Hollywood never seems to run out of ideas, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that American remakes have been around longer than we imagine.
In cinema, time continuously produces new remakes of old productions. It’s common for one story to be adapted for a second, third, or sixth time. However, there are differences between an adaptation and a remake of a foreign film. The former typically reinterprets its source in a fresh way. Meanwhile, remakes have more subtle changes and often pass by our radars as “original.” It involves taking movies from different countries and re-presenting the same stories for a Western, particularly American, audience. These remakes often keep the story’s main elements but create stylistic changes to suit viewers, notably by swapping the original actors for Hollywood A-listers.
While other countries also remake American films for its audiences—like Unforgiven (1992), remade in Japan more than 20 years after the original, or India’s Sarkar based on the 1972 classic The Godfather—attention and criticism gravitate toward Hollywood because of its dominating presence in the global film market. There’s also the threatening implication that these Hollywood remakes will replace international cinema.
There is no concrete answer whether American remakes are good or bad. Much like anything in life, there are pros and cons to Hollywood remakes of foreign films. In some cases, stories get lost in translation, even if the same director works on both projects. Likewise, changing certain aspects to fit cultural expectations can often make the remake fall flat or distort the sentiment of the original film. In other cases, no change at all is the problem, and the remake contributes nothing new to cinema creation. Finding a balance can be challenging, which is why remakes are often met with disapproval and an increasingly bad reputation.
A common criticism toward American remakes is their quality pale to originals. We saw this with the recent remakes of Asian horror films. Iconic titles such as The Ring (2002) was originally Japan’s Ringu (1998), The Grudge (2004) from Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), The Uninvited (2009) from South Korea’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), and Thailand’s Shutter (2004), which was remade four years later under the same name. Online reviews from fans and critics overwhelmingly favour the originals.
While the quality may suffer, American remakes can also lead to whitewashing. The 2017 American live adaptation of the original Japanese animated film, Ghost in the Shell (1995), came under fire for this reason after casting Scarlett Johansson as the protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi. It highlights Hollywood’s lack of diversity and circles back to the idea that remakes threaten to replace international cinema as many aren’t aware of the foreign originals, missing their cultural backgrounds. For example, many people don’t know thatThe Lake House (2006), starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, is actually a remake of the South Korean film Il Mare (2000).
So, why does Hollywood continue to remake foreign films, and why do people watch them? Despite all the potential issues that can lead remakes to become critical failures, Hollywood remakes are often commercial successes.
However, a remake doesn’t have to comprise quality to be successful. Done right, remakes can leave lasting, positive impressions and compel audiences in unique ways. Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for Best Picture and Director for The Departed (2006), a remake of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs (2002). For Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia—titled the same as the Norwegian original, film critic Roger Ebert said, “Unlike most remakes, the Nolan Insomnia is not a pale retread, but a re-examination of the material, like a new production of a good play.”
The most significant difference between substandard remakes from impressionable ones lies in how much the adaptation maximizes its cinematic opportunities. Remakes offer the chance for a new director, or even the same one, to add more nuance to the story. A chance to find a unique angle or amplify a film’s creative potential.
There are millions of stories in the world, and sometimes, it may seem like too much for us. Many people are comfortable staying with what is familiar because it can help immerse themselves in the story. But the advantage of remakes is that they can be gateways to foreign films, allowing audiences to explore diverse stories and other cultures they may otherwise have never known existed.