Love the film – lose the subtitles

"I know a guy in Hollywood who's on a kick to do a remake of 'Ride the High Country,' and he wants me to be in it," actor Robert Duvall said recently.

Mr. Duvall would be perfect as the aging hero of Sam Peckinpah's classic Western, played by Joel McCrea in the 1962 original – but Duvall doesn't want to do it.

"I hear that's a pretty good movie," he said with a smile at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. "So why set yourself up to compete with that? Even when an old movie isn't pretty good, [producers] sometimes give a nod to [a remake] over a new idea. Why do they do that?"

Duvall's question is a good one, and the answers aren't hard to find. Prominent among them is that new ideas don't grow on trees, even in Tinseltown's well-funded greenhouses. The vast storehouse of old Hollywood pictures – and, increasingly, overseas productions – is a treasure trove of stories and characters that might pay dramatic dividends if they're recycled with enough skill.

There's always a guy in Hollywood on a kick to remake something, it seems. What's different this fall is that much of the source material originally came with subtitles.

Borrowing from European and Asian pictures allows US producers to cash in on other people's ideas and peddle a product that seems new to viewers who don't keep up with international cinema.

This worked for the filmmakers who turned France's "La Totale" and "Trois Hommes et un Couffin" into America's "True Lies" and "Three Men and a Baby," and Hollywood sees no reason why it shouldn't work today.

A current example is "Swept Away," (opening today) with director Guy Ritchie working new variations on Lina Wertmuller's comedy about a wealthy woman and an impudent sailor stranded together on a faraway island. Madonna takes the part that Mariangela Melato played in 1964, and Adriano Giannini fills the role played by Giancarlo Giannini, his father. It's not surprising that the fiercely political overtones of Wertmuller's serious-minded satire aren't very prominent in 2002, when socialism is hardly on a roll.

But remaking a foreign film requires more than just a good English-Italian or English-Japanese dictionary, since different cultures often have very different ways of looking at the world.

Take one of this fall's most prominent remakes, coming out next month. The original "Solaris" took important cues from a centuries-old tradition of profoundly introspective Russian art, for instance. Will the Hollywood version, directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose "Ocean's 11" is one of the most popular remakes of recent years, do the same? Or will it find a distinctively American equivalent?

The original "Solaris," directed by Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, is based on Stanislaw Lem's brilliant novel about space explorers who undergo strange psychological ordeals while investigating a planet that's actually a living, thinking entity.

It's hard to imagine an effort to reproduce the 1972 film, since it gains some of its idiosyncratic power from revisions Mr. Tarkovsky made to accommodate the ideological whims of Soviet movie censors. But if Mr. Soderbergh sees his project less as a remake of Tarkovsky's movie than a fresh adaptation of Lem's book, he could be on a very productive track.

Another current film, "Welcome to Collinwood," also comes from a foreign source: Italian filmmaker Mario Monicelli's beloved 1958 comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street," about a bungled heist. Coming early next year is "The Good Thief," adapted from the 1955 French thriller "Bob le Flambeur" by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game"). And based on one of Japan's all-time biggest hits, we're getting "The Ring," a horror film about a deadly videocassette, which bows Oct. 18.

International remakes work the other way around, too, with overseas filmmakers tapping into American sources. Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni's version of "Pinocchio," coming this Christmas, is based on the evergreen Carlo Collodi folk tale – but it also qualifies as a remake of the 1940 Walt Disney animation, one of that studio's most inventive and popular creations.

Looking back at the history of remakes, it's clear that the prestige of this category hasn't always been as low as some moviegoers assume. Indeed, some of the world's greatest filmmakers have remade their own picture. Alfred Hitchcock made a British version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" in 1934, for instance, and a Hollywood version in 1956. Howard Hawks turned his 1941 comedy "Ball of Fire" into the 1948 musical "A Song Is Born."

