5 Points In Defense Of American Remakes Of Foreign Language Films

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The concept of any particular movie’s “necessity” is something I wish we could eliminate altogether. Every time a movie like Spike Lee’s Oldboy gets released, many critics and viewers will cite how “unnecessary” it is to make an American version of a foreign film that stands on its own and is internationally beloved.

Nevermind the extent to which any work of art is perceived as necessary or needed, especially when it comes to Hollywood movies, which are regarded as anything from distracting spectacle to moving or inspiring storytelling. Forget even the fact that reinterpretation and reimagining and reworking is arguably the basis of all creation, and that musical covers and hip hop sampling and narrative appropriation are all staples of modern artistic expression. What irks me the most is that this position, that remaking a foreign movie into an Americanized version is a purely cynical and lazy endeavor meant to exploit a populace that can only stomach dumbed down stories, has almost become conventional wisdom, and is patently absurd.

It’s true that an American version of a movie will likely have a broader appeal in America than if it originates from another national source. I’m just trying to figure out why, exactly, this is so offensive to people, to the point that they dismiss the work of a highly respectable filmmaker on those grounds alone. Then again, I don’t find broadening and expanding the appreciation of a story or work of art any more insidious than an appreciation for something simply because it’s obscure or exotic.

There are legitimate reasons to find American remakes more satisfying than their foreign language source material. Here are 5 of them.

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1) Subtitles are a bummer

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Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that people who don’t like reading subtitles in movies are lazy, uncultured people who would prefer to look at some white girl’s boobs than to better understand other parts of the world. And while this may be a fair characterization for many, there’s a legitimate gripe to be had with subtitled movies: it draws our eyes away from the actual movie.

It tends to be the best option from a set of suboptimal choices. There is the option of dubbed-over dialogue, which most viewers tend to agree is distracting and puts the vocal performance of characters on the shoulders of different actors. There is the option of learning the language of the movie you want to watch, which is more time-consuming than most people are likely to afford. And of course the other option would be to not watch foreign films altogether. Reading subtitles is preferable to all of these.

Having to scan words on a screen, though, is without question not the most immersive or engaging way to interact with a story and characters. It’s an obstacle that stands between us and the people we’re watching, as well as time spent looking away from the actual images of the film, which exist in the periphery of the text. That’s not the best way to take in a visual medium. So while it’s perhaps slightly small-minded to dismiss foreign films altogether purely for an aversion to subtitles, there is an aesthetic justification for this being the worst option, aside from all the others.

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2) Regional cinema has its own language

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Spoken dialogue isn’t the only language at play in movies. There’s an unspoken language to a movie’s rhythm, its structure, its musical cues, and countless other formal and technical aspects that is very often unique and uniquely understand by the culture from which it springs. Regional references to political situations, historical events or societal mores offer an enriching picture of a cultural landscape.

A false assumption that is often made, usually merely implicitly, is that Hollywood movies, and American cinema, are somehow universal. There is certainly a mindset and an aim in popular blockbusters to be as broad as possible, especially since the worldwide market has opened up an increased demand for Hollywood movies with international appeal. And because of its cultural dominance in the medium, it’s easy to forget how specifically made American Hollywood movies usually are.

This specificity and difference is a good thing, so long as we recognize that one is not better or worse than the other. Just as a tune can be adapted for other genres and national styles of music, so too can stories be reinterpreted for difference audiences and aesthetic sensibilities. I don’t see how one detracts from another, and indeed, the differences between, say, American and Japanese versions of Unforgiven can highlight contrasting elements of each culture.

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3) Recognizable performers can be an asset

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Another shallow qualm many have with foreign films is that the actors are difficult to distinguish, the classic problem of people of another ethnic background blending together. It’s an uncomfortable truth to face, and one that I understand is fairly universal across the racial spectrum. Yes, white people, we all look the same to much of the world’s population.

What’s more important can be the effectiveness of utilizing the recognizability of stars, and it’s a tool Hollywood has used since the star system was first established. Marketing a movie based on its star power is one thing, but there is also an undeniable connection made between a movie and its audience based on the previously established relationship between viewers and performers who have been observed in previous films. There is an inherent bias towards people that seem familiar when it comes to sympathizing with characters, and it’s not unfair for a movie to use this to its advantage (or, oftentimes, the opposite is used to great effect—a movie exploiting an actor’s obscurity).

