It occurred to me yesterday (while watching the original 1997 version of Insomnia) that there are very few cover versions of songs or remakes of films that are worth spending your precious time on. I can only think of a handful of songs (and no films) for which a subsequent cover or remake actually improved on the original. On the other hand, it's very easy to think of covers and remakes which should never have been made. Insomnia particularly puzzles me. The original is stylish, chilling and very atmospheric, but the remake (made only 5 years later) added only some big name Hollywood actors and removed the subtitles. In this case, I wasn't even swayed by the usual primacy effect (you prefer the first version you experienced) because I saw the 2002 Insomnia first. I enjoyed it at the time, but watching the original made me aware what a pale imitation it was.
I've wracked my brains, and here are my choices for exceptions to the 'never try to do it twice' rule. Johnny Cash's version of the Nine Inch Nails song 'Hurt' was completely brilliant. I know that the lyrics are about drug addiction, but hearing an old man — at the end of his life — singing the song was really powerful, and added several additional layers to the song. He really knew about loss and regret. Every time I listen to it, his shaky, angry voice moves me all over again.
And then there's 'Mad World' covered by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules. The original was really good song, hidden under a thick blanket of slightly over-wrought vocals and too many synths. The cover stripped it back to basics and revealed the emotional power of the lyrics. I might also add 'Romeo and Juliet': a cover version of the Dire Straits track by the Indigo Girls. This one might be a matter of taste, because Amy Ray gets a bit shouty on it, but she certainly gives it a lot more impact that the original.
Despite a lot of thought, I can't think of a single film remake which has been better than the original.