In Defense of Americanized Remakes

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Why even the worst U.S. versions might be for the greater good.

by Rick Paulas

David Fincher's new movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, already has a giant target on its back. No matter how "fresh" it is on Rotten Tomatoes, some people will say it's "not as good as the original" — that it's just another dumbed-down Americanized remake. Valid or not, this critique will inevitably lead to the suggestion that Hollywood stop remaking properties from abroad. "If the story's already been told perfectly, why change it for American audiences?" they'll ask. But those people will be wrong. Americanized remakes have tremendous value. Even the shitty ones.

As you'd imagine, Americanized remakes vary widely in quality. There are good ones (The DepartedTwelve MonkeysThe Ring), bad ones (TaxiDinner for Schmucks), and ones so close to the original (Let Me InFunny Games) that you wonder why anyone bothered. But to understand why even the shittier remakes have value, you just need to look at the shittiest of them all: 1992's The Vanishing. (Do I need to announce upcoming spoilers for a twenty-year-old movie? Spoilers definitely do follow.)

The original Dutch movie (1988's Spoorloos) is the story of a young couple who take a cycling vacation together in France. At a rest stop, the woman gets abducted, leading her boyfriend to spend years obsessively trying to find her. Eventually he tracks down her abductor, who offers a chance to learn the truth about her disappearance, but only if he drinks a sedative-laced coffee. He wakes up buried alive in a coffin. The end. The movie is suspenseful, heartbreaking, and one of the greatest pieces of psychological horror ever made.

The 1992 remake, directed by the same George Sluizer who made the original, stars Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and Sandra Bullock, and follows the same story about a man obsessively trying to find his long-lost girlfriend. The difference is, it's complete shit. It falls into all the blunders that people complain about in Americanized films: slow-burn drama sacrificed for action; plot contrivances for the sake of filling screen time; an interesting, cold, and calculating killer thrown to the wayside for an over-the-top raging psycho; and a tacked-on happy ending — in place of the original's perfectly dark final note, the remake ends with the boyfriend being saved and taking his revenge on the killer. It's almost a parody. Ultimately, there's no good reason to ever see this movie. But that it exists at all is a net positive.  

The original was a modest hit overseas and heavily admired by critics when it found its way into American theaters, but it wasn't a cross-over success. Arthouse audiences noticed, but that was about it. It wasn't until the remake came along and was given a wide release — and the accompanying reviews constantly praised the original — that most Americans even found out the original film existed. Without the remake, thousands around the country would have never made a point to see the first.

Foreign movies, on their own, don't reach a wide cultural awareness in the U.S. You can condemn the American public all you want, call them idiots who can't bother to read the bottom of the screen if it makes you feel better, but it doesn't change the fact that if it's in a different language, most of the country doesn't know about it. By remaking foreign movies, Hollywood is actually doing the original a favor. It's giving the movie another wave of publicity, a second chance to reach an audience it missed out on the first time around — like the kid in rural America, hundreds of miles from the nearest arthouse theater, who hears about the remake coming out and decides to put the original on his Netflix queue. For that, even the worst remakes are worth it.