The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Remake annoyance – a few words about why they bug me but how I eventually realized that I’m a hypocrite

with 31 comments

Whenever a good Scandinavian movie comes out, the question will inevitably comes up: “How long will it be before they make an American remake”.

It’s not a question of “if” anymore, but “when”, and the answer to that question generally is “within two years”.

As a European I have mixed feelings about those remakes, but most of all negative. I try to be as open minded and forgiving as I can, I can’t rid myself of a gut reaction of frustration, jealousy and even a little bit of contempt.

Or as Pete from I Love That Film wrote in a comment on my wish list for Christmas:

“I would also ask that Hollywood stops the needless remakes of perfectly good foreign films (despite being excited about Dragon Tattoo). It’s utterly offensive, pointless and ridiculous.”

I totally get what he means. Hollywood’s habit of doing remakes either it’s warranted or not is annoying and even offensive from my European perspective.

I know that some of my fellow film bloggers in North America won’t agree with me and Peter in this. After all, some of those remakes are pretty good, if not better, at least as good as the original, although in a slightly different way. The more movies they make, the more is there to watch for everyone. Let’s face it – people in the United States aren’t used to watch foreign movies with subtitles. The remakes probably won’t take the market away from the original films, because there was none to begin with. So what’s the harm?

A sense of rejection
Yes, what’s the harm? I’ll try to explain a bit further in this post.

I think one issue is a vague sense of being of rejected by a culture which finds itself superior to ours and self serving. It’s as if the movies that are made outside of the US aren’t good enough for the American market, while we on the other hand watch movies produced in Hollywood all the time.

In fact most films I watch are in a foreign language and have subtitles. Do I complain about that? Do I reject the idea of watching for instance The Ides of March because it’s about the political system in US? Would I even suggest that they should make a version that is about an election campaign in Sweden, starring Alexander Skarsgård instead of Ryan Gosling? No! Of course not! The idea is ridiculous.

So if your movies are good enough for me to watch, why aren’t our movies good enough for you? If there is a cultural exchange here it seems to only go one way. Hollywood pushes out movies to markets all over the world, but we’re not allowed into yours. What is going on, really? Is it protectionism or fear of everything foreign? I don’t know, but it bugs me.

The difficulty of subtitles
Defenders of remakes sometimes argue that the American audience isn’t used to read subtitles. The lack of an American version wouldn’t make more people go and watch the original Swedish or French movie. They would rather not watch at all.

To this my answer is that for an European brought up with subtitled movies, it’s hard to understand the difficulty. Come on, it’s just a habit! Any child can do it as soon as their reading speed gets up to the level where they can follow it, which usually happens at the age of eight or nine years, at the latest. Isn’t it most of all a question of the willingness to market the European movies properly? You’ll get what you put into it.

And besides you can’t blame subtitles for all the remakes. Even a UK origin seems to bee too foreign for the American audience, especially when it comes to TV series. Hence they felt compelled to remake perfectly good original British series such as The Office and Good as Queer. Why?  I can’t imagine a British accent is any harder to understand than an accent from certain parts of the US.

I just don’t get it.

Promoting the original?
Another argument you hear sometimes is that remakes can help the marketing of the original movie. If it’s good enough, people might become curious and interested in watching the source. Without any scientific evidence to back it up with, I’m skeptical towards that idea. While a cinephile might want to compare different versions of the same story, I doubt that it’s something that would interest the mainstream audience, especially not when there’s as little time between the releases as too years. It’s not as if they’ve modernized a very old concept, making a new version of a classic from the 30s. The technique will be the same, the special effects will be similar. So why bother?

Like a theatre or a book?
Some people say that remakes of movies are no different to setting up Hamlet on many different scenes and that it doesn’t make sense to make fuzz about it. But I’d say there is a difference here, namely in the distribution.

For practical reasons all of the world can’t watch the same play since it’s located to a certain time and space and there are only so many seats in the salon. A film is more like a book in that regard. It can easily get worldwide distribution and it can easily be translated.

While we sometimes get pastiche versions, such as the take on Pride and Prejudice that includes zombies, it’s not common practice to take a two year old novel taking place in London, relocating it to New York to please an American audience. At least not that I know of.

But on the other hand…
So if I feel so negative about remakes, why didn’t I include the extinction of them in my wish list to Santa?

