Film producers have always copied ideas from producers in other countries. At one time, they made films in ‘multiple versions’ – especially in the 1930s when three different versions of the same script in different languages might be made almost simultaneously by different casts and crews. Much later, highly commercial production outfits in India and Hong Kong would simply copy hit Hollywood films without worrying too much about rights. Hollywood itself has frequently re-made both European and Asian films, often on the simple basis that American audiences won’t read subtitles. Sometimes this works commercially and the films themselves are not bad at all (e.g. the J-horror retreads such as The Ring 2002). Sometimes the remakes are complete disasters. Most of the time, American producers have been fairly open about their ‘borrowings’ but in recent years they’ve begun to recognise that some audiences are determined to remind others via social media that a film is a remake and that usually the original is better. The producers pre-empt this by claiming it isn’t a ‘remake’, but instead a different adaptation of the original novel/play/script etc. I’ve written about this issue a few times. I found the splutterings of the Coen Brothers particularly annoying when they claimed their version of True Grit (2010) was a completely different adaptation of the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 version by Henry Hathaway starring John Wayne.
I suppose what worries me more is the ease with which Hollywood simply ignores previous versions of film ‘properties’, presenting its own version as something ‘new’ and ‘original’. The latest case in point is The Dinner (US 2017). I should note here that technically, this American film is not a studio film and therefore not ‘Hollywood’. It is officially an independent but has a star cast of Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan and Laura Linney as two couples (the men are brothers) meeting for a regular meal in a posh restaurant and faced with a disturbing act committed by their teenage sons. I’ve read/listened to several reviews which mention that the film is based on a 2009 Dutch novel by Herman Koch, but none of the reviewers mention that the novel has already been adapted twice, first in the Netherlands in 2013 and then in Italy in 2014 as I Nostri Ragazzi. I’ve only seen the Italian version which I thought interesting but flawed. Reviews for the American version have generally been negative. My impression is that the Press Notes will not have mentioned either of the previous film adaptations and will just present this film as an adaptation of the original novel. The truth is that in the UK we generally ignore both Dutch and Italian cinema – much as we ignore most European media output. I doubt I’ll get the chance to see the American film but I certainly think that the Italian film would have been worth releasing in the UK. I fear for the blinkered approach to anything outside the Anglosphere that we live in – and which has contributed to our pathetic attempt to withdraw from Europe.
The Dutch version:
The American version:
Trying – and probably failing – not to feel smug, I offer you this article in today’s Guardian by number cruncher Charles Gant. A week before the release of Headhunters, confidently expected to be a worldwide hit as a Norwegian film, Gant reports that MGM has conceded that David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will make a loss in cinemas (despite grossing over $230 million). Gant questions why Hollywood makes a seemingly pointless remake – our sentiments entirely. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is reported as being interested in taking the lead role in Summit’s remake of Headhunters.
Having just read Headhunters – and enjoying it very much, I’m very much looking forward to the film and I’ll be introducing it on April 14 at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of a talk on Nordic Crime Fiction. Please come along.
Remakes are a way of life in the popular Indian film industries. Hollywood is always a source of ideas as well as films from other major industries – ‘unofficial remakes’ – but the main traffic in remakes is between the different language cinemas. Many titles are made in one language and then simply dubbed into one or more others. Sometimes films are made in two languages almost simultaneously by the same director – most famously by Mani Ratnam with Raavan/Raavanan (2010) and Yuva/Ayitha Ezhuthu 2004 – in each case a Hindi and a Tamil production with different casting. Most common , however, is the simple remake of say a Malayalam film as a Tamil production or a Telugu film as a Hindi production.
Nanban is one of the major Tamil films of the year, a blockbuster aiming at the religious festival period which includes Pongal and lasts from 13-16 January. Nanban is a remake, but not just any remake. It is the official Tamil remake of one of the biggest-selling Bollywood titles of all time, 3 Idiots (2009) starring Amir Khan. To meet this challenge the producers Gemini Film Circuit hired Shankar, the successful director of the last two blockbusters from Superstar Rajnikanth, Sivaji and Endhiran.
