Here soon will be the release of another major studio remake of a popular and critically acclaimed foreign film, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” And already I’ve had the debates with people over the inherent “evilness” of remaking foreign films into English versions. “Why should anyone bother,” some people say. “After all, there’s already perfectly good English subtitled versions available on DVD and Netflix. American remakes are just crass ploys to make money and cater to dumb Americans who can’t be bothered to read,” so the argument goes. Invariably, in these debates in which I offer the counterpoint to this position, in which I offer that not only are remakes not evil, but are inherently good, I end up pissing people off for some reason. I hope to be able to make my case here, for your consideration, and I’ll try not to offend, if you’ll bear with me.
If you believe no one should remake movies, especially foreign films, then you’re an arrogant elitist.
Gawdangit, I just did it, didn’t I? Got offensive? I’m sorry, but honestly, I can’t think of another way to describe the belief that, sight unseen, even before it’s finished, a movie can be judged as unworthy of existing because it dares to use a pre-existing script as its source. If works of art and/or entertainment are inherently bad for that reason, then why do we bother doing Shakespeare? Why do we get all excited about this version or that version of Hamlet? Why do we discuss our favorite version of Romeo and Juliet? Why is it OK for a director to make a version of a work of Shakespeare that’s “more accessible” to modern audiences? Where’s the cries of, “If you can’t be bothered to understand Elizabethan English, you don’t deserve to watch Shakespeare?”
Why are there countless CDs of countless classical works of music arranged in countless ways and performed by countless ensembles and orchestras and soloists, and no one bats an eye about that? Isn’t the London Symphony Orchestra’s 1968 recording of Beethoven’s 9th good enough? Why do we need the Cleveland orchestra to do it too? It’s been done already, why bother?
Look, I get it. I’m a card-carrying elitist myself. Subtitles are far preferable to dubbing, NASCAR is for rednecks, wine appreciation takes a sophisticated palate. I used to think foreign films are “better” than American and if you don’t like them, then go back to your “American Idol.” Maybe it was my Marxist education, maybe it’s my education and experience as a stage actor and director, or maybe I just realized after seeing one too many incomprehensible and pretentious art-house film, that there’s nothing written in the immutable laws of nature that says foreign films are inherently better, and that film is somehow prohibited from being remade like we do plays and music.
Why do plays get a pass? The usual response is: Because they’re made to be performed live, that’s the expectation. OK, sure. Then why make movies of plays? Anything by Shakespeare to Tim Rice. From Othello to Death of a Salesman to The Producers. Why does a play not, once it’s been made into a film, get the remake embargo? But more importantly, what law of nature says it’s verboten to give the same allowance to a movie?
“Because the Americans just want to make money.” Sure they do. So do the French and the Swedes and the Germans. Very few people, no matter what language they speak, put a film up for major release without the intent to try to make some money off it. But OK, let’s say that the American studio producer is just a cynical d-bag who sees a successful foreign film and decides, “Hey! Let’s make it here and get rich(er)!” The film doesn’t then just appear from out of the will of the producer. It needs a script writer, it needs a director, it needs cinematographer and costume designer and actors. Are some of the above, and the scores of others who appear in a film’s credits, completely mercenary? Will do anything only for a paycheck? Sure. But I would hazard that most of the people involved in the creative part of the film, not just the grips and the seamstresses, actually care about their craft. Gasp! Yes, it’s true! They do. Most directors, most actors, take on projects and roles because something about it speaks to them. Something about the themes is compelling, something about the characters is interesting, and so the creators do it for the same reason the director of a play stages another version of Macbeth, the same reason an actor portrays another version of Willy Loman.
Do you think that Rooney Mara took the role of Lisbeth in Fincher’s “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” simply because it’s a paycheck? Or maybe because, as an actress, she lives to play interesting and compelling characters, and wants to see what she could do with the role the same way a stage actor wants to play Lady Macbeth? Don’t you think director Matt Reeves took on “Let Me In,” the “remake” of “Let the Right One In,” only to become rich, or, like a theatre director, is compelled to want to bring to life an interesting work in his own way? Should creators of art be prohibited from plying their craft and using their own vision simply because, “Nuh-uh, that film has already been done, bucko! No one can do it again!”?
I find it interesting that the people who railed against the American version of the novel Låt Den Rätte Komma In seem to have no problems with the fact that the original Swedish film is a translation of a novel in the first place. Hey! They story’s been done already! If you can’t be bothered to read the book, you don’t deserve to see the film!
“Well, Americans just can’t read and are lazy so they hate subtitles and that’s why they’re making an American version.” OK, see all the above — it still applies. But you know what? So what if some, many, people don’t like to read their movies. Me, I’m fortunate in that I can read fast and have great comprehension, which allows me to quickly read the words then look up at the facial expressions and listen to the tone of voice. But I’m lucky in that way. If I had to read slower, I would hate subtitled films, because it’s a film! I get most of my enjoyment from the film by looking at what’s going on, looking at facial expressions, hearing the inflection of voice. And so do most people. Does that make them lazy? Uneducated?
And when you come right down to it, if a film is all that great, that much of a masterpiece, then answer this: Is it better for the film not to be seen at all if it can’t be seen in the “original” subtitled version? If your answer to that is “yes,” then you are exactly the definition of an arrogant elitist.
Finally, really, what in the world does it truly matter if someone remakes a film? Does it do you any harm in some way? Are you being forced to see it? Are you being taken against your will to the remake? Really, who the eff cares. Especially if the originally is still around and available. In fact, very often, an American remake of a foreign film gets the original a bus-load of attention and new fans it never would have before. Virtually no one but the most edgy j-horror fans knew of “Ringu” before the American remake, “The Ring.” Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of Americans who have seen and appreciate “Ringu” only because they heard of “The Ring” is more than double-quadrupled from before the remake. After an American remake, the original often gets repackaged, re-released (or even released in the first place!) and finds its place on shelves and Netflix where it wouldn’t have before.
Oh, but, maybe that’s a bad thing? Maybe you don’t want more people to know about the original? Maybe you want to be part of the exclusive in-crowd who knew X was cool before it became popular? If so, guess what: arrogant elitist.
I really started this with the intention to be calm and friendly, but something about arguing (even against an imaginary opponent… boy am I sad!) against the presumptive arrogance that a movie is “bad” without anyone having seen it, for nothing more than the sin of being made into English by an American, just really gets my blood boiling. I need a nap.