World Cinema: Remakes part one

With Hollywood versions of Let The Right One In and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on the way, we take a timely look at the peculiar phenomenon of remakes...

It’s the thing film aficionados may dread the most, a practice that critics have described as ‘Hollywood’s seemingly shameless, endless and dishonourable commercialism to cultural piracy and political imperialism’.

Yes, folks, it’s the Hollywood remake of your favourite world cinema films! With two high profile remakes of two high profile Swedish films in the offing (take a bow Let Me In and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and a recent flurry of trailers and casting news regarding them, it seems a good time to take a look at the remake.

The remake is that most intriguing of film phenomenon. A reproduction of any other art is regarded as just that, a reproduction. You cannot remake a book. It’s just regarded as a re-printing. You cannot remake a painting. That’s regarded as an imitation or even a forgery.

But film seems to base most of its legitimate business practices on, essentially, stealing from itself. It is acknowledged that films will reference and borrow from one another, and this is often regarded by critics as praiseworthy. Directors have based their entire careers on this.

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Remakes also have that built in audience factor which is irresistible for studios, thus the seemingly endless stream of regurgitated products. Filmmakers have remade from the very earliest days with collaborating pioneers producing a dozen versions of the same material.

However, while this practice is no longer prevalent, the idea behind it remains the same. Cinema is there to be interpreted and adapted how we see fit.

Despite auteur theory, cinema remains very much a collaborative process, with the lengthy end credits of films testament to this. It is not like a single creative vision has moulded the art. But remakes are still regarded as anathema to cinephiles and the Hollywood remakes of world cinema the greatest form of piracy, producing a cultural anxiety on both sides.

The reasoning for remakes of world cinema seems clear. A critically well regarded film that may have performed well domestically will probably have never been heard of by the majority of Western audiences. Brilliant, the studio can save time developing the idea and the writers already have a blueprint for what to put in the script. Given the opportunity, most of us probably wouldn’t hesitate to do the same.

We would maybe even justify it by stating that we wanted to bring awareness of the original to a wider audience. The original filmmakers and/or rights holders possibly feel mildly uncomfortable with the remake, but its how the film world operates.

Original audiences, however, often feel differently. It is yet another co-opting of homegrown cinema by Hollywood.

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Key details are often lost in translation (I cite the Nicolas Cage version of Bangkok Dangerous as my key evidence in all cases), while what made the original so vibrant and different is lost. Very occasionally the new filmmakers get it right, and craft something entirely different and fresh, while retaining the spirit of the original, but they can’t all be Scorsese and The Departed.

All of this is why the remakes of Let The Right One In and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are problematic to me. These are not unknown European arthouse flicks that have failed to trouble the box office. These are genuine success stories, and in the case of the latter, a burgeoning literary and movie juggernaut. They are also two films whose location is a major factor in their appeal.

Consider Let The Right One In for a moment. The story is excellent, and the kids fantastic, but it is the isolation of the Swedish backwaters which sets the oppressive tone from which the film takes its cues. The audience feel as abandoned on the edge of the world as the characters, and it is exactly the sort of place where the fantastical and creepy could coexist with the ordinary. To set it elsewhere is to rob the film of its hidden power.

Location plays less importance to the atmosphere of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but in that case the setting is crucial to the themes of the film and the books beyond. The series is an examination of how a supposedly liberal and progressive society can treat women in such an appalling and often careless way, often without acknowledgement of the fact. Again, and I have high hopes for Fincher, I struggle to make sense of the need to move it.

But, then, this is my own form of cultural anxiety manifesting itself I suppose. As I have said on these very pages, film is no longer divided by culture and geography to the same degree as it has been. If there is a true transglobal film community, then remakes are part and parcel of it, and, after all, I don’t have to go and watch the remake, do I? If only someone had told me that before Bangkok Dangerous.

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Next week I shall be showing that the tables are sometimes turned the other way, as Hollywood films have often provided, umm, inspiration for markets further afield…

Look Forward

Only one candidate this week, and that is The Girl Who Played With Fire. I am yet to see it, and although unfavourably reviewed on this very site, I remain cautiously optimistic that this will entertain as much as the first film, although having just finished reading the Millennium Trilogy on which it is based, I can see that this is mainly just setup, punctuated by some stand-out set pieces, which I hope make the cut.

Either way, it is to be applauded that the second film in a Swedish-made trilogy has received the publicity that this film has. Every other poster on the London tube system seems to be promoting it! Go see it, and even if it leaves you a bit cold, the third one should deliver. (Failing that, go and read the books.)

Released August 27th UK

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I’m holding off this week on the Looking Back segment of this series, as next week’s column will be, in effect, a bumper edition in that area! There will be a whole host of films to ‘interest’ you, I promise…