In my posting on 3 Idiots I expressed my disappointment in the failure of screenwriter Abhijat Joshi and director Rajkumar Hirani to properly represent the satire on the education system offered by the novel Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat. The bad news is that Nanban uses the Joshi/Hirani script almost to the letter and therefore suffers from the same problems associated with changes in character roles and insertion of comedy routines at the expense of satire and observation about higher education in India. The good news, from my perspective, is that Nanban is even more enjoyable on its own terms and is arguably a ‘better’ film – whatever that means.
I’m prejudiced because I tend to prefer Tamil films to Bollywood. It isn’t a fair comparison I know because I’ve only seen the best of Tamil Cinema and I suspect that the routine mainstream Tamil features are not quite the same. The problem has been that we simply don’t get the UK Tamil releases up here in West Yorkshire. But for some reason, Cineworld decided this year to screen two Tamil films in their original language during the January festival season in Bradford. Usually we have to make do with a Hindi version (e.g. of Raavan and Robot – the Hindi dub of Endhiran). I’m guessing that there are very few Tamil speakers in Leeds/Bradford – a few hundred at most – whereas there are many thousands of Urdu/Hindi speakers. The question is, how many of the Urdu/Hindi speakers in the South Asian diaspora want to read English subtitles in order to access a Tamil film? I don’t know, but in the afternoon showing of Nanban there were just three people in the audience, one of whom might have been a Tamil speaker. I should stress that Nanban has done very well in the UK. Over the opening weekend it took £113,000 from just 24 prints (across the UK – see locations here) with a screen average of over £4,700 for No. 13 in the chart – and all this from a new independent distributor ‘RJ Overseas’. I wonder what they will make of the experiment? I hope it continues.
So why do I prefer Nanban to 3 Idiots? I think that there are three reasons:
1. The casting offers four younger actors for the ‘3 idiots’ and the principal’s daughter. It’s interesting that the production used two Tamil actors, Srikanth and Jeeva, who closely resemble Madhavan (once himself a Tamil star) and Sharman Joshi. Vijay, very much a rising star in Tamil Nadu, takes the Aamir Khan role and Ileana D’Cruz takes the Kareena Kapoor role. All four were believable as both students in their early twenties and successful young thirty somethings. I was amazed to discover that Vijay was actually 36 when he made the film – even so, he’s eight years younger than Aamir Khan. The problem with the Bollywood version is not just that the stars are too old but that they are also so identifiable with a specific star persona. This is probably true of the Tamil stars too. I don’t know the Tamil star image, but the actors seemed to give performances less marked in this way.
2. Although the script sticks closely to 3 Idiots, the songs and their ‘picturisation’ are quite different. Shankar pulls out all the stops with shoots in Europe and the Andaman Islands. The songs themselves by Harris Jayaraj weren’t particularly memorable for me – but some of the lyrics (all of which were translated in the English subs) are extraordinary. One song includes the word ‘love’ sung in several different languages. Costumes, settings and camerawork work well together and the other feature of the film’s presentation is the use of animated inserts and visual effects – from companies in Hyderabad and Shanghai.
3. This is a bit more tricky. As a broad generalisation I would say that Nanban offers something closer to a representation of a ‘real India’. This is partly achieved through location shooting (the main location is a college in Tamil Nadu and Simla in the earlier film is replaced by Ootacamund and Coimbatore) and partly through casting. The minor characters root the film in the South. Many characters are darker-skinned and Dravidian in appearance. But . . . there seems to be an aversion to using darker-skinned young women for the dance sequences and on reflection I do think Shankar could be charged with a potentially racist portrayal of the sister of one of the three (i.e. the young man from a poor background). Both my viewing colleague and I winced at the portrayal of this young woman (the ‘joke’ is that no-one will marry her because she is ‘ugly’ – and ‘too dark’?). See a local response, arguing this point strongly. I’m reminded of the similar wince-inducing representations in the UK production, East is East (UK 2002).
On the whole, I enjoyed the film very much despite its failure to develop a strong satire and I was particularly impressed with Vijay. Even though I could predict every scene, I was entertained for the whole three hours and towards the end I was ridiculously moved by the very sentimental take on friendship – but then, I find it hard not to cry in Hollywood films sometimes.