The answer to that is that in the end, thinking closer about it, I realized that my argumentation while fierce also was hollow and that I couldn’t defend it in any situation. There would always be exceptions.

I raged a lot about the American remakes, but what about the remakes we do in Scandinavia? They may not be that common, but there have been a couple, which I’ve given a lot of praise myself.

What was When the Raven Flies if not an Icelandic remake of A Fistful of Dollars, which in turn was a remake of Yojimbo?

And what was Oslo, 31st of August if not yet another adaptation of the novel Le feut follet (The fire within), which Louis Malle made into a movie as early as in the 60s?

There is a difference here compared to the American remakes of two year old films in the sense that there’s a huge difference to the original. But taking a look into the mirror I had to admit that I was a bit of a hypocrite.

Not all are of evil
The truth is that all remakes aren’t of evil. Some may feel unnecessary, some are OK, others are even better than the original, and the opinions on which category a certain remake belongs to will inevitably vary.

For my own part I usually won’t bother about the remake. I loved Let The Right One In; I’ve heard both good and bad stuff about Let Me In, but I don’t see any need to watch it. I watched and loved the French thriller Pour Elle (Anything for her), but there’s no way I’ll spend money to see The Next Three Days.

As comes to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ll definitely watch it. Not only is David Fincher a director I respect; my home town also appears in it; I even heard the recordings of the orchestra as they shot it in the neighbourhood to where I work and I can’t wait to see that telephone boot where I thought I got a glimpse of Daniel Craig.

This has been a very wordy post and it’s time to put an end to it. Either you’re a fan or a fiend of remakes I hope you’ll join me in the Friday night toast.

Cheers!

Written by Jessica

December 16, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

31 Responses

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  1. As an American, I have to say that I despise the fact that Hollywood feels that they have to remake every decent non-American film that comes along. Nowadays, it is typically subtitled films that are remade, but in the 40s even British films were remade by the Americans– for instance, Gaslight.

    I just don’t see the necessity to remake a movie that was done well the first time. If people don’t want to see it, fine. Their loss. To have an American version– or a recent version– of a film I think should only be done if they think they will improve it. Van Sant’s version of Psycho was completely useless and a waste of money. If he loved the film that much, he should have just watched it again. The same with Let Me Go.

    A number of people were dissatisfied with the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I liked it a lot), and the probability is high that Fincher’s version might be better, or at least different. So I guess I will have to admit that the film’s existence is reasonable, but I’d have to hear pretty great things about it to see it. My back gets set up and I feel like I just want to watch the original again. Or read the book.

    I know that remakes will never go away. But in years to come, at least the subtitle excuse won’t be used anymore. A lot of kids like watching Japanese anime, many of which are subtitled. More and more Americans are getting used to subtitles. If only we can get them used to watching black and white as well.

    stevekimes

    December 16, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    • You’re making a good point about the subtitles. At least that won’t be an argument when the anime generation grows up. But perhaps there is a certain element of protectionism in it, no? I suppose there are interests in US who will make a great deal more money on a remade Let me In than on distributing the original Let the Right One in…

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 9:46 pm

  2. I think I would draw a distinction between recent remakes, and remakes from a different generation, because I can understand the case for the second much more than the first.

    That said, remarkes of older films often seem to produce inferior versions of older films too, and I don’t think it is just rose-tinted spectacles. In both cases I think sometimes the original film/story works best in its original setting as it were, sometimes making a remake puts it a little out of place, in either time or space.

    Lewis Maskell

    December 16, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    • Yes, I think the closeness in time is what bugs me most. When a movie is only two years old… it seems so arrogant not to give the original a chance before remaking it. It’s different to make an adaption from a novel which was previously made in the 60s, where a lot of things have changed in society. Then it feels more appropriate.

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 9:48 pm

  3. There be a lotta unjustifiable weirdness when it comes ta Hollywood, foreign films, and remakes. I always thinks of the original Mad Max movie, where all the Australian accents was dubbed over with American voices. The “Americans ain’t used ta subtitles” is true, in that we ain’t ’cause we never ever sees them ’cause they won’t show them to us ’cause we never goes ta see them….. The fact what “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” were a unqualified commercial success don’t count in Hollywood’s brain, I guess. Mebbe they forget what it was subtitled ’cause they was too inta the chicks with swords.

    Remakes has been a part of Hollywood from the beginning, and sometimes they does it right and it be justifiables. I thoroughly enjoyed “Yojimbo”, but I likes “Fistul of Eastwood” too (do that one count as Hollywood? I ain’t sure). Thought the remake of “Last of the Mohicans” was wonderful (which be Hollywood remaking a Hollywood remake of Hollywood). But why oh why is they remaking Robocop? Oh yeah, fer ta spooge in some cash.

    I’d like fer ta see more films in they’s original European. Since I don’t live in Manhattan, though, I knows what it ain’t gonna happen. Is too bad – I prolly don’t know what I’s missin’.

    Ratshag

    December 16, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    • They did that? Dubbing the Australian accents? I had no idea. That’s ridiculous. I agree completely about the strangeness in that they’re remaking movies that feel quite brand new to me. The 80s? That’s like yesterday to me… I guess I’m starting to get old though. 😉
      I’m sorry to hear that it’s so hard for you to get hold of European movies. I always imagined Netflix has a lot, but on the other hand, it’s not like seeing a movie in the theatre, which is superior if you ask me.

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 9:50 pm

  4. Fantastic post and thanks for the mention! Although I am against them, I like a lot of the remakes I see. I thought Let Me In was just as good as the original and I’m sure Fincher will do wonders with Dragon Tattoo. But I’d much rather Fincher and Reeves had spent their time and studio money on original projects.

    And you have highlighted the problem; it’s the superiority thing I think that bugs me. I guess it all comes down to profit rather than thinking they can do it better. But why not spend a bit more promoting the original, rather than financing a reamke. Surely people will read subtitles if they think they are going to get a great film. I know I put off watching subtitled films until I’m in the right mood because sometimes I just want an easy watch, but if the film is brilliant then I soon forget I’m reading subtitles and just enjoy the film!

    There should be some kind of unwritten rule that you must wait about twenty years to remake something. Otherwise if you just remake it straight away, you disrespect the original work and its creators. You basically say, ‘no one in my country wants to watch your bloody foreigners gand listen to their funny language so here’s my version with real stars and a real language that my people won’t have to read. Thanks for the great idea for a story though, we’ll use that!’

    But I guess if audiences stop going then they’ll have to stop making them. So perhaps I should stop being a hypocrite and stop watching them. (Right after I see Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo)

    Pete

    December 16, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    • Thank you very much! The topic has been on my mind for a while, but your comment helped me to get around and do something about it. And I think you’re right: as long as people go and watch the remakes, you can be sure that they’ll keep them coming.
      A quick glance at IMDb tells me that Footloose already has made a decent plus. So I figure that’s a sign. There are more to come.

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 9:53 pm

  5. Personally, I feel that if you are making a remake, at least make sure it is as good as original. Least you can do is waste our time and damage the reputation of original movie. But, you make some excellent points. Consider The Departed. It will be almost impossible to find some one who hasn’t seen it, but how many have seen Mou Gaan Dou ? Even after knowing Departed is remake of this?

    SDG

    December 16, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    • I’ve seen neither to be honest. If I’ll watch it, you suggest I’ll go for the original?

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 9:54 pm

      • The Departed is an Excellent Film and If I have to choose I will choose The Departed over Mou Gaan Dou. Mou Gaan Dou is not bad at all. But, I guess, Departed works because of so many well known names connected to it.

        SDG

        December 18, 2011 at 10:40 pm

  6. I share a general skepticism of remakes mostly because the reason behind the remakes seems so obviously monetary. It is easier to take someone else’s idea and try to market it than come up with something new. To the degree that we get remakes, I want something that goes into it with a lot of thought on how to make it say something different or how to really make it localized. The Departed is a movie I love and is a remake, but it is a film that works its way so deeply into the culture of Boston that it is hard to picture it as a foreign story. But then I watch Let Me In and I struggle to see what it is trying to say that wasn’t ultimately said (better) in Let The Right One In. Even if it is a decent film it its own right, it has no real reason to exist.

    Bondo

    December 16, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    • Yes, considering how many scripts that are unvailable, brand new ones, perfectly good stories waiting on the black list, you thought they could make better use of their resources than to copy something from last year.

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 10:05 pm

  7. I get annoyed with the way Hollywood pumps out remakes, but only because I think it represents a certain degree of laziness inherent in the system. Then again, I get equally annoyed by the stream of crappy superhero flicks and that sort of thing. It’s not that a superhero will automatically be bad, and many are good, but the way that Hollywood approaches business is lazy all around, including with remakes.

    That said, just like some superhero movies are good and some are bad, the same goes for remakes. In the end any movie is justified simply by being good. I’ve seen plenty of remakes that I’ve loved. Christopher Nolan, one of my favourite directors, got hooked up with Warner Bros by doing a remake of another Scandinavian thriller, Insomnia. I’ve seen both. Both are great. Nolan’s film, by my estimation is better if only because the direction is so fantastic. And you know what? Now if I want to watch Insomnia I have a choice between two different versions, each of which are enjoyable in similar and differing ways. There is nothing wrong with that.

    The same goes for Let the Right One In and Let Me In. The movie was a calculated attempt at lazy success by an indie studio trying to get restarted. But they hired Matt Reeves to write and direct it and he had enough passion to at the very least make it good. I happen to think it’s excellent, but either way it’s clear that the film was made by someone who wanted to put out a quality film. And again, now you have a choice. You can watch two great versions of the same story. Sounds like a win-win to me.

    Corey Atad

    December 16, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    • You say that you have a choice, but do you really? In how many theatres did the original movie come up? And how much was the remake marketed, towards the US market? Is there a choice in reality?

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 10:06 pm

      • I’m in Toronto, so I have an advantage here. I saw the Swedish Dragon Tattoo and the first sequel in theatres. I easily could have seen Let the Right One In that way as well. But beyond that, in the age of DVD and Blu-ray and iTunes and streaming, there is definitely a choice.

        And really, part of the problem I think you’re overlooking is the cultural issue. American culture has become so ubiquitous and influential (thanks in large part to Hollywood) that everyone around the world basically understands those cultural cues. But that doesn’t go both ways.

        I’ll give you an example. In the novel and Swedish adaptation of Dragon Tattoo there is a plot involving Mikael Blomkvist sentenced to serve time in jail for libel. That alone is hard to understand in a North American context. But it gets even harder to relate to when you throw in the fact that he gets to wait a few months before having to serve that sentence and then see that the “prison” looks more like a community centre with pretty open and easy access. This was sidestepped by the American film, and when I tried explaining it to a friend of mine I realized that was a good idea. It’s so foreign that it is just harder to connect with.

        Now, you can accuse Americans of being lazy in understanding the rest of the world, but really, can you blame them for being the world’s dominant culture? If I’m retelling a story to a new group of people who live in a different cultural context it can be entirely appropriate to translate. And that’s what these remakes are. They are translations. I see no problem inherent with translating films through remake. And if they turn out to be good then more power to them. I know that I would sooner recommend the American remakes of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Let the Right One In than, say, Sherlock Holmes 2.

        Corey Atad

        December 19, 2011 at 6:43 am

        • I don’t deny the inluence of American culture. But don’t forget that the majority of the inhabitants of planet Earth are NOT Americans and maybe, just maybe even the people in US could benefit from broadening their horizons, just a little?

          As far as I know they do proper translations of European literature. They don’t need to transfer them to an American setting so the poor unenlightened Americans will understand the cultural clues. Maybe they won’t get everything. And that’s OK!

          I really can’t see remakes as translations. Subtitles are. And (oh, the horror) dubbing is. Remakes are some weird sort of changed copies.

          Jessica

          December 19, 2011 at 7:45 am

          • We would all love for everyone to broaden horizons, but I think on that issue you’re being a little bit dishonest about the apparently broad horizons of people in countries all over Europe. Half of Europe still dubs movies rather than subtitle them.

            To me, films follow closer to the oral tradition of storytelling than the written one. I think of a remake as a retelling. Imagine sitting around a campfire and telling a story you heard once. You might even try to tell it as close as possible to how you heard it told to you, but you’ll change little things. Those changes can range from verbal inflection to story details to cultural context issues.

            Understanding cultural context can be key to the effectiveness of a story, too. I love The Departed, which was a remake of Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong movie. When I watched Infernal Affairs I found it difficult to get into primarily because of the peculiarities of Hong Kong action filmmaking. Maybe if I’d been exposed to more Hong Kong movies I’d have liked it more, but you can’t expect everyone to be enlightened about or exposed to all things. As such I found it much easier to connect with The Departed and I consequently liked it much more.

            Don’t think of remakes as a translation for a dumb audience that doesn’t want to read subtitles. Think of them as retellings for a new audience who may not have been exposed to the original telling of the story. And you have to remember that not everybody is proactive about searching out films that are harder to find or are older. Most people just go to the multiplex to see whatever is new. They might not have seen the original foreign film and they might not have time or patience to seek it out. If there is a good remake of a foreign film playing then at least they are getting exposure to the story, even if its not the original telling of that story.

            And I think casting aspersions about the intelligence of the North American audience is pointless. I know a few people who I would hardly even call intelligent who saw the Swedish Dragon Tattoo film and now have little interest in the remake because, as one of them put it, “I’ve already seen that story.”

            From my point of view as someone who loves rewatching great films, I simply look at a remake and say, “hey, if I can rewatch a movie, why not watch a different version of the same story?” At worst it’ll be the Straw Dogs remake, but at best it’ll be A Fistful of Dollars.

            Corey Atad

            December 19, 2011 at 8:02 pm

  8. I’m exited about The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. For me, seing different director’s takes on a book is not quite the same as remaking a movie. I thought the Swedish version was very in tune with the books, and I look forward to seeing how this movie differs.

    (I still don’t quite get why the book’s title, which directly translated would be “Men who hate women”, is “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo” in English – I understand that is no fault of the movie, but it still bugs me a little).

    Anyways, back to my Friday beer. /Cheer 🙂

    Syrien

    December 16, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    • Actually I heard an interview with Daniel Craig who made exactly the same remark. They started from scratch, from the novel, he said. He hadn’t even seen the Swedish version.

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 10:08 pm

  9. I’m not a fan of remakes unless it’s going to be by someone that has a unique vision like David Fincher.

    I just saw the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night. I really liked and I’m anxious to see what Fincher can do. Other than that, I think it’s a waste of time considering that Hollywood is running out of ideas.

    Steven Flores

    December 17, 2011 at 12:33 am

    • There isn’t really lack of ideas, is there? The lack is willingness to take risks and finance something that isn’t a guaranteed success.

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 10:08 pm

  10. I generally don’t like remakes either because they are usually lazy adaptations that add nothing. But there are exceptions, for example I really enjoyed Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, and thought it was an improvement over the original.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    December 17, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    • Yeah, that’s where I end up too. I’m generally a bit negative, but I can’t be completely categorical about it since there will always be exceptions, remakes that actually add something.

      Jessica

      December 18, 2011 at 10:09 pm

  11. A very good post. I totally agree. Some remakes are really good but most of them are a total vaste of time.

    filmitch

    December 18, 2011 at 11:17 am

  12. Okay, sure, maybe there are one or two good remakes. Let’s ignore them for a minute. The mainstream audiences of today are evidently so dumbed down by poor education and mindnumbing television that reading is evidently too much of an exercise for them. They think: We’re watching a film! Why should we have to read as well? My answer: Too f–king bad. Get used to it, you thick assholes. If you’re dyslexic, that’s fine and you have my sympathy, but if you just can’t be bothered reading a few words you are a lazy c-nt.

    But that’s just my opinion. Pretty rough, I know. Sorry for wasting space with my angry thoughts. I hate remakes, and I love foreign films. Love them to death.

    Tyler

    December 19, 2011 at 12:57 am

    • That’s some pretty strong words Tyler! But I appreciate your passion and yes, at times I can feel like that too.

      Jessica

      December 19, 2011 at 7:54 am

  13. Swedes usually use subtitles to see foreign movies. Russians normally prefer sound translation (sometimes just one or two voices, sometimes full translation). Americans go even further – they do remakes. I think about remakes as just another way to translate movie. Telling same story in a different place. Instead of explaining who samurai are, replace them with cowboys.

    Personally I prefer original movies with as less translation as possible (i.e. subtitles). Watching not just the story, but the author, the origin of the story too.

    Guess there are enough people who prefer to watch the remakes. Let them be.

    I’m fine about any remakes as long as they do not hide what they are based on. Copyright is not just about payment.

    Doaken

    December 19, 2011 at 11:59 am

    • One or two voices translated? That sounds weird. I’m so glad that I live in a country where only movies intended for very young children are dubbed. If you set a remake against a dubbed movie, I actually would prefer the remake. Dubbing movies for an adult audience is one of my pet peeves.

      Jessica

      December 19, 2011 at 12:36 pm

  14. […] however my knowledge of this comes from Jessica at The Velvet Cafe, mostly in her discussion of remakes and her review of the Hollywood version that came out last year. At some point in all those […]


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