Using the Oldboy example, even a star like Josh Brolin warrants a certain base level of interest simply for his Josh Brolin-ness, and that can help make the story more accessible to more people.

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4) They get screen time

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Domestic studio movies simply are available for more domestic audiences to go out and see. It’s one of those instances where the choice isn’t between watching the original version of a story or the Hollywood version; it’s usually between the Hollywood version or nothing, because the original isn’t available in the viewer’s country (or else for the aforementioned reasons).

American companies are also more invested in their films being screened in their own country, and so a movie like David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be played on far more US screens than the original Swedish adaptation. This is also an interesting example because the American remake of this story is arguably as good if not better than its predecessor.

The result, then, is that a far greater number of people’s lives are enriched by an adaptation of a Swedish novel than otherwise would have been if David Fincher and Daniel Craig and company had not made their movie. Again, I fail to see the downside of having multiple takes on this popular story.

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5) They allow people to direct attention back to the original

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If bad publicity is indeed good publicity, then even a bad remake does a service to the original version of a movie by creating awareness of its existence, and in many cases, its purported superiority. You can be certain that more people watched Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy as a result of Spike Lee directing his American version. I would have never watched Abre los ojos if it weren’t for Vanilla Sky, and I’m sure many people have their own examples of terrific international films that they came upon thanks to American directors who were particularly inspired to do cover versions of various movies themselves.

This isn’t meant as a justification for the dismissal of foreign films as too alien or obscure to be enjoyed by an average viewer—I find this to be an equally unfair and closed-minded approach to the bias against a movie like Let Me In before it’s even released (after its release, of course, it was quite well received, despite the usual objectors).

The movie world is large enough for there to be room for multiple versions of Oldboy, or Unforgiven, or whatever story an artist thinks they can put their own unique spin on. It’s unfortunate when someone’s solid work, such as Spike Lee’s on this latest movie, is swept aside before it even gets a chance to bury a hammer in your skull.

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  • Alex

    So, I just got done reading this article and I have a few things to add. I have not seen the movies “Oldboy” or “Unforgiven” but I have seen both “Let the Right One In” (2008) and “Let Me In”…the American version. While the author does make some decent points, especially in # 5, I think he is “shooting at ghosts” so to speak and misses the concept behind why people usually tend to think the original film is superior. Some films are just so great, so well crafted, such a WORK OF ART, that to do a remake, (whether it be any culture, not just America) is not doing anyone any justice, most importantly the film itself. Expand your mind, look deeper for obscure films and music, that’s half the fun sometimes. The author is making an assumption that no one would get to experience these films if they weren’t spoon fed to American audiences in watered-down, puerile remake. I think this idea is patently absurd. A film is not great because it is well known or popular, as with a lot of other concepts in life. No, it is great because IT IS A GREAT FILM. Period. If you happen to be exposed to the American version first, well then that is good. However, do yourself an egregious service and see the orginal, more often than not you’ll be glad you did.

  • Tessa

    There are some arguments that I can’t agree with. Firstly, subtitles, Quite a great part of the world population has English as their second or third language and needs subtitles for all of those English Hollywood blockbusters. Before my English became fluent enough to watch movies without subtitles, I saw a whole lot of them with subtitles. And let me tell you from experience, after a while you get very experienced in watching both the subtitle and the actual movie.
    Secondly, about directing attention to the original movie. Let’s take Girl With A Dragon Tattoo as an example. How many people can you name who saw the american version and as a result decided, let’s see the original version? You won’t go and see another version, because in your eyes you just saw a good version. I saw the three original movies and purposely decided not to see the american version. I didn’t want my image of the movies ruined by yet another take on it, how great that new take might be.
    And a last point about differences between the original and the remake. The author says that an american remake might help adapt the movies to an american view. What he doesn’t realise is that maybe in the process you lose the little things and points that makes the original version so good. Some plots might not make sense in american culture while they did make sense in the original movie. That’s the thrill of foreign movies, they give you insight in an culture not your own.