Much of my initial interest in 3 Idiots was focused on how the film would perform internationally. Nanban hasn’t got quite the same level of initial international exposure, though it is out in North America, UK and Australia as well as Singapore and Malaysia. It may eventually find its way to South Korea and other parts of East Asia. Unfortunately it has already suffered quite badly from piracy – though most cinemas in Chennai were completely sold out for the first five days before the film actually opened. A Telugu dubbed version opens in Andhra Pradesh on 26 January (some of the Tamil stars have a following in Telugu Cinema).
Gemini HD Trailer (no English subs):
In a couple of months time, David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will hit cinema screens. I’m already on record as saying that this kind of instant remake (i.e. of a recent hit non-English language film) is pointless and I stick to that view. However, we can’t just wish Hollywood away. The domination of so many film markets by American product is a part of most filmgoers’ experience – and that goes for filmmakers too, both directors and actors who want to work internationally and Nordic facilities that want to attract international productions to their region. I’m not sure yet whether I will go to a cinema to see the Fincher film, but I am going to revive my interest in the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy and a range of associated issues. The interest in Nordic cinema and TV in the UK shows no signs of melting away and next term I’ll be teaching a course on ‘Nordic Noir’. The furore over the remake (the European jibes about Anglos who won’t read subtitles and the American jibes about ‘cheap’ European films) is evident on the comments on YouTube for the trailers. I guess that I am going to have to see the Hollywood film, which was shot in Sweden, just to see what it does differently. Here is the Sony trailer for the remake with the original trailer for the Swedish film below:
On October 7, a film called Babycall opened in Norway. It stars Noomi Rapace (the ‘original’ Lisbeth Salander) in her first post-Millennium role as a mother who takes her young son out of Oslo away from a violent father. She buys a ‘babycall’ device to keep tabs on her son when he is in the flat but the device also picks up other children’s voices. Is her imagination playing tricks? I haven’t seen the film yet, but according to IMDB it has been picked up by Soda for UK distribution in 2012 and I’ll certainly give it a go – it sounds as if writer-director Pål Sletaune is working in a similar way to the Japanese duo Suzuki Koji and Nakata Hideo with Dark Water (Japan 2002). Here’s a Norwegian teaser (the release date was obviously changed) – it’s easy to get a sense of the film without English subs.
Before Babycall reaches the UK, Noomi Rapace will get much more exposure in her first Hollywood blockbuster, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows in which she plays a European woman caught up in the struggle between Holmes and Watson and their deadly foe Professor Moriarty. This of course means that Ms Rapace has fallen into the clutches of Guy Ritchie. Here’s the trailer:
In June 2012, Noomi Rapace’s second Hollywood blockbuster appears in the shape of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, billed as a science fiction/horror film and talked about as Alien-related. Certain casting decisions suggest an influence of Danny Boyle’s approach in Sunshine with Benedict Wong in a small role and Michelle Yeoh allegedly up for a part at an early stage. Jude Law from Sherlock Holmes has a lead role.
Meanwhile the fascination with Nordic Noir continues with the first film to arrive in the UK adapted from the work of the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. Headhunters is a Nesbø crime thriller that doesn’t feature Harry Hole, the Oslo detective who has become the latest literary hero. Instead it is a story about a man who works as a ‘headhunter’ for businesses and operates a sideline in art thefts. In Norway, the film has already become one of the major hits of the year and it is currently screening during the London Film Festival with a UK release planned for April 2012 – and yes, the US remake via Summit, the independent behind the Twilight films is already announced. This marks the beginning of a long-term relationship between Swedish producers Yellow Bird and Summit which could yet see European productions of English-language crime dramas set in North America. Yellow Bird has already made the Wallander series in English for the BBC and as co-producer of the Millennium films and TV series it has worked with Scott Rudin to produce the Fincher take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Jo Nesbø looks like becoming the next Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson as a source for international crime thrillers. Harry Hole is much more action-driven than Wallander and much sexier than Mikael Blomkvist. Nesbø reportedly doesn’t like the Larsson comparison, but for filmmakers he has one major attraction – he’s still alive and is still writing (and he has a big back catalogue).
