Remaking Foreign Films For Domestic Audiences Requires More Than Translation
Tuesday morning, Deadline ran an item confirming that Chris and Paul Weitz’s production shingle Depth of Field would co-produce an English-language remake of Takashi Miike’s 2013 thriller Shield of Straw with Japanese partner Nippon TV.
The film, which enjoyed considerable popularity upon release in its native Japan, centers on a squad of five police officers charged with protecting a serial killer in custody after a billionaire puts out a bounty on the accused’s head. The brothers Weitz have tapped the husband-and-wife writing team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt (Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen) to draw up a script, though a director has yet to be named. Rothenberger and Benedikt face an unenviable challenge, as matters currently stand. Remaking an international smash for U.S. audience comes with a unique set of challenges, each more than enough to sink a production on the conceptual level. It has yet to be seen whether Shield of Straw can pass muster in American cinemas, but looking to past examples of crossover successes can certainly provide a little insight.
Shield of Straw in particular has an early advantage hardwired into its very conceit. Any film being remade for English-language audiences must necessarily have a foundation accessible to audiences across continental borders, and broach accordingly universal themes. As a cop story, Shield of Straw is off to a great start. American audiences recognize the signifiers of the police genre, and so cops-and-robbers narratives can be easily transplanted from one milieu into another.
Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, for instance, began as the 2002 Cantonese film Internal Affairs. He held onto the parallelism of two moles working inward towards the other, but ditched China for the winding streets of South Boston. When executed well, audiences and critics alike love nothing more than a good cop thriller, and the film went on to gross $289.8 million on its $90 million budget as well as earn Scorsese his first Oscar.
Films structured around regionally specific political subtext, though usually well-decorated during awards season, lose their meaning when stripped of the setting. Last year’s Best Foreign film nominee Leviathan was a damning indictment of Putin’s Russia, but studios won’t be falling over themselves to secure adaptation rights to the property.
More than simple content, managing the overall attitude of a film has also proven crucial when attuning it to American tastes. As much as the medium of film unites disparate populations under the beauty of the image and joy of sound or what have you, there’s no getting around the fact that Americans respond to pop-culture differently than audiences in France, or South Korea, or Iran. Domestic viewers have distinctly calibrated senses of humor and outrage, which don’t always sync up with the source material. European audiences, as a general rule, possess a more acidic comic sensibility than Americans. Failing to take this into consideration hobbled the 2010 Paul Rudd/Steve Carell vehicle Dinner For Schmucks, a defanged adaptation of the 1998 French comedy Le Diner de Cons. Director Jay Roach toned down the delectably mean-spirited humor of the original, in which high-power executives bring eccentric or otherwise idiotic guests in for a fancy dinner, and the attendee to bring the strangest guest wins. The result was goofy but harmless, and damningly lacking in the delirious nastiness of the original. Audiences responded to this dissonance, leaving the $69 million film with a modest $86.4 million payday.
This extends to the realm of horror as well. American audiences jumped in fright at the otherworldly ghouls of the American reworks of J-horror staples The Ring and The Grudge, but the unholy marriage of domestic drama with blood-curdling sadism in Audition would never resonate with studio executives or the average American viewer.
English-language remakes adhere to an odd sort of anti-logic; it’s wisest not to go with the most popular or beloved overseas films. When a foreign film catches on and gains a substantial following in America, more often than not, it’s due to the inimitable artistic sensibility of its director. It takes a talent unlike anything that can be found in America — a Wong Kar-wai, a Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a Guillermo Del Toro — to capture an audience’s attentions from across an ocean. Inevitably, when misguided studios attempt to mount rehashes of a visually distinctive filmmaker’s work, they lose the artistic panache that made the original so special. South Korean master Park Chan-wook earned a devoted cult following for his 2003 revenge beatdown Oldboy, and the bravura one-take fight sequence that acts as the film’s centerpiece. Spike Lee’s remake of the film with Josh Brolin in the lead debuted in 2013 to tepid reviews and a dismal $4.9 million return on its $30 million budget.
For all we know (which, in the interest of fairness, is nothing), Shield of Straw should make for a fine adaptation, its malleable themes and style easily contoured to the liking of American audiences. The fraught process of importing a foreign film will be another hot topic of conversation this fall, as rumored Oscar contender The Secret In Their Eyes, a Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman-led remake of the Argentine thriller of the same name, makes its debut in domestic theaters.
Meanwhile, Robert Zemeckis’ new film The Walk translates and fictionalizes the documentary Man On Wire, bringing with it a whole new slew of pitfalls. All of these films will have to make the difficult choice as to whether they should attempt to ape the spirit of the original, or bring the source material in an entirely new direction and create something all their own. In each case, the producers will have to recognize that more than simple language can get lost in translation.