MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

When Good Foreign Films Get Bad Remakes

We hear a lot about how American remakes of foreign films tend to be pale imitations of the original, and there’s more truth than stereotype to that sentiment. But are American remakes inferior because they’re made by Americans, or is there an inherent value in the unique cultural perspective of a foreign film that gets lost in translating for an American audience? I would argue that what tends to happen with remakes is that we take the core idea of a perfectly good story and then excise the cultural context completely, repurposing the bare bones of the structure in remaking it, but losing much of the flesh that made the original work whole.

While you can deconstruct plot lines and story arcs and move things around geographically, it’s much harder to retain the subtleties of cultural differences and the unique point-of-view of a filmmaker who grew up in another place, with a different world view and ideas than many of us in America may have. Changing the setting from rural Turkey to the rural Deep South, or from Tokyo to San Francisco, has enormous implications on the character development and story that often get brushed over or completely lost in the wash in remakes. We try to simply lift ideas that originated in another cultural mindset wholesale onto a template of what that story might look set in America, ending up with remakes that are pale shadows of the better films they seek to imitate.

A couple years ago at the Telluride Film Festival, I saw a great little Icelandic thriller called Jar City. Taut, lean, kind of crazy as far as the plotline went, but it held together well and kept me interested. Now Jar City is getting an American makeover courtesy of Overture Films; word back in October, at least, was that the original writer/director, Baltasar Kormákur, would produce, with screenwriter Michael Ross (Turistas) attached to write the American screenplay.

I have nothing against Overture — they distributed The Visitor, which is one of the best films of 2008, and, well, Sunshine Cleaning, which I kinda-sorta liked. But whenever someone takes a foreign arthouse film and decides to do an American remake of it, I get a bit queasy. I know, I know, there are a few cases here and there where a remake of a foreign film improved on the original (Twelve Monkeys) or was pretty good (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) or at least didn’t completely blow (The Ring). But it’s much more likely that we’ll take a perfectly good arthouse film and remake it into a tepid variation of the original that loses all the cultural context (Shall We Dance), or turn a masterful film into a horrific alternate-reality version of itself (as when Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women was mangled into the wretched Burt Reynolds-starring remake, or when Godard’s brilliant Breathless was remade into that dreadful Americanized version starring Richard Gere) or remake a solid thriller in which the setting and sensibility of the filmmaker lended a certain tone to the original, losing something in the translation, even if the remake isn’t especially bad (Insomnia).

Take the English-language remake of 13 (Tzameti), a terrific little black-and-white noir byGela Babluani starring his brother, George, as the young man who finds a ticket and instructions meant for his recently deceased employer, and embarks on a blind treasure hunt of sorts that ends up being not at all what he’d expected. I loved this film, although it’s somewhat less impactful on repeat viewings once you know the conceit. Now Babluani is directing the American remake of his film (and even the IMDb page spoils the plot right up front, thanks guys), and I would be somewhat hopeful that the remake won’t completely suck, since Babluani wrote and directed it — but … the remake stars Jason Statham, who I have yet to see portray any degree of nuance on-screen. If they were going to insist on remaking13, they could have at least cast someone who could get closer to the emotional range in the original, like, say, Joseph Gordon-Levitt; he could have been kick-ass in this role. ButJason Statham? Bah. IMDb also lists Ray Winstone (love him), Mickey Rourke (I’m warmer on him post-The Wrestler) and Ray Liotta (meh), and perhaps all will be well, but I’m not holding my breath. Also heading down the remake-pike is Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In, reportedly slated for a makeover (again courtesy of Overture) to be helmed byCloverfield director Matt Reeves. I don’t have anything against either Cloverfield or Reeves, but do we really need an English-language remake of every decent foreign film?

Let’s consider, for a moment, one of my favorite films of the year, Arnaud Desplechin‘s A Christmas Tale. If it was remade here, how badly it would suck? Let’s imagine A Christmas Tale remake helmed by, say, Nora Ephron, with Diane Keaton in the Catherine Deneuverole, Owen Wilson playing the family black sheep portrayed so well by Matheiu Amalric, and Jennifer Aniston as the older sister, Elizabeth. Hell, toss Jack Nicholson into the role of the family patriarch while we’re at it. Now remove all the interesting family conflicts and the individual flaws and foibles of the characters that drive the story, make them all much nicer people generally, and turn it into a fun-for-the-holidays, milquetoast, accessible story about a family getting together for Christmas and learning the matriarch has cancer. Get rid of the acid exchanges at the dinner table, and make them lighter — oh, and for good measure, toss in a cute, smart-assed kid to quip the occasional hilarious line. While we’re at it, completely lose the awesome scene near the end where Amalric and Deneuve tell each other how they’ve never really loved each other, and, for good measure, end the film with a touching deathbed scene where everybody gets to cry and hug and make up. Instant bad remake. I shudder at the mere thought.

