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Déjà vu

Remakes of Foreign Language Films from Seven Samurai to The Debt

Ha-Hov (2007) to The Debt (2010)

The Debt with Ciarán Hinds and Helen Mirren (photo: Laurie Sparham); Ha Hov, inset.

When Kris Thykier, one of the producers of The Debt, first saw the 2007 film Ha-Hov, he immediately recognized its potential. Director Assaf Bernstein's Israeli thriller, about three Mossad agents and the secrets they carry with them from a mission in East Berlin in the 1960s, was a compelling movie that had been nominated for four Ophir Awards (Israel's equivalent of the Oscars), but had failed to gain considerable audience traction internationally. “It was a spectacular story, and brilliantly acted,” says Thykier. “I did feel that there was an opportunity for a little more complexity and scale; I saw the potential of making a smart thriller that would be relevant to – and entertaining for – a world audience.” Thykier brought the idea of remaking Ha-Hov to writer-director-producer Matthew Vaughn, who in turn penned a screenplay adaptation with his writing partner, Jane Goldman, and then brought John Madden on board to direct the film. And thus, The Debt came into existence. Madden's smart, engaging movie is part of a tradition of high quality remakes. In following slideshow, we look at some remarkable examples of this genre, from John Sturges' 1960 The Magnificent Seven all the way up to Matt Reeves' Let Me In, by way of such diverse treats as Blake Edwards' cross-dressing musical Victor Victoria and Martin Scorsese's tough crime thriller The Departed.

Seven Samurai (1954) to The Magnificent Seven (1960)

During the classic Hollywood era, it was standard procedure for studios to rehash their own back catalogues, trotting out new versions of old hits, but with the exception of films like Algiers (1938) and Intermezzo (1939), remakes of foreign language movies were almost unheard of. That all changed with The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges' 1960 Western, which put an American spin on Japanese master Akira Kurosawa's superlative chanbara epic, Seven Samurai (1954). Of his peers, Kurosawa was arguably the Japanese director most influenced by Hollywood cinema and Seven Samurai – the tale of villagers who hire a septet of swordsmen to protect them from marauding bandits – owed a debt to such filmmakers as John Ford. As a result, the film was naturally suited to be transposed to the American West. Writes Empire's Kim Newman of The Magnificent Seven, “The marauding bandits who prey on the isolated village are now sombrero-sporting Pancho Villa types [and] instead of swift-sword samurai, the downtrodden villagers appeal to quick-gunmen... As in the Kurosawa movie, the heroes are an unusual bunch of near-psychopaths, comic oddballs and mythic archetypes.” Sturges pointedly avoided making unnecessary changes in his remake, and indeed some of the dialogue in The Magnificent Seven was directly translated from Kurosawa's film. Certain characters were combined, making room for new ones, but the most notable change was the addition of Calvera, played by Eli Wallach, the main villain who gunslingers Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson et al. are gunning for. In Kurosawa's film, by contrast, the bandits have no leader, yet Sturges smartly identified that traditional Hollywood storytelling required a baddie to root against. The Magnificent Seven was a huge critical and financial success on its release, and now enjoys classic status. In addition to spawning three sequels, it also inspired a string of films, such as The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, which repeated the idea of heroes banding together to achieve a specific goal.

