The plague of remakes

Hollywood is like a huge bloated leech several times larger than the smaller creatures from which it sucks the lifeblood. I refer of course to its propensity to remake films from other cultures. The remaking scenario is usually couched in terms of reverence towards the original and claims that the remake will bring a great story to a new audience who can’t or won’t read subtitles.

My usually sunny disposition has been made cloudy by three remakes discussed in the last couple of weeks and I think that I’ve already decided that I won’t go to see any of them, simply because they seem so completely unnecessary. I have to admit that I have previously watched two remakes soon after watching the originals – Nakata Hideo’s Ringu (Japan 1998) and Dark Water (Japan 2002) were remade by Gore Verbinski (2002) and Walter Salles (2005) respectively and I found both of them interesting, for different reasons. Ringu was barely seen in cinemas in the UK and not at all in the US and the film certainly ‘played’ with the idea of American teen movies and ‘the last girl’. So, it was interesting to see how it might be re-imagined as an American film. Dark Water was given more of a cinema run and the reason for seeing the re-make was mainly to see what a Brazilian director with an arthouse background would do with Disney’s money. The film flopped but I thought it was a worthwhile exercise which changed the Japanese story significantly.

(left) Jessie Matthews in 'First A Girl', photo by ITV/Rex Features, GTV Archive, (centre) Viktor und Viktoria, (right) Julie Andrews

Other acceptable remakes include films made in Hollywood many years after the originals. Back in the 1980s I was involved in an enjoyable study weekend at the BFI in which we explored the whole idea of remake culture with a focus on two versions of a German original. As I remember we showed the Jessie Matthews musical First A Girl (UK 1935) which was a remake of Viktor und Viktoria (Germany 1933) and compared it to Victor Victoria (US 1982), the Blake Edwards musical with Julie Andrews and Robert Preston. I think I later saw the German original (or at least an extract). There was also a ‘parallel’ version in French known as Georges et Georgette in 1933 and a German remake in 1957. Given that the story is about a woman pretending to be a man who impersonates a woman in his act, viewing different takes on the story over time and across cultures is a worthwhile exercise – and before the days of DVDs, films were often made in different language versions.

But what’s now happening has no justification. Let the Right One In and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are Swedish films that have been successful internationally both as translated novels and as Swedish-language films. There is no need to re-make them since the originals are available. As far as I can see the Anglo-American version of Let The Right One In is very similar to the original. If so, it is pointless. The glimpses of Let Me In (naff title!) that I’ve seen make me think that the American child actors don’t really come up to the Swedish originals (i.e poor casting – I’m sure that they are perfectly fine actors). Check out the trailer.

and the original:

It was good to see an attack on David Fincher from the Danish director of the first Stieg Larsson adaptation this week. Niels Arden Oplev commented on how Sony are attempting to build Rooney Mara up as the Lisbeth Salander at the expense of Noomi Rapace, who was a big part of the success of the original trilogy. Fincher was in Sweden recently for the shoot. Is this going to be as pointless as the Kenneth Branagh take on Wallander? You bet. And just in case you were thinking that those are the only two ‘instant remakes’ around, we are only a few weeks away from Russell Crowe as a teacher attempting to spring his wife from prison. This one is a remake of the French thriller Pour Elle (Anything For Her, 2008) and is directed by Paul Haggis. This had nothing like the exposure of the two Swedish films but it was a decent enough small thriller with a great central performance by Vincent Lindon. Crowe strikes me as completely wrong for the part, although he did prove in Michael Mann’s The Insider that he could act. Here’s the trailer for The Next Three Days which opens in North America on November 19. Pour elle was quite short at 96 mins. This bloats to 134 minutes.

and here’s the original:

When filmmakers with the reputation of a David Fincher or a Martin Scorsese (Departed?) make pointless remakes it does make you wonder at the paucity of imagination in Hollywood – and the lack of shame. If the justification is that it brings new ideas to audiences who won’t read subtitles, perhaps we (teachers) are at fault in not pursuing a more rigorous film education policy?


  1. Wynter Tyson

    I tend to view remakes in a similar light to adaptations of books – the filtering of art through another artist.

    Sometimes transposing a story to another era, culture, environment, cinematic tradition etc works by highlighting areas that were of less concern to the originator. My favourite remakes and adaptations are those that give the idea a new identity. I prefer Sorcerer to the Wages of Fear due to the enhanced cynicism of the era. I don’t mind City of Angels because it is a completely different film to Wings of Desire. On the other hand whilst I enjoyed The Ring I found it inferior to Ringu because part of the appeal/fear was found in the cultural gap (I would be interested to hear a Japanese view on this).

    The problem with the Michael Bay remakes is that they don’t update beyond looking more expensive. I would be more inclined to see Let Me In if it had been set in a dessert environment.

    A remake is like any other film; if it is being made because someone has found a new point to make then it has more chance of being successful than a film being green-lit off the back of a recognisable property.

    …another reason I don’t mind remakes is because they usually prompt a decent release of the original / previous version.


    • venicelion

      Yes, I agree with all these points. I can’t give you a Japanese perspective on Ringu – except to point out that the Hollywood version was a much bigger hit in Japan than the original (but the original followed the novel/manga and TV versions not to mention amusement park experiences etc.). It is good if a remake prompts a reconsideration of the original but with genre pictures Hollywood distributors have a bad reputation. In the past, some distributors have bought the territorial rights for the original and then shelved the film to keep the market clear for the remake. But the ease of importing DVDs has, I think, had an impact on this practice.

      I forgot to mention the most pointless remake of all. I tried watching Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho but I’m not sure that I even got to the end of it. Presumably there was a point, but I missed it?


  2. keith1942

    No, you did not miss it! Presumably the point was at the Box Office.

    It does seem part of a wider culture. I believe that Bill Gates cloned his orignial software from somewhere else. And apparently that is part of the tale in the Social Network.

    Foretunately, there still seem some movies that are beyond Hollywod’s comprehendsion as remakes.

    I am seeing Uncle Boonmee … this afternoon, I would think that should qualify.


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