I get that for a lot of Americans a foreign language film with subtitles on the screen creates an instant barrier. We’re lazy here, and moreover, unlike much of the rest of the world, we are English-centric to a fault. American students, for the most part, take their two years of required foreign language they have to have to get through high school and promptly forget most of what they’ve learned once they graduate other than what they need to navigate the complexities of the drive-through at Taco Bell. We don’t raise our kids to be multilingual, for the most part, and we expect our immigrants to learn English quickly and assimilate promptly into our culture; thirty states have passed laws declariing English their “official language,” further cementing the nationalist view many Americans hold dear.

When I was at the Cannes film festival last year, I had many eye-opening conversations with foreign journalists who deplored the head-in-the-sand mentality so many Americans seem to have about anything that happens outside our borders. More than one mentioned being shocked by our local news coverage when they’ve visited the States, in particular how world events get, if anything, a quick two-minute run-down in between local interest stories, sports scores and weather reports. A tsunami hits in Asia and wipes out half a million people, and what we mostly want to hear about are Americans who happened to be caught in the disaster. Mumbai erupts into unspeakable violence? Tell us about the Americans trapped in hotels there. What? There were people of other nationalities caught up in that too? Who cares? Our local news channels are filled with stories about traffic jams and firefighters rescuing cute kittens, while a world away, Israel and Palestinians are embroiled in a bloody battle in Gaza, ongoing tribal wars create turmoil and strife all over Africa, putting countless inncocent civilians in the crossfires, and rain forests in Brazil continue to be depleted at an alarming rate. But unless you go out of your way to read foreign papers or get your news from places like the BBC, you could live in America and exist in a bubble of Starbucks, Wal-Mart and reality-tv with little awareness of the world around you.

All of which speaks even more to the importance of foreign films as a window to the world around us. Watch a film like Walter Salles‘ and Daniela Thomas Linha de Passe, and you might learn something interesting about the impact of a rapidly growing population on the lower-class youth of a large city — things that might actually apply here as well, as we struggle with how to deal with immigration into our own large cities. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days andVera Drake (yes, it’s in English, but it’s Brit English) are chilling reminders to American women who treasure the reproductive freedom brought to them by Roe v Wade of what our lives might be like should the conservative right have its way and outlaw abortion here again. One of the best films on the fest circuit this year, the still-undistributed The Headless Woman, is really a story about class divide and the consequences of viewing oneself as above another person told through an intricate story of a woman who thinks she may have hit and killed a young boy from a lower class while searching for her cell phone as she drove. Everlasting Moments, Sweden’s entry in the foreign Oscars race, tells a wrenching tale of a woman caught in a terrible marriage who, by dint of the time in which she lived and financial circumstances, keeps going back to her abusive, alcoholic, philandering husband.

I’m hopeful that the $28.6 million slow-burn start for Slumdog Millionaire, Brit director Danny Boyle‘s enchanting fable of a poor boy from the slums who wins a fortune on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, indicates at least the occasional willingness of American audiences to be open to braving the existence of subtitles to see a great film in a foreign language. If Slumdog gets its anticipated Oscar nod (whether it wins or not) and becomes a big crossover hit for Fox Searchlight then maybe, just maybe, Americans who have never gone to a foreign film before will check it out. And if they get past that mental barrier that subtitles create and enjoy the film in spite of themselves, perhaps some of those people will be more open to seeking out other strong foreign films they’ve heard about as well.

And I can’t help but think (or dream anyhow) that the more people outside of the art movie hubs of NYC and LA get a chance to see great foreign films on a big screen, the more accepting they’ll grow of subtitled fare. Perhaps, as a result, they would broaden their worldview to include the many cultures that exist outside our borders, and learn to see things from other perspectives.

There will probably always be remakes of foreign films. American studios, directors and producers will always see gold in the form of American box office dollars as the justification for taking someone else’s brilliant idea and “re-inventing” it in Americanese, and maybe some of those remakes will be okay, and maybe a couple will even improve on the original. And maybe, you could argue, a certain segment of the audience who sees an American remake will be inclined to check out the original version as well. Maybe. But I dream of the day when a film like Let the Right One In comes out and the first inclination isn’t to attach an American director to remake an already solid and compelling film, but to figure out how to sell this really cool Swedish vampire flick to audiences in Iowa and Texas and Oklahoma. I know it’s a sugarplum vision, but a film geek can dream.

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon