Monday, October 7, 2013

Things Americans Do Badly: Remakes and Re-Imaginings of Films and TV Series

Last night I was up past my bedtime watching Let The Right One In on SBS2. It's a Swedish film about the friendship between two twelve-year-olds, one a bullying victim and the other a vampire. (It's a silly premise, but a surprisingly good film.) My main reason for watching it was because the previous night SBSONE had screened Let Me In, the American remake. Apart from relocating the setting from the suburbs of Stockholm to Los Alamos in northern New Mexico, the plot was pretty-much identical.

At the end I returned my TV to its default setting, ABC1. They were showing The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Again, apart from relocating the setting from 16th-century Japan to the 19th-century Wild West (with the necessary technological adjustments, of course), they're essentially the same film.

So the question arose: why does the American film and television industry do so many remakes?

You could make the case that where a story is so good it deserves to be retold every decade or so. There's Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina. So many film adaptations of it have been done that "she throws herself under a train" doesn't need to be prefaced with "spoiler alert". Over the years Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Tatiana Samoilova, Jacqueline Bisset, Sophie Marceau and Keira Knightley have starred in the title role. But it's a literary classic, not some hack screenplay.

One possible explanation proposed by Sofie Gråbøl, star of the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen, is that the American audience won’t read subtitles. Which is why her show had to be relocated from Denmark to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and remade as The Killing. And why Stephen Soderbergh felt the need to do a pale imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Solaris, I guess. ("But it's got George Clooney in it!", I hear you whine.) And I'll throw in the remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which apart from Daniel Craig's star-power and a couple of minor plot variations added nothing to the original.

Another possible explanation, related but worse, is that Americans can't cope with stories that don't involve their own culture. Moving more into re-imagining territory now, there's the Australian man-in-a-dog-suit yarn Wilfred. The American version starred Elijah Wood and had much higher production values, but it completely lost the charm of the original.

Hollywood wasn't finished with Australia there. No, they had to do re-imaginings of Rake and The Slap. These are, respectively, such archetypal Sydney and Melbourne stories that it's hard to envisage them not losing almost everything in translation. But that hasn't stopped Hollywood before. Two words (and an ampersand): Kath & Kim.

The Brits have been subjected to the same indignity. The accents, slang and customs of a Manchester housing estate were apparently so hard for Americans to deal with that Shameless had to be relocated to Chicago. I haven't seen the U.S. version and hold some hope for it because of the presence of William H. Macy as the central character Frank Gallagher. He's good at playing men in hopeless situations, such as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo and Donnie Smith in Magnolia. (Now there are a couple of well-made, original American films. More, please!)

Then there was the U.S. version of the British series Skins, which got canned after one season because it included sex scenes involving under-18s and was thus, by American standards, child pornography. Geezus, Yanks: teenagers root - like rabbits, given half a chance. Get over it!

But the Americans saved the very worst for the Germans. In what can only be interpreted as an act of revenge for the Battle of the Bulge, they took the Wim Wenders classic Wings Of Desire and re-imagined it, possibly with the aid of strong illegal drugs, into City Of Angels. (And by "re-imagined" I mean "utterly and irreparably mangled".) Visually it's spectacular - bright, sunny L.A. ("City of the Angels" - get it?) versus the grey, overcast Berlin of the original - but, like the city in which it's set, it tries to compensate for what it lacks in soul with tear-jerking fake emotion.

Finally: one thing at which Americans are particularly poor, is pretending to be non-Americans. Witness Steve Martin's attempt at "rebooting" the Pink Panther "franchise". (I'm quoting from the Wikipedia page.) By the time he'd made the same mistake twice it was more like a kicking-to-death than a "rebooting". Or maybe an act of stamping on Peter Sellers's grave.

Speaking of whom:

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