Yojimbo (1961) to A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
The influence of Hollywood filmmaking on Akira Kurosawa was widely discussed – and also criticized – during the 1950s, and so Kurosawa decided to address the issue head-on by making Yojimbo (1961), a film that was blatantly and unabashedly indebted to American cinema. “Kurosawa, often called the most Western of Japanese directors, now seems to have thought, 'Enough moral fervor. I’ll show you how Western I can be,' and selected two typically American genres for this demonstration,” writes Alexander Sesonske in his Criterion Collection essay on Yojimbo. The film's setting was a village that might as well have been the location used in any given Hollywood Western of the era, while the plot and themes owed much to film noir. (Many have claimed that Yojimbo owes a debt to Dashiell Hammett's novels The Glass Key and Red Harvest.) The story concerns a nameless swordsman (Kurosawa's acting mainstay, Toshiro Mifune, who played Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai) who is hired by a crime lord as protection from a rival, and who then audaciously convinces the rival to hire him also. Though a comedy, the film had a hard edge, and broke new ground within Japanese period pieces by showing blood and realistically recreating the sound of steel on flesh and bone. The combination of a compelling plot and brutally authentic depiction of violence was irresistible to Sergio Leone, who in 1964 remade Yojimbo as the classic Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name. However, at the time, the film was not deemed a remake as Leone, looking to reduce his budget, had not bought the remake rights. Following the film's release in Europe, Kurosawa successfully sued for plagiarism. ("It is a very fine film,” Kurosawa wrote Leone, “but it is my film.") The plagiarism case held up the U.S. release of Dollars until 1967, when it became a major success. His court victory had given Kurosawa a 15% stake in Leone's movie, and he cheerfully claimed that he had made more money from A Fistful of Dollars than he ever did from Yojimbo. However, while Leone's film did shamelessly plunder from Kurosawa, it also broke new ground. “This violent, cynical and visually stunning film introduced The Man With No Name, the anti-heroic gunslinger for whom money is the only motivation and the villains are merely obstacles to be removed,” wrote John Nudge in his essay on Spaghetti Westerns for Images Journal. “Many later films followed this formula of the lone gunman in pursuit of money to the exclusion of all else. Leone's unique style, artistic camera angles, extension of time and raw, explosive violence presented a skewed view of the West, making his film different from any Western that had come before.”
The Wages of Fear (1953) to Sorcerer (1977)

In the 1970s, William Friedkin was one of the darlings of New Hollywood, a director who seemed to have his finger on the pulse of popular taste, making two back-to-back monster hits with The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). After these films, Friedkin had carte blanche for his next project and chose to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic 1954 French film The Wages of Fear, a thrilling noir about four men hired to transport nitroglycerine along perilous dirt roads in the South American jungle. Except, as Friedkin insists, his film was not a remake: His intent was to create an “entirely new version [of Clouzot's movie], that would only draw in the theme, but with new characters.” (Friedkin allegedly charmed Clouzot into agreeing to let him do the movie by saying that it would not be as good as the original.) Universal Pictures was unconvinced that Sorcerer, Friedkin's (non-)remake, was a good idea, but was won over when Friedkin said he wanted to make the film so much that he didn't care if they paid him. It was released in 1977 after a troubled and protracted production period, and subsequently was a massive failure both with critics and audiences – bringing Friedkin crashing down to earth. For some reason, the tense, engaging thriller he had slaved over failed to connect with the zeitgeist. “In many ways, it comes as close as any film I've made to fulfilling my intentions for it,” Friedkin said in a recent interview. “It had taken a great deal out of me and everyone else who worked on the film, it was extremely difficult to shoot and it's the most disappointing thing that's ever happened to me that the film was not a success. ...It was a critical and commercial failure, and it hurt me very deeply.” Now, however, the film is enjoying a critical revival. In his essay on Clouzot's and Friedkin's films, Tim Applegate writes in The Film Journal that “in retrospect Sorcerer now seems unfairly maligned – it too is a visually dynamic thrill ride – while Wages Of Fear, for all its admirable qualities, is not without its detractors (Godard, for one, thought it inferior). The flaws in both pictures are impossible to ignore, and yet each succeeds at the most elemental level of cinema: they ratchet up the tension to the snapping point.”

Viktor und Viktoria (1933) to Victor Victoria (1982)

