When the American remake of Oldboy, in theaters next Wednesday, was announced, there was an outcry from film fans. The Korean original is an absolute classic and the prospect of a remake seemed downright ridiculous. This is not an attempt to judge a film before seeing it, but Hollywood does not have a good track record when it comes to remaking foreign films for American audiences. It is something that happens much more often than most people realize and shows no signs of stopping, but it usually begs the question of why the superior originals do not get wider releases instead.
The recent surge of remakes and sequels in the movie industry has been driven in large part by the safer economic prospects of betting on an already popular story as opposed to an untested one. Most of the people voicing these complaints, however, are usually not aware of an entire swath of remakes hidden from most American viewers. These remakes are based on successful foreign films and they are much more prevalent than the average viewer realizes.
A recent trend involves the remaking of Scandinavian films. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was a well-known and generally well-received remake, but lesser-known films such as Mark Wahlberg’s Contraband and vampire horror film Let Me In were based on Icelandic and Swedish originals. Even the well-received FX series The Bridge from earlier this year was based on a Swedish and Danish series from 2011. Before the Scandinavian streak, we saw an Asian horror film trend with The Grudge, The Ring and Dark Water. And before that, there was a French comedy marathon in the ’80s and ’90s with The Man With One Red Shoe, Jungle 2 Jungle, and 3 Men and a Baby. These films and television shows mostly found middling success, excluding those Japanese horror remakes in the early 2000s. They also stained the superior originals while giving the original filmmakers barely any recognition for their creations.
The philosophy behind the practice is simple and built upon four ideas. The first two ideas are the reasons for choosing the material. The relative safety of previously successful material is usually preferable to original ideas. These films being remade were all successful in their original countries, often being recognized as international classics. Thus, the material is ripe for picking. Second, these films are usually pretty cheap to remake, as their material is usually unremarkable.
The third and fourth ideas serve to answer a question: Why bother remaking these films at all instead of widely distributing the quality originals? First, studios rightly believe that an English language film will make a much larger profit here in the States versus one in a foreign language, regardless of differences in quality. Furthermore, studios can make more money by remaking a film such as Oldboy as opposed to securing a local distribution license for the original, foreign language film. So, as usual, it comes down to economics.
The strategies used on this subsection of remakes, however, usually undermine the admittedly sound financial reasoning behind the decision to remake. Despite the previous success of the source material abroad, it is usually unknown locally. So, in comparison to the barrage of remakes of American productions that are made, these films are generally underpublicized and seen as fodder put out by the studios. I mean, I don’t know anyone who went to see Contraband.
Even worse is what happens in the translation process. Often the films are not only translated, but adapted to what studios believe will be more successful with American audiences. This usually leads to embarrassing results. For example, Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon’s terrible appearances in Taxi in 2004 and Steve Carrell’s even worse Dinner for Schmucks in 2010 both originated as lovely and sophisticated ’90s French comedies, and ended up as unfunny, almost unwatchable farces.
Nevertheless, Hollywood sometimes gets it right. Though frankly unnecessary, David Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo remake was quite good and Al Pacino won his only Oscar for his role in the Scent of a Woman remake. The zenith of the Hollywood foreign remake category has to be The Departed. The remake of Hong Kong’s Internal Affairs featured a stellar cast and earned Martin Scorsese his long-awaited Academy Award for Best Director on top of the Best Picture Oscar. The irony of it all? These successes are all still arguably inferior to the original products.
The films chosen for this treatment are usually of the upper crust when it comes to quality. These are complex and well-made films by talented directors. The remaking of these films into American copies is frankly more insulting to us as an audience than it is to the creators of the original products. It is an indication that the industry doesn’t think we can handle reading a few subtitles (or, God forbid, listening through an overdubbed film) or understanding a complex plot.
So, despite Spike Lee and Josh Brolin’s involvement in the film and comparatively polished look, you will probably be much better served next Wednesday by reading a few subtitles and watching the absolute classic that is the Korean original instead.
Daniel Grzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience. His column “The Reel Deal” runs Fridays.