In Defense of Americanized Remakes

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.

Commentarium (43 Comments)

Dec 16 11 - 6:50am
toutjour

I mean, really? Are you advocating a U.S. only movie monopoly? Are you anti-multi-culturality? Why did you not bring forth the IMDB classification on these movies? And guess who grades movies at IMDB...
Just because you own the distribution market, please don't try to sell the idea that you have a better product. Thank you internet for giving the power of choice - read: download whatever movie I'd like to watch at any time.

Dec 16 11 - 10:30am
Psst

You, uh, didnt actually read the article, did you?

Dec 16 11 - 11:01am
toutjour

"By remaking foreign movies, Hollywood is actually doing the original a favor." <= I find this offensive. There's no favor here, only money to be made by the owner of the distribution channels. It's like taking a picture of a oil-on-canvas painting, claiming to do a favor to the painter. Its indeed a favor, but for the audience. And he doesn't need to advocate the monopoly of the U.S. in the movie industrie because its already yours. Maybe this could be called a white-label movie?

Dec 18 11 - 7:33pm
Jess

Unless your version of "download whatever movie I'd like to watch at any time" involves paying for that download--which is surprisingly difficult to do for many of the lesser known films--then you aren't doing benefit to anyone but your multi-cultural ego.

Dec 16 11 - 8:31am
cdj

It doesn't sound like he's advocating a U.S. monopoly at all, he's just saying that the movies gain exposure here in the states as a direct result of the remakes. It seems like you completely missed the point...

Dec 17 11 - 7:53pm
A.r.

but ... that is untrue, since most of these movies don't publize themselves as remakes and the fact that an original actual exist's is not something most people know when watching

Dec 18 11 - 8:21am
Martoukian

Very true.....I didn't know The Departed or 12 Monkeys were remakes, and I'm far from an ignorant rube.

Dec 16 11 - 8:38am
nope

Yes, it might encourage some people to seek out the original, but it will encourage many people to judge the original negatively, or (perhaps deadlier) shallowly. Because yes, if there is a re-make and everyone is shouting from the rooftops that it's awful, and you're 1. the type of person that actually cares what movie critics think, and 2. curious enough to seek it out, (and at that point, why aren't you going to check out the movies in the arthouse theater in the first place?), you might go check out the original. But if everyone's saying "eh, it's more or less the same," (Let Me In, for example) when in fact it's definitively altered, the original gets almost completely overwritten by the re-make, and those who enjoyed the re-make are not encouraged to seek out the original.

Dec 16 11 - 9:59am
m-m-m

It's weird that in your "defense" of remakes, you spend two paragraphs telling us how terrible one remake is. It's certainly a bold logical move, but not entirely conducive to convincing me.

Dec 16 11 - 10:11am
moops

I thought the American remake of La Femme Nikita was better than the original, which I found to be cheesy. Also the American versions of a few J-Horror films (the Grudge, the Ring) were excellent as well.

Dec 16 11 - 1:03pm
Weary

Huh. I was just going to post something about how infinitely better and more stylish the French original was.

Dec 16 11 - 1:23pm
JRB

The Grudge remake is an interesting case. Takeshi Shimizu, the director of Ju-on, did the remake himself. I prefer the original, but the new one is a solid effort.

Dec 16 11 - 6:42pm
KS

You didn't watch the French original in the dubbed version, did you? I rented it, accidentally got the dubbed version, and it was really bad voice acting.

Dec 16 11 - 10:35am
Psst

I think concerns about American remakes are well-founded when it comes to Let the Right One In and Spoorloos, but I don't think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo falls into the same category. The original movie traded in pretty standard pulp-thriller stuff anyway, and I'm not sure its plot points or characters are all that edgy. With that in mind, I think Fincher's directing and the increased production value are going to both result in huge improvements.

Dec 16 11 - 12:14pm
Jinna

Thanks for The Vanishing spoiler alert. I mean, not.

Dec 16 11 - 5:56pm
erm

" (Do I need to announce upcoming spoilers for a twenty-year-old movie? Spoilers definitely do follow.)"

he clearly gave you a spoiler alert...