In 1982, Blake Edwards scored a major hit with Victor Victoria, a 1930s-set musical about a down-on-her-luck singer, Victoria Grant (played by Edwards' wife and muse, Julie Andrews), whose dire financial straits push her to pose as a man pretending to be a woman. Her cabaret act, in which her new persona, "Count Victor Grazinski," sings and acts very convincingly like a lady, becomes an overnight success, but Victoria's newfound popularity also brings with it certain problems, the most immediate being the interest of Chicago gangster King Marchand (James Garner), a straight man who is inexplicably drawn to Count Victor – despite his sexual orientation. Edwards' film is a remake of Viktor und Viktoria, a delightful 1933 German musical comedy written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, which had previously been remade in 1935 in the UK as First a Girl, and then again in 1957 under its original title in West Germany. The Weimar era was a time when the blurring of sexual boundaries and shifting gender roles were being explored in German cinema, however the constraints of censorship meant that filmmakers were restricted in what they could depict. Writing in Senses of Cinema on both the original movie and Edwards' reworking, Rick Thompson says, “One can see why Edwards remade this film. Schünzel’s film is available for psychoanalytical/gender/sexuality/queer readings, but in its gracefully prim (things we don’t talk about) way, extends no invitations. Edwards, of course, being Edwards, goes for the throat, 1982 offering more latitude than 1933 – Edwards wanting to make a much more confronting film than Schünzel. It is surprising how much of Viktor und Viktoria Edwards kept/took for his remake.” Edwards, however, concedes that he “chickened out” with one particular aspect of the movie. In a pivotal scene, Garner's King Marchand famously tells Victor/Victoria, “I don't care if you are a man,” as he kisses him/her. However, it's not as if he is really in doubt of her gender, as in a previous scene we have seen him spying on her naked.

Profumo di Donna (1974) to Scent of a Woman (1992)

During the 1970s and 1980s, Hollywood scratched its collective head as Al Pacino turned in a string of incredible cinematic performances, and each time was rebuffed by the Academy. Pacino was nominated for Best Actor for his turns in Serpico, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and ...And Justice For All, but struck out every time. Finally, though, Pacino won his Oscar, for the 1992 film Scent of a Woman, in which he played a blind, hard-drinking retired army officer who takes a young student charged with looking after him on a weekend of debauchery, after which the older man plans to commit suicide. What was not discussed at all on the film's release was that Scent of a Woman was a remake of the 1974 Italian film Profumo di donna. In comparing the two, one can see how the sensibilities of 1970s Italian cinema and 1990s Hollywood fare shaped these films. “[Profumo di donna] is in many respects darker, more uncompromising, and more involving than its better-known 1992 remake,” writes critic Nathan Rabin of The Onion's A.V. Club. “But while the Hollywood film takes great pains to show its protagonist as a kind-hearted, charismatic romantic who hides behind a gruff exterior, [Vittorio] Gassman plays him as a miserable, drunken, whoring failure lashing out at a world that doesn't accept him. In place of Pacino's tango-dancing and self-righteous monologues, Gassman limits himself to fondling nubile companions, engaging in drunken rages, and emotionally abusing anyone who comes close to him.” Analyzing the Pacino version, the New York Times critic Janet Maslin noted that the film thrived because it transcended its narrative setup: “The good thing is that the principals and film makers make the absolute most of a conventional opportunity. They succeed in turning a relatively contrived situation into a terrific showcase for Mr. Pacino's talents.”

Ringu (1998) to The Ring (2002)
Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki, director Hideo Nakata's 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu caused a sensation on its domestic release, terrifying audiences who flocked in droves to see it and quickly made it the highest grossing horror in Japanese film history. The movie was understated and did not inspire fear in viewers through gore or monsters, but instead had at its core a brilliant, chilling plot device: a cursed video tape that dooms everyone who watches it to die within a week. (This narrative conceit actually had its roots in Hollywood filmmaking, as Kôji Suzuki revealed that he got the idea while watching Poltergeist.) Nakata's film did not get a U.S. release, and for a long time was only seen Stateside on grainy, pirated VHS copies that actually enhanced the film's eerie, chilling quality. As a result, most Americans came fresh to Gore Verbinski's 2002 remake, The Ring, which achieved similar success in scaring and deeply unsettling viewers. Verbinski was reverent in his approach to remaking the film, saying in an interview with the BBC, “I just tried to keep what's great in the original movie and improve it where I could. ”Reviewing The Ring for The Onion's A.V. Club, Keith Phipps wrote that “Verbinski creates an air of dread that begins with the first scene and never lets up, subtly incorporating elements from the current wave of Japanese horror films along the way. He succeeds mostly through sleight of hand. When the shocks come, they interrupt long stretches in which the camera lingers meaningfully as characters accumulate details that confirm what they already know: What they've seen will kill them, and soon.” Comparing Verbinski's and Nakata's films, Phipps' colleague Scott Tobias expressed the opinion that the remake actually topped the original, writing, “On balance, Gore Verbinski's faithful The Ring is the stronger of the two movies, with better performances, more polished and suspenseful set pieces, and an even distribution of scares between the chilling bookends.”
Insomnia (1997) to Insomnia (2002)