Here’s the Norwegian Headhunters trailer (no English subs yet):
Hollywood is like a huge bloated leech several times larger than the smaller creatures from which it sucks the lifeblood. I refer of course to its propensity to remake films from other cultures. The remaking scenario is usually couched in terms of reverence towards the original and claims that the remake will bring a great story to a new audience who can’t or won’t read subtitles.
My usually sunny disposition has been made cloudy by three remakes discussed in the last couple of weeks and I think that I’ve already decided that I won’t go to see any of them, simply because they seem so completely unnecessary. I have to admit that I have previously watched two remakes soon after watching the originals – Nakata Hideo’s Ringu (Japan 1998) and Dark Water (Japan 2002) were remade by Gore Verbinski (2002) and Walter Salles (2005) respectively and I found both of them interesting, for different reasons. Ringu was barely seen in cinemas in the UK and not at all in the US and the film certainly ‘played’ with the idea of American teen movies and ‘the last girl’. So, it was interesting to see how it might be re-imagined as an American film. Dark Water was given more of a cinema run and the reason for seeing the re-make was mainly to see what a Brazilian director with an arthouse background would do with Disney’s money. The film flopped but I thought it was a worthwhile exercise which changed the Japanese story significantly.
Other acceptable remakes include films made in Hollywood many years after the originals. Back in the 1980s I was involved in an enjoyable study weekend at the BFI in which we explored the whole idea of remake culture with a focus on two versions of a German original. As I remember we showed the Jessie Matthews musical First A Girl (UK 1935) which was a remake of Viktor und Viktoria (Germany 1933) and compared it to Victor Victoria (US 1982), the Blake Edwards musical with Julie Andrews and Robert Preston. I think I later saw the German original (or at least an extract). There was also a ‘parallel’ version in French known as Georges et Georgette in 1933 and a German remake in 1957. Given that the story is about a woman pretending to be a man who impersonates a woman in his act, viewing different takes on the story over time and across cultures is a worthwhile exercise – and before the days of DVDs, films were often made in different language versions.
But what’s now happening has no justification. Let the Right One In and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are Swedish films that have been successful internationally both as translated novels and as Swedish-language films. There is no need to re-make them since the originals are available. As far as I can see the Anglo-American version of Let The Right One In is very similar to the original. If so, it is pointless. The glimpses of Let Me In (naff title!) that I’ve seen make me think that the American child actors don’t really come up to the Swedish originals (i.e poor casting – I’m sure that they are perfectly fine actors). Check out the trailer.
and the original:
It was good to see an attack on David Fincher from the Danish director of the first Stieg Larsson adaptation this week. Niels Arden Oplev commented on how Sony are attempting to build Rooney Mara up as the Lisbeth Salander at the expense of Noomi Rapace, who was a big part of the success of the original trilogy. Fincher was in Sweden recently for the shoot. Is this going to be as pointless as the Kenneth Branagh take on Wallander? You bet. And just in case you were thinking that those are the only two ‘instant remakes’ around, we are only a few weeks away from Russell Crowe as a teacher attempting to spring his wife from prison. This one is a remake of the French thriller Pour Elle (Anything For Her, 2008) and is directed by Paul Haggis. This had nothing like the exposure of the two Swedish films but it was a decent enough small thriller with a great central performance by Vincent Lindon. Crowe strikes me as completely wrong for the part, although he did prove in Michael Mann’s The Insider that he could act. Here’s the trailer for The Next Three Days which opens in North America on November 19. Pour elle was quite short at 96 mins. This bloats to 134 minutes.
and here’s the original:
When filmmakers with the reputation of a David Fincher or a Martin Scorsese (Departed?) make pointless remakes it does make you wonder at the paucity of imagination in Hollywood – and the lack of shame. If the justification is that it brings new ideas to audiences who won’t read subtitles, perhaps we (teachers) are at fault in not pursuing a more rigorous film education policy?