Hollywood isn’t the only source of blockbusters anymore. International film industries generate hits with the same frequency, on scales local and sometimes even global, often outgrossing American studio films. But such is the imperial dominance of Hollywood, any time a major hit emerges from outside the English-speaking world, conversation immediately gravitates toward a potential American remake. Hollywood just can’t keep its mitts off an idea that might make money. But while this process is widely reviled, for several good reasons, there are subtleties within it – and the films themselves are undeserving of prejudice.
The United States is not alone in remaking films from other cultures. There’s an Italian Groundhog Day, a Korean Unforgiven, a Russian 12 Angry Men, a Japanese Ghost, and a Chinese Blood Simple. The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a French remake of American crime drama Fingers, won eight Cesar awards and a BAFTA. American films are remade in India all the time. And that’s not to even mention the legions of unlicensed remakes that emerged from the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, or the adaptations between different non-English-speaking cultures that English-speakers will likely never hear about.
American remakes of non-American films, however, are downright despised by the film community, usually sight-unseen. Much of the hatred stems from perceived erasure of international cinema by Americans, whose history of cultural appropriation is already bad enough. This is a fair criticism: few know about the Korean film that inspired The Lake House (Il Mare, released just before New Korean Cinema struck American arthouses in a big way), for example. Certainly, many English-speaking audiences will only ever experience certain stories via English-language remakes. Even assuming equivalent impact and success, Google search results, too, typically default to American films over international films of the same title.
Another fear is that English-language remakes might steal income from the original productions. This is less justifiable. By the time remakes get produced, the originals have already done most of their business, and frankly, they’re not competing in the same markets in the first place, as audiences who hate subtitles would never seek out “foreign” films anyway. If anything, remakes slightly raise the profile of their progenitors, either directly through credits or marketing, or indirectly through critical response, It’s almost a guarantee that a remake will inspire at least one person to seek out the original who wouldn’t ordinarily have done so. Between that, payouts from rights sales, and the occasional direct involvement of original creators, it’s hard to argue that remakes hurt the original filmmakers.
Artistically, the greatest worry concerns simplification of stories to fit a lowest common denominator audience. City of Angels was widely derided for turning Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire into a sentimental soap opera, for example; Cameron Crowe was criticised as pretentious when adapting Abre Los Ojos into Vanilla Sky. Japanese horror remakes have had a poor remake track record even with their original directors attached. Other films simply don’t add anything new in the translation, like Let Me In or Quarantine, and feel like leaden retreads or, at best, skilled do-overs. These remakes don’t give the originals a bad name, exactly. They do, however, forever taint any discussion of them.
But while many remakes are dumbed-down or unimaginative, nearly all are unfairly maligned from the outset, simply by dint of being remakes. The decision to remake international films is typically a studio decision, and can be criticised pretty fairly, but the actual movies are generally made by filmmakers with the best intentions, and deserve to be viewed on their own terms.
Some of the most interesting English-language remakes see international directors remounting their previous films and using the opportunity to say something new. In remaking In Order of Disappearance as Cold Pursuit, Hans Petter Moland elevated an ordinary gang-warfare subplot into a commentary about American indigenous exploitation. Michael Haneke’s American remake of Funny Games followed his original almost shot-for-shot, but took on new meaning simply through being made inside the American cultural context the original was, in part, commenting on. Sometimes instead of the directors reprising their roles, it’s actors, like Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky or Don Lee in the upcoming remake of The Cop, The Gangster, The Devil. Either way, filmmakers coming at their previous work from a new angle is fascinating to watch.
When auteurs do remakes, they often generate classics in their own right. Insomnia (originally from Norway) helped cement Christopher Nolan as a director to watch. James Cameron’s True Lies (originally the French La Totale!) is beloved in action-film circles, as Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (inspired by French experimental film La Jetée) is by sci-fi fans. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is every bit as celebrated as its French predecessor The Wages of Fear. Billy Wilder’s all-time classic Some Like It Hot is the second remake of French film Fanfare d’Amour, also remade in German. And of course, Martin Scorsese finally won his Oscar with The Departed, a well-received remake of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs.
Part of the hate toward these films undoubtedly represents fetishisation of international cinema based exclusively on its best examples. While promoting international films, cinephiles often fail to acknowledge that international film industries produce plenty of basic and even bad entertainment, too. Numerous French comedies adapted into standard American comedy fare – fare like Dinner For Schmucks, Three Men and a Baby, Father’s Day, Jungle 2 Jungle – are considered standard comedy fare where they came from, too. The same goes for Japanese horror films, Hong Kong action movies, and more. Such films are often placed on pedestals by English-language audiences, for whom they represent something foreign and unusual. That only the best and/or most successful international films even play in American cinemas can distort views of those film industries. Not every Korean film is Parasite; not every French film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Every country makes trash.
Downhill – the most recent such remake, released this month – is a blend of all of this. Its source film Force Majeure is essentially a masterpiece, prompting cringes when an American remake was announced starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. Downhill loses some of Force Majeure’s European commonwealth feel, and there’s a touch more fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s more family- than relationship-focused, and the filmmaking isn’t as stylish or confident. But it’s not a disaster: the core story is appropriately uncomfortable, Louis-Dreyfuss is terrific, and even Ferrell is remarkably restrained. Incredibly, only Miranda Otto’s cartoonish Austrian sex fiend feels transplanted in from the kind of crass American comedy we all feared. If Downhill were an original American movie – or an adaptation of a novel or play – it’d be hailed as bold and refreshing. Instead, nearly all the wildly negative reviews cite Force Majeure as a better option. And it is a better option. But that doesn’t make Downhill any worse.
It’s interesting which remakes get a pass and which don’t. We often call remakes “unnecessary,” and that’s generally correct, but comparing films to their pre-beloved predecessors (also “unnecessary,” when we come down to it) is never going to be fair. There’s nothing inherently bad about the films themselves; only, perhaps, the exploitative practices of the studios making them. Curiouser still, exceptions exist that almost nobody complains about: the many rehashes of the formulae driving Seven Samurai or A Fistful of Dollars, for example, are accepted as re-adaptations of stories as timeless as fairy tales.
Originality isn’t necessary to create good work. Theatres still put on Shakespeare. We keep seeing acclaimed new versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes. Mad Max: Fury Road, the most critically beloved film of the last ten years, is the fourth film in a franchise. Ultimately, great remakes (The Fly, The Thing, True Grit, others in this article) are only about as rare within the field of remakes as great films are within the field of films. We definitely need to remain aware of American dominance of global culture, but when it comes to individual films, perhaps we should put more effort into appreciating what they bring to the table in their own right, remake or not. And if you’re not interested in doing that, well, the originals are still there.
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