After announcing himself as an inventive and masterful filmmaker with Memento, Christopher Nolan then went on to make a much more low-key, understated movie, Insomnia, a remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. The original movie was a drably shot psychological thriller about a detective (Stellan Skarsgård) with a checkered past who accidentally shoots his partner while pursuing a killer in the Scandinavian wilds. The grizzled cop's bid to catch the murderer is undermined by both his guilt (which prevents him from sleeping) and his need to cover up his culpability in his partner's death. Described by critic Peter Cowie as “European cinema at its most challenging,” the film won major praise on its release and was distributed worldwide. Skjoldbjærg himself was actually asked to remake the film in Hollywood, but turned down the opportunity, saying he did not want to make the same film twice. Nolan, however, was very interested in the possibilities that a remake of Insomnia presented. “I think it has a fascinating and very evocative psychological situation,” he said in an interview. “A great moral dilemma that is taken one direction in the original movie, and I think it's a great movie, but as I saw it, it occurred to me that you could by changing the characters take the same situation, the same intense psychological relationship between the two main characters and take it in a rather different direction and create a different kind of moral paradox.” The moral dimension Nolan added in his version stems from the discovery by the troubled detective, played in the remake by Al Pacino, that his partner is about to testify against him regarding his misconduct on a previous investigation. As a result, the accidental death of the partner becomes even more loaded, as Pacino's cop is haunted by the knowledge that his partner believed he intentionally shot him for disloyalty – and the fear that subconsciously he did, in fact, mean to kill him. Comparing Nolan's movie with Skjoldbjærg's, Roger Ebert wrote that the original “was a strong, atmospheric, dread-heavy film, and so is this one. 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.”

Infernal Affairs (2002) to The Departed (2006)
Al Pacino's Oscar drought was finally ended thanks to a remake, Scent of a Woman, and it just so happened that Martin Scorsese also fulfilled his seemingly endless quest for Academy Award glory by putting an American spin on a foreign film. The movie in question, of course, was The Departed, Scorsese's star-studded spin on Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's twisty Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, about a cop who goes undercover as a mobster, and a mobster who becomes a mole in the police department. Penned by William Monahan, The Departed stayed pretty close to the plot contortions of Infernal Affairs, but moved the action to Boston's violent (and expletive-heavy) criminal underworld. Lau and Mak's movie was clearly influenced by U.S. cinema – the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell identified the influence of Michael Mann, and especially that director's Heat – but what most drew Scorsese to the film was the morally complex world it portrayed, which keyed into recurring themes in his own work. “Good and bad become very blurred,” Scorsese told The Guardian. “That is something I know I'm attracted to. It's a world where morality doesn't exist, good doesn't exist, so you can't even sin any more as there's nothing to sin against. There's no redemption of any kind.” The team behind Infernal Affairs was mostly very pleased with Scorsese's remake, with Andrew Lau declaring, “Of course I think the version I made is better, but the Hollywood version is pretty good too. [Scorsese] made the Hollywood version more attuned to American culture.” Roger Ebert noted how faithful The Departed was to its original source, and yet how Scorsese had also made the movie his own. “[H]aving just re-read my 2004 review [of Infernal Affairs], I find I could change the names, cut and paste it, and be discussing this film. But that would only involve the surface, the plot and a few philosophical quasi-profundities. What makes this a Scorsese film, and not merely a retread, is the director's use of actors, locations and energy, and its buried theme. I am fond of saying that a movie is not about what it's about; it's about how it's about it. That's always true of a Scorsese film.” The Departed went on to enormous success, finally winning Scorsese the Academy Award for Best Director and also becoming the first remake ever to take home the Best Picture Oscar.
Brødre (2004) to Brothers (2008)

