Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Lost in Translation?

A few thoughts on the cons (and pros) of English language remakes

“English. English. English is best. I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.” So goes the logic of the Hollywood executive it seems, as they continue to commission English language remakes of foreign films. It is rightly assumed that executives are pro these remakes because of their seemingly predictable financial success. The idea has already found an audience and is now being translated into English for a wider, western audience.

The figures do not back this up however. The most common rehashes are of oriental horror films such as The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water. Some of these do achieve huge financial success in their English forms (The Ring), but many do averagely or worse (Dark Water was a big flop).

However, whilst the misguided accountant has clear (if wrong) reasons for wanting to remake the films, the filmmaker’s motives are often more questionable. Why remake a film unless you wanted to do something new with it?

Too few people adapt in these remakes, and far too many translate. The film critic Mark Kermode, who is most aggravated about this subject, argues that these remakes are doomed to failure because, though you can write a script in a different language, you cannot translate a story’s cultural context. Translating a word broadly can lead to the loss of nuanced connotations. Also, different things, such as water or colours, have different meanings in different cultures. All of these can be lost in translation, meaning that one cannot simply convert foreign films into successful English language remakes.

This is a very fine argument, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us to a world-weary outlook on all remakes of successful foreign films. One has to face up to the fact that there can be worth in adapting foreign language films into an English speaking cultural context.

At the moment, Tom Cruise is attached to a remake of The Magnificent Seven, a film I have a great attachment to. I am upset at this prospect, but, it would be blindly ignorant to forget that the “original” film is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese language classic, Seven Samurai. Clearly, I think some remakes can work, but I would argue that the 1960 western is one of the finest English language remakes ever, because it is a genuine adaptation.

Kurosawa’s film is very much of its director and culture. It is an elegiac, unhurried and sombre piece, which draws on a rich social history to paint a very poignant tale of community and honour. John Sturges’ western takes the central plot and places it in a distinctly American setting. It lives off Hollywood stars (either established or in the making), great action sequences, a rousing score: all of the elements of great American filmmaking, which make a more light-hearted, fun experience, a world away from the story’s Japanese roots. It adapts the story rather than simply rehashing it.

English language remakes work if the originals are inspirations for the new film, not meticulous templates awaiting the wonders of Google translate. Some films are perhaps so rooted in their culture that an extraction of their stories should not be attempted. Imagine someone doing a remake of The Godfather in Japanese. I cannot claim any expertise on the Japanese ganglands (or the American ganglands for that matter), but on the face of it, such an effort would be a fool’s errand. That film is so built for its Italian American culture that someone would have to do something very special to make it work in a different cultural setting.

Finally, there is another aspect to this which has been put in focus by the news that Gareth Evans’ Indonesian language, martial arts film The Raid is to be remade in English. The original, which is currently in cinemas, is a brutal action film which executes several action set-pieces brilliantly in a gripping high concept context (a SWAT team is trapped in a gangster’s safehouse and they have to get out). It does what it sets out to do brilliantly, though it could have fleshed out its characters a bit more.

Though there is room for improvement, one must look at what the film does well and wonder how it could be remade. The Raid’s action sequences are preposterously well done: balletic and brutal. One can write a new version of the script with more nuance, deeper characters, and maybe (just maybe) make the blueprint of a good adaptation, but you can’t redo visual experiences, such as action, without descending into the realms of repetition, poor imitation and pointlessness.

If there is something which unites the world of cinema, it is that universal language of images. It is an untranslatable language, but if you fail to understand it, then you simply do not comprehend film.

For more of Mark Kermode's views on this subject and many others, buy The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex here

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