The results were uneven in these cases, indicating the dangers of falling back on material the director has already explored. This lesson still applies today. A dramatic example of this occurred in 1993 when Dutch director George Sluizer was invited by an American studio to remake "The Vanishing," his thriller about a man's search for his missing girlfriend. Many viewers had hailed the original as one of the great suspense movies of modern times. Not content with this, Hollywood induced Sluizer to aim for blockbuster territory by signing big stars – Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland – and altering his unflinchingly dark vision by tacking on a happy ending! Hardly anyone felt the story was improved by these changes, and Sluizer's new Hollywood career has not prospered.

Other challenges also face remake producers. Depart too much from the original, and you'll rile up its fans, as when the 1983 edition of "Breathless" tried to put the quintessentially American icon Richard Gere into Jean-Paul Belmondo's unfillable French shoes.

Such misadventures notwithstanding, remakes of foreign films aren't automatically doomed to second-rate status. "Insomnia," the recent thriller with Al Pacino as a sleep– deprived detective and Robin Williams as the killer he's hunting, turned a 1997 drama from Norway into a viable mainstream success.

Terry Gilliam transformed a masterly French short called "La Jetée" into the rousing hit "Twelve Monkeys" with Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp – although Gilliam later revealed that he didn't actually see Chris Marker's original movie until his own picture had wrapped.

The eagerness of American filmmakers to recycle material from overseas originals makes one wonder if Hollywood finds it increasingly hard to come up with its own ideas.

It's often been rumored that United States producers sometimes buy the rights to foreign films and then keep them off the American market so as not to complete with their own planned remakes. Evidence of this is hard to find, however.

Conspiracy theories aside, some observers see no problem with Hollywood remakes of foreign films, noting that these give American viewers a chance to experience worthwhile stories without reading subtitles and grappling with cultural differences. But this argument rests on the notion that Americans' aversion to subtitles and discomfort with unfamiliar styles are harmless quirks, not growing symptoms of cultural laziness and insularity.

Remakes of foreign films have a legitimate place on the entertainment scene. But viewers do themselves a disservice if they skip the latest foreign-language gem on the assumption that Hollywood will do it better.

You decide which is better

Want to view some remakes and originals, and decide for yourself which is better? Here are some suggestions.

"Wings of Desire" (West Germany, 1988) and "City of Angels" (US, 1998).

An angel decides to give up his wings so he can experience the miracle of human love. Directed by Wim Wenders and starring Bruno Ganz, the original is set in the divided city of Berlin, a ready-made metaphor for divisions between love and hate, past and present, hope and fear. The remake, directed by Brad Silberling and starring Nicolas Cage, takes place in Los Angeles and puts more emphasis on romantic longing than existential needs and desires. The styles of the two films are as different as can be, exemplifying the split between artistic ambition and crowd-pleasing sentiment.

"La Cage aux Folles" (France, 1978) and "The Birdcage" (US, 1996).

A gay man pretends to be straight so he won't offend his son's prospective in-laws. Adapted by Edouard Milonaro from a popular stage farce, the original became an American art-house hit with its rambunctious characters and crazy plot. Directed by Mike Nichols from Elaine May's screenplay, the Hollywood version injects a major dose of political satire and gives Robin Williams one of his few noncloying comedy roles. This is remaking at its best, actually improving on the source material.

"La Jetée" (France, 1962) and "Twelve Monkeys" (US, 1995).

Chris Marker's original is a 28-minute masterpiece about a man traveling into his own past, told almost entirely through still black-and-white pictures. Terry Gilliam's remake is a two-hour-plus extravaganza, with Bruce Willis as the tormented time-traveler and Madeleine Stowe as a psychiatrist who reluctantly starts to believe his story. Each movie is a splendid specimen of its own breed.

"All That Heaven Allows" (US, 1955) and "Far From Heaven" (US, 2002).

Douglas Sirk's original is a moving, intelligent drama about a widow (Jane Wyman) whose love for a younger man (Rock Hudson) sparks disapproval in her small town. Todd Haynes's superb remake, opening next month, retains the '50s setting while tapping into current-day moral issues, focusing on a neglected wife (Julianne Moore) who falls for an African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert) when her husband (Dennis Quaid) realizes he's gay. West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder also remade Sirk's movie as the 1974 international hit "Ali – Fear Eats the Soul," illustrating the remarkable appeal and flexibility of this touching story.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Love the film – lose the subtitles
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today