Danish writer-director Susanne Bier – possibly most famous for winning Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Academy Awards for her film In a Better World – first established herself as a highly successful filmmaker on the international stage by creating emotionally incisive, incredibly human romantic dramas such as Open Hearts (2002), Brødre (2004) and After the Wedding (2006). While her directing peers in Denmark were becoming Dogma disciples, she instead focused her talents on creating stories that had resonated with audiences worldwide on a personal level. As a result, Hollywood sat up and took notice of her, first tapping her to direct the highly acclaimed Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), starring Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry, and then picking up the remake rights to Brødre, Bier's tale of a woman whose husband is reported as dead while fighting in Afghanistan, and who then falls for his rebellious brother. Jim Sheridan, the Irish director of such films as My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and In America, was hired to make Brothers, an adaptation of Bier's film starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman which moved the action to America but otherwise stayed incredibly close to the original material. “I thought it was a great movie, but it didn't [get a major] release in America, so I thought it could have a bigger audience,” Sheridan told Dark Horizons. “I tried to be as honest and true... then tried to make it my own, but I was always concerned with not damaging the original.” Arguably the biggest change in Sheridan's version was that there was a greater focus on family dynamics – a continuing preoccupation in Sheridan's work – rather than on the romantic aspects of the plot, which are forefronted in Bier's movie. In her review of Brothers for Salon, Stephanie Zacharek wrote that “although Sheridan and screenwriter David Benioff have, out of necessity, recast the story somewhat, they've preserved the subtlety of the original to a remarkable degree. ...Sheridan shapes the drama so casually that he succeeds in making it feel naturalistically unshaped. (In fact, he and Benioff follow the structure of Bier's version, and even the tenor of much of the dialogue, fairly closely.) Sheridan is good at capturing the mundane details of family life, particularly when it comes to little-girl siblings: He gets the petty squabbling, the pouty rivalries and the fierce camaraderie just right.”

Let the Right One In (2008) to Let Me In (2010)

When it was announced in 2008 that Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was to direct a remake of Tomas Alfredson's idiosyncratic vampire coming-of-age movie Let the Right One In, the reaction from the online film community ranged from concern to outright disgust. Fans of the film, a buzz title on the festival circuit that year, felt that Reeves was showing incredible disrespect, as Alfredson's film had not even been released theatrically in the U.S. yet. A dark, nuanced and highly original story of a socially awkward Swedish teen who befriends the shy girl next door – who just happens to be a centuries-old vampire – Alfredson's movie, adapted from a book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, was notable because the central relationship is treated very seriously, with the blood-hungry Eli portrayed as a complex, troubled character who is burdened by the secret of who she really is. “I wrote Lindqvist and told him that it wasn't just that I was drawn to the story because it was a brilliant genre story – which it is – but also because of the personal aspect of it,” said Reeves in a 2010 interview. “It really reminds me of my childhood.” Reeves planned to go back to the book and to resist making his film, Let Me In, a straightforward remake, ultimately describing it as “a mixture of details from the book, the original film and things that grew out of adapting it.” When Let Me In was released, there was an outpouring of critical support, and Reeves' movie surprised everyone by overcoming people's prejudices and becoming of the best-reviewed pictures of the year. “The story holds a few surprises,” wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “but what makes Let Me In so eerily fascinating is the mood it creates. It is at once artful and unpretentious, more interested in intimacy and implication than in easy scares or slick effects. ...With Let Me In the director demonstrates, in addition to impressive horror movie chops, a delicate sensitivity and a low-key visual wit.” Possibly the most delighted was Lindqvist, who told  HitFix, “I might just be the luckiest writer alive. To have not only one, but two excellent versions of my debut novel done for the screen feels unreal. Let the Right One In is a great Swedish movie. Let Me In is a great American movie. There are notable similarities and the spirit of Tomas Alfredson is present. But Let Me In puts the emotional pressure in different places and stands firmly on its own legs. Like the Swedish movie it made me cry, but not at the same points. Let Me In is a dark and violent love story, a beautiful piece of cinema and a respectful rendering of my novel for which I am grateful. Again.” Interestingly Tomas Alfredson follow up to Let the Right One In is an English-language remake of sorts. Alfredson’s upcoming adaptation of John le Carré’s classic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was first made into BBC mini-series in 1979.


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