Movie remakes: Lost in translation

American versions of foreign films may bring in bigger audiences – but what's wrong with subtitles? By Elisa Bray
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The Independent Culture

This October a new vampire film is coming out that will no doubt be a huge box-office success. Except it's not new at all. Let Me In is a Hollywood remake of the Swedish drama Let the Right One In, named after a Morrissey song, and telling the tale of two lonely 12-year-old outcasts' burgeoning relationship.

When the trailer popped up on the big screen this weekend, I had the strange sense of having watched this film before. The mood seemed to be identical, and it prompted me to wonder what the purpose of Matt Reeves, director of Cloverfield, reworking it might be. Why does Hollywood continually remake perfectly brilliant foreign films? Is it that films need the Hollywood reworking and American actors in order to draw huge crowds?

The first thing that comes to mind is the potential fortune to be made. The film Dark Water, starring Jennifer Connelly, a 2005 remake of Japanese horror director Hideo Nakata's 2002 film of the same name, made $50m worldwide, while The Ring, starring Naomi Watts, a remake of that same championed director's Ringu, was an even greater box-office success in Japan than its original. Crucially, its budget was 40 times that of the Japanese version. Likewise, the new version of Dark Water had a budget of $30m compared to the original's tiny budget of $4m. The Grudge, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, the remake of the Japanese Ju-on: The Grudge, earned a whopping $187m.

Simon Oakes, the producer of Let Me In has stated in an interview that the main difference between the original and the new version, whose setting is now Colorado rather than the bleak Swedish winter, is that it will be made "very accessible to a wider audience", while the plot would remain much the same. "If you say "remake", I think that's true to say. That's what it is," said Oakes. "It's not a reimagining. [It has] the same beats, maybe the scares are a little bit more scary. We've been able to ramp that up quite a lot, obviously for budgetary reasons."

What the original film lacked in budget and special effects, it made up for in subtlety and unnerving psychological tension. Still, you could argue that the benefits of Hollywood backing are palpable even to the creators of the original film. Let Me In does not boast celebrity actors, but as well as the increased financial backing, it does have the distinct advantage of being shown at many more cinemas.

As well as the limited release of an art-house or foreign film, there is another practicality restricting its viewing. Peter Buckingham, head of distribution at the UK Film Council, says subtitles are still a sticking point for cinema-goers. "Independent cinema does produce some very good films that are likely to be restricted by themselves. Audiences do not like the idea of subtitling. However, when they go in and experience a film with subtitles, it doesn't bother them. You tend to get [foreign film] campaigns with no speaking in them. It's a shame because there are many great films which are subtitled that if they didn't have that extra barrier, people would go and see them. Once they do see them, they enjoy them as movies. However, it is a barrier. There is some evidence that that attitude is less prevalent now. The traditional view that a subtitled film has no chance – there's been a shift in the last seven or eight years."

The good news is that people are becoming less put off by subtitles, much due to the work the UKFC have done in recent years to widen the breadth of films shown in the UK, and to try to draw a wider audience who would normally avoid subtitled films. The result? A huge increase in the number of foreign films to have exceeded box-office takings of £1m: the gross box office of "specialised" films increased by around 18% between 2002 and 2007 – and since 2004, 62 specialised films have grossed more than £1m at the UK box office, including The Lives of Others and Coco Before Chanel.

Interestingly, subtitles are in fact more off-putting to film watchers than dubbing, according to a recent survey on behalf of the UK Film Council and Momentum Pictures for the Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Although some of those quizzed wished they had seen the subtitled version and criticised the quality of the dubbing, the fact that the dubbed version brought in such a different audience to the subtitled version suggested that this format is more effective in attracting a mainstream audience. Offering both subtitled and dubbed prints for future foreign releases could attract a still wider range of cinema-goers.

There has been a trend towards Hollywood remakes, especially horror films – in line with the genre's growing popularity. Even the length of time between the original and the American version seems to be shortening. Barely had Let the Right One In been released in the UK before the American remake had been announced; Let Me In will appear on UK screens just 18 months after the original. A Hollywood remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already scheduled for release in 2012, with Daniel Craig and Carey Mulligan rumoured to be its stars, and David Fincher its director.

The growing move towards remakes is one of safety and minimising risk. The film is a known quantity that has been proven to work; there is a road map for how to make the film and, as a film-maker working from an existing screenplay, the development time is generally quicker, cheaper, and less risky. Everything that the studios do is about increasing profitability – thus the ubiquity of franchises, sequels, prequels and remakes.

Mark Dinning, editor of Empire magazine, says: "It's easy to bash Hollywood for remaking "perfectly good" foreign or independent films, but if few people have seen the original then isn't remaking it at least a chance for a wider audience to appreciate its mysteries? Often it's claimed that Hollywood's reasoning for doing so is that people "don't like subtitles" – but more often the reason these movies don't get seen by a broad audience is that they are put out on a more limited release in the first place.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to paint these remakes as noble attempts to bring joy to the world – Hollywood's a business, after all – but as much as the purists can complain, they still have the original to cherish regardless of the remake. Does Van Sant's godawful remake of Psycho diminish the brilliance of Hitchcock's film? Not for a second. As for Let Me In, I think that's got a really exciting pedigree behind it. Chloe Moretz from Kick-Ass, the brilliant boy from The Road and the director behind Cloverfield? I think that could be brilliant, actually."

There is indeed another positive effect of the Hollywood remake for the makers of the cult original. The Hollywood version often brings the viewer to the original in the same way as the watchers of the film might be drawn to read the book and draw their own comparisons, attracting a new audience for the original writer's future material. In fact, Let the Right One In was not an original story, but based on the 2004 Swedish best-selling novel of the same name by the writer John Ajvide Lindqvist. If the original film's natural life is restricted by its own obscurity (its limited release and language), Hollywood can take these core original stories and give them so much more – from financial backing to vast distribution.

However, the current success of some entirely original works at the cinema are giving cinema-goers new storylines to enjoy, instead of similar remakes. As Dinning says: "The success of Avatar, added to this weekend's $60m opening for Inception, proves that there is a big audience out there for original stories. So perhaps we'll see Hollywood increasingly looking to new avenues now – and focusing less on remaking."