Impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery? Then why do most Hollywood remakes of world cinema feel more like how men describe a swift kick in the family jewels? Something which had previously given you great pleasure gets twisted to such a degree that only pain remains.
It isn’t always such a total disaster, though. Every now and then one of those Hollywood remakes defies all the odds and actually works. Here are a few examples of world cinema remakes that weren’t a total disgrace.
The Magnificent Seven vs Seven Samurai
Yul Brynner in a black cowboy hat is badass no matter how you cut it. Those cold android eyes peering out from under the brim of that slate hat in Westworld cemented that as fact. It wasn’t for the first time, though. More than a decade earlier, Yul had first become the man in black for the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven. In so doing, he became part of one of the best westerns in cinematic history.
Of course, as the name would suggest, Yul didn’t do it on his own. He was joined on screen by what reads as a whos who of movieland tough guys. Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz banded together to show all other ensemble casts how it should be done.
Despite all this star power, The Magnificent Seven had a tough mountain to climb because it was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a film which many consider to be one of the best films of all time. The original Japanese film from 1954 follows a 16th century Japanese farming village as they try to protect themselves from bandits. The villagers decide to hire seven masterless samurai to aid in their defense.
In the hands of the Hollywood studio, not all that much was changed. Instead of 16th century Japan we are in a Mexican border town at the time of the American wild west. Rather than samurai, the villagers in The Magnificent Seven go looking for guns and end up hiring a collection of gunslingers instead. There are, of course, a few other changes here and there. Charles Bronson’s character, for example, was a combination of characters from the original.
Yet, despite any changes, The Magnificent Seven works in a similar way to how various adaptations of Shakespeare have worked. The times and places may have changed but it is still true to the source material.
All that and one of the best movie theme songs ever!
Three Men And A Baby vs Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin
When you need to successfully translate a French comedy for American audiences the apparent answer is to send a Vulcan to do the job.
It may be hard to believe now, but way back in 1987 Ted Danson, Tom Selleck and even Steve Guttenberg were bonafide stars. Guttenberg was looking to continue a hot streak which had seen him star in a spate of highly successful comedies such as Police Academy, Cocoon and Short Circuit. The other two had their eyes set on transferring their successful television careers to the big screen.
In stepped Leonard Nimoy with his remake of the award winning French comedy, Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin. The result, Nimoy’s first directorial effort outside of the Star Trek universe, was Three Men And A Baby. The film turned out to be the biggest success of 1987 at the American box office.
No doubt, modern audiences would find Three Men And A Baby to be tooth numbingly twee. However, an argument could be made that there aren’t enough well made family comedies in the cinemas today, films which are inoffensively entertaining to a broad range of ages. The middle ground between a Disney animation and something like Porky’s. Three Men And A Baby managed to make the genre of family comedy work for it and, in doing so, reaped the rewards.
It has to be said that the original French version didn’t have as much of an eye on the family market. The general mechanics of the two films remained the same. Both feature a trio of bachelors whose lives get rocked by the sudden arrival of a baby. Perhaps inevitably, though, the French version is more explicit about the bed hopping activities of the men. Even the one in the Steve Guttenberg role gets tons of action!
Whilst I would normally champion extra male nudity such as in Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin, it feels as if, for once, Hollywood got it right. Not only did the filmmakers on the other side of the Atlantic make the correct judgment calls on the target audience, but they also made all the right script edits.
The Hollywood version feels tighter than the French version and moves along at a much swifter pace, allowing it to avoid the overly drawn out ending of Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin. They both arrive at the same place, only at different speeds.
Typically, though, there are some changes which were so unnecessary to be laughable. For example, Ted Danson’s character’s absence for large periods of the film is explained away by him being an actor. In Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin, the same character is a flight attendant. Apparently, in 1980s Hollywood that wouldn’t have been manly enough a profession for a man who had just produced a love child.
Both films were good but, for once, the Hollywood version was better. Though, the less said of the follow up Three Men And A Little Lady, the better. Hang on for more, though, because Three Men And A Bride is in development and Danson, Selleck and Guttenberg are all linked to it.
Tortilla Soup vs Eat Drink Man Woman
Long before Ang Lee was directing gay cowboys from Wyoming, he was directing porn back in his native Taiwan. Don’t go rushing to the tube sites just yet! We are talking food porn, of course, in the form of his beautifully gentle 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman.
The tale of a widowed man, who excels at his job as a chef but not so much at expressing his love for his three grown daughters, is littered with mouth watering images of food preparation. Chef Chu, goes through the extensive rituals of preparing an elaborate family meal time and time again. Yet, he has lost his own taste for both food and life.
Eat Drink Man Woman explores the life of Chu and his daughters as each of them develop relationships outside of the family home. The food around the family table is the one constant in their family as it changes in ways which are at once natural and disorienting. A story which, no doubt, plays itself out around family tables throughout the world.
Perhaps it is this very universality of the themes explored in Eat Drink Man Woman that meant that the inevitable Hollywood remake, the 2001 Tortilla Soup, also worked. The Taiwanese family becomes a Mexican-American family and the food porn is scrumptious Mexican food instead of Chinese. Despite the location and cultural changes, the rituals of evolving family life are the same.
Lee’s version is, by far, the superior version, but Tortilla Soup stands on its own nonetheless. The well rounded cast is padded out with top Hispanic American actors such as Raquel Welch and a surprisingly good performance from American standup comedian Paul Rodriguez. However, the true star of the film is Hector Elizondo as the father and chef.
Elizondo’s, screen presence, which always appears to teeter between somebody who would either cuddle you or kick your teeth out, adds enough weight to the film to prevent it from going too far into chick flick territory.
If one thing is certain, it is that neither film should be watched on an empty stomach.
12 Monkeys vs La jetée
In the scheme of cinematic history, 1995 may go down as the “Holy crap, Brad Pitt can actually act” year. Pitt’s first punt that year at becoming more than just a pretty face was Se7en. It was his performance in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, however, that earned him his first Oscar nomination and the respect of the acting fraternity.
The film itself wasn’t too shabby, either, rich in time travel and gritty nonlinear story lines that appeal to sci fi geeks, who otherwise wouldn’t be lining up for a film starring Bruce Willis. Being a remake of the French short film, La jetée, it also pushes the buttons of world cinema geeks.
La jetée may only last 28 minutes, but once seen it is difficult to forget. Comprised almost entirely of black and white still images, the 1962 film by Chris Marker, takes place in the aftermath of a third world war. Paris has been destroyed and survivors of the destruction are living underground. In an attempt to rescue the people of the present time, experimentation with time travel is being undergone with the use of unwitting prisoners.
12 Monkeys took the same concept but fleshed it out to fill both a feature length film and the mindset of a mid 1990s audience. Rather than war, the underground population of 2035 has fled the effects of a devastating disease. Again, prisoners are recruited as so-called volunteers as part of a time travel experiment. Instead of Paris, Bruce Willis’s character is sent to bleak representations of 1990s Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Watching, La jetée with modern eyes, it is easy to see why Gilliam was drawn to the project. The unsettling futuristic vibe fits comfortably into his portfolio of previous work such as Brazil and even Time Bandits. He may not have written the expanded script (that credit goes to David and Janet Peoples) but his stamp is all over it.
12 Monkeys works as a remake because it takes its spirit and core from the original French La jetée but gives it colour, in more ways than one. By doing so, it manages to create an identity of its own without being disrespectful to its roots.
Can you think of any more? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!