An American remake of South Korea’s Best Picture-winning Parasite is reportedly in the works, reigniting the old debate about whether or not these Hollywood remakes are necessary.
And more often than not, Hollywood takes classics of international cinema and manages to ruin them, turning great stories into stale cashgrabs.
So, this begs the question, why are Hollywood remakes of foreign films so bad?
For a variety of reasons, some stories turn out differently when told by different filmmakers and cultures. Sometimes it’s because of the underlying nature of a story, and sometimes it’s because different studios have different objectives for their film.
Take the legendary Japanese animation Ghost In The Shell as an example. A film made on the fringes of the Japanese movie world, it didn’t do well at the box office at first, but has picked up a strong following since.
That’s because of its bold and rule-breaking nature, from its stunning animation style to its transcendent themes, lending it strong blockbuster potential, but more importantly powerful and thought-provoking depth and intensity.
When Hollywood came to remake the movie, however, it was far more concerned with the film’s blockbuster potential, bringing the film’s sci-fi and action elements to the forefront over its dramatic depth in making the 2017 live-action Ghost In The Shell.
The remake wasn’t a film from the fringes, it wasn’t made with pure originality and passion, but almost entirely as a cashgrab on a popular existing property. But with watered-down drama and emotion that warranted only a PG-13 rating, the remake offered next to nothing that made the original so great.
The two Ghost In The Shell movies epitomise the issues with Hollywood taking foreign films and using them as little more than cashgrabs. But sometimes, bad Hollywood remakes aren’t the fault of the studios, but rather the audiences.
A perfect recent example of this is the enormous difference between the ingenious Swedish comedy-drama Force Majeure and its Hollywood counterpart, Downhill.
Both films tackle the same topics in a similar way, with a darkly comic look at a dysfunctional relationship. On the surface, the pair are perfectly similar, and with great talent behind and in front of the camera in both the Swedish and American versions, there isn’t much reason for such a gulf in class.
Except, the Swedish film is the epitome of dark Scandinavian humour, with an incredible blend of provocative depth, schadenfreude and genuine laughs. The darkness of its humour is what lends such intensity and intrigue to the story, and what makes Force Majeure so outstanding.
Downhill, on the other hand, doesn’t have the luxury of using such strikingly dark comedy. Not to say that American audiences can’t handle a bit of dark humour, but released as a mainstream comedy, such a style of comedy would not have sat right with US audiences in the way that it would with the Swedes.
And as a result, Downhill‘s assessment of the same themes as Force Majeure is entirely tame, and light years away from the way that its Swedish counterpart tells its story.
The Same Story Again
Above, we’ve seen how Hollywood remakes can fall apart for not staying true enough to the original film. However, simply following another story to the letter is far from ideal either.
Another Swedish-American comparison shows the dangers of effectively copying and pasting the same story, just with dialogue in a different language.
Tomas Alfredson’s acclaimed horror-drama Let The Right One In was remade two years later in the US as Let Me In, but did little to inspire with a story that was almost exactly the same, but without any of the original passion and skill.
The story of a boy who develops a relationship with a vampire teenage girl, both films use horror as a metaphor for coming-of-age drama, yet one delivers the story with palpable passion, while the other is entirely bland.
Let The Right One In is the original, and has the raw and personal intimacy that makes the film’s coming-of-age themes so striking.
Let Me In, on the other hand, is entirely derivative, yet without any of the same emotion or uniqueness as the original film. If you don’t watch the Swedish version before the American one, then that may be less of a problem, yet the film still lacks a certain passion behind the camera – an inevitable problem of telling somebody else’s story.
Finding a balance between staying true to the original and being completely derivative is far from simple, but it can often be the key to making or breaking a great Hollywood remake.
Are All Hollywood Remakes Really That Bad?
It’s easy to bash Hollywood remakes for all sorts of reasons, and often, it’s entirely deserved. But that doesn’t mean all Hollywood remakes are terrible.
Take Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture-winning The Departed as an example. A thrilling reimagining of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs, Scorsese’s film is a perfect balance between understanding the original property and developing its own voice.
Infernal Affairs is a brilliant Hong Kong gangster film, and Scorsese – more at home in the genre than arguably any other director – stays true to its themes of loyalty and deception.
The Departed, however, builds on Infernal Affairs with a deeper story that celebrates the ingenuity of the original film, all the while injecting it with a little bit of New York magic. And that makes The Departed a great film in and of its own right, while simultaneously proving an intelligent and faithful remake.
And that’s the case with so many other Hollywood classics that many of us don’t even know are remakes. Some Like It Hot is a remake of the French Fanfare Of Love, Scent Of A Woman is a remake of the Italian film of the same name. And the list goes on.
So, while it’s fair to bash Hollywood for its remakes when they go wrong, remember that there are some great ones out there too, many of which not only improve on their foreign counterparts, but become classics in their own right.