Dec 16 11 - 4:58pm
Coco

I am not Norwegian or Spanish or French . I am not obsessive over art house flicks. I still manage to watch and understand these films despite this. It's really not a big deal . If you want the movie to survive then maybe try having it more mainstream cinemas rather than having some shitty remake. Chances are I'm not going to watch the same movie twice even if the original was amazing(unless i really love the movie).

Dec 16 11 - 6:50pm
KS

Can 12 Monkeys be considered an American remake when the French film that inspired it was made in 1962, only 28 minutes long, and had a radically different plot line?

Dec 16 11 - 8:13pm
John Son

Yes. And no.

Dec 16 11 - 10:08pm
@john son

So what you're saying is that "Apollo 13" is basically an American remake of Melies's "A Trip to the Moon"?

Dec 22 11 - 1:43pm
Kleist

Gimme a break. Watch both movies - or do some research - and tell me that 12 Monkeys is not a remake.

I won't even dignify the second comment with a response.

Dec 16 11 - 7:14pm
..

I'm curious how the new The Loft film will come out. Taking it from Antwerp to Louisiana is a big step, but the original director will be doing it, so it can't be bad, I'd hope. I didn't care for the dutch remake in any event, but they didn't have Erik Van Looy.

Dec 17 11 - 11:35am
dora1234

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Dec 17 11 - 7:49pm
A.r.

What the whole article seams to be forgetting ist that most of theses remakes dont publicise themselves as one, and most of the people who watch are unaware of such... so theres is actually not that much a favour being done

Dec 17 11 - 7:51pm
A.r.

Plus am pretty sure there was an article in nerve earlier this year that trying spewing the same theory , and yes, it is just a theory and hardly an opinion.

Dec 18 11 - 7:37pm
Jess

I'm am seriously curious as to how a 'theory' might actually be defined as a step below an 'opinion'.

Dec 22 11 - 1:47pm
Hesse

Yeah, I would have expected the OP to have said "it is just an opinion and hardly a theory" if anything.

Dec 17 11 - 7:51pm
A.r.

ops, i meant "spinning"

Dec 17 11 - 10:42pm
Shane

I'm of the mind that Fincher's version of TGWTDT is not a remake of the Swedish film, but an adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novel, you know, like the Swedish film is.

Dec 18 11 - 9:21pm
Scott

Exactly this. I've never understood people who consider it a remake of the Swedish film. It's as much a remake of the Swedish version as any of Shakespeare's plays that have been made into a movie getting another movie based on the same play.

Dec 19 11 - 3:08pm
JT

Here, here!, I am a massive fan of the steig larsson books and for me the Swedish films' production and acting left me a bit flat (and I understand Swedish btw - so not the dubbed one). I really hope the american version can bring out the characters and personalities of Stieg's books better.

Dec 18 11 - 6:15am
Delia

I watched "The Vanishing" and had no idea it was a remake of 'Spoorloos" actually. That said, I think this article is misnamed as "In Defense of Americanized Remakes" and should be "The Only Upside of Americanized Remakes" . The whole reason why remakes are made is to cash in on the great idea but relative obscurity of the foreign film it's based on - this way Hollywood gets to have an "original" concept without the tedium of making one from scratch, the hard way. The whole thing about people finding out about the original film is just a happy mistaken byproduct of an inevitable process which will continue to just as inevitably generate shitty films. Oh, and the writer forgot to point out that the Americanized version might be so crappy that it would put off viewers from even wanting to see any kind of source material for it. Now there's some negative spin to go with this stretch of a positive one.

Dec 18 11 - 6:26pm
Buehrle's Merkin

I'm just surprised the author categorized "The Departed" as good.

Dec 19 11 - 5:03pm
Actual Butt

In the cases of films like Dragon Tattoo and Let Me In, they had found their American audiences. The American version does not increase awareness of the original film (or book for that matter). As a counter example, The Departed did nothing to bring attention to Infernal Affairs. It was also so vastly different that it could hardly be called the same story. Which is fine. This situation can be likened to the comic book movie dynamic. People like to think that more people are reading comics since the superhero movie genre boom, but its not the stories that need attention, its the medium. In that case, it is still just as difficult to get a comic book with all its childish stigma into the hands of the average consumer. In this case, it is equally difficult to get asses in the seats of a theater showing a foreign film with its stigma of being "snobby" or too intellectual. It's almost en entirely separate genre.

Dec 20 11 - 12:53am
Jack

Did you actually see all three Infernal Affairs movie? The first was good, but NOT great (it was good because of the two performances), but the next two sequels were pure commercial shlock.

Dec 20 11 - 12:48am
Jack

And the most obvious point here ... Evil Hollywood wouldn't be able to remake all those foreign films if the people holding the rights (sometimes THE VERY SAME DIRECTORS WHO MADE THE FIRST MOVIE) decided to sell their soul and sell it, for whatever reason. Like the guy who did The Vanishing -- he wanted to remake it with a bigger budget, and so he did. Entirely his choice. Who are we to tsk tsk that? He had a chance to make a lot of money, and he decided to sell out his vision for it. It's HIS property, he can do whatever the hell he wants. A lot of these foreign film snobs seem completely immune to facts when it comes to remakes -- Hollywood doesn't remake movies UNLESS THE OWNERS GIVE THEM PERMISSION. Granted, there are times when producers do so and the original directors have no say, but that isn't always the case. See: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". You don't like Fincher's remake? Tough. Take that up with the original author's estate, who owns the rights.

Dec 22 11 - 9:45pm
Gabriel

"Hollywood doesn't remake movies UNLESS THE OWNERS GIVE THEM PERMISSION."

So what? Whoever owns the rights to the movie (usually the studio/producer/writer depending) has the right to sell it to make money. Nobody is denying that or saying that they don't have the right to. I am not mad at people who want to make money, I am mad that American audiences seem incapable of seeing foreign movies (and often the subtlety of character, moral ambiguity, and sad endings which far more common in European movies.)

Dec 20 11 - 2:07am
Luis

Written by a dumb american I assume

Dec 21 11 - 1:15pm
Gabriel

It's frustrating because there's really no point to most of these remakes. Americans just generally won't go see foreign films. The originals are almost always better. Wings of Desire versus City of Angels? Yuck! La Femme Nakita was infinitely better than Point of No Return. Diabolique is one of the great thriller movies ever. The remake was unwatchable. I can't think of a single real American remake (something like 12 Monkeys is not a remake, it's a jumping-off point from a different movie) that was better than the original.

Dec 22 11 - 1:26am
Danielle Jacobs

The sense of entitlement coming from this article is overwhelming and not at all helping your case. Gee thanks for being so generous and introducing us poor foreigners' productions through your ~superior~ ones! Ugh.

Dec 26 11 - 5:19pm
John Son

I'm a horny old gay dawg!

Dec 28 11 - 11:06am
EMK

I think Hollywood remakes can work, in so much as anything "redone" has potential. However to make a carbon copy of an already existing films seems unnecessary and wasteful... instead of paying Daniel Craig's Million plus salary on top of production costs why not just dub over the original. Remakes, much like cover songs can be great if the artist(s) in question actually seek to expand or do it different. I think there is a lot to say about a work of art that seeks to "Do it different"

Jan 01 12 - 11:43am
Kain

So American rip-off, uh...I mean remakes, are good because they attract attention (which you establish using ridiculous fallacious logic), despite being hated, to the originals? Even though a fuckload of times it actually produces the complete opposite, a disgusting ignorance regarding the originals in which people end up keeping clear of them because all they know is that [insert same title] sucked.

Typical American logic of dismissing valid criticism. Just like the same logic Americans tend to use when new shitty remakes are coming out and they keep dismissing every single "this will suck" claim, despite factual OFFICIAL evidence, with "you can't know what the movie will be like (what? we have official photos, cast bios, script exerts and trailers!), so it'll be good! Just wait till it comes out" aaall the way up until release day.