With the recently announced US remake of the 2016 acclaimed German comedy (yes, acclaimed German comedy, not a phrase you hear often) Toni Erdmann staring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig already facing pre-production problems, now seems the opportune moment to examine what (if anything) can be said to guarantee a successful remake, and what gaping pits to avoid falling into.
There are a select few examples of foreign films being improved by the Hollywood system. Back in the 90’s Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam reimagined the 1962 French short Le Jetee as 12 Monkey (1995), a surreal sci-fi comedy starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. Martin Scorsese took the Hong Kong gangster film Internal