolan's Batman reboot saw Christian Bale don the cape and Bale has also been involved in an attempt to keep the Terminator franchise going long after Arnold Schwarzenegger showed he would not necessarily be back.

Another tool being used by studios is through the use of "synthespians", short for synthetic thespians. These are artificial actors created by special-effects boffins. James Cameron has already suggested that the technology used in Avatar could be used to bring actors back to the screen long after they have died.

One obvious advantage for studios of the diminishing role of the actor is that actors have become cheaper. In the end, whether an actor reprises a role often comes down to money, but if audiences don't care if the face changes the bargaining position of the actor is weakened.

Audiences still prefer to see the same actors play characters, however -- which is why studios usually option actors for three movies when they think they have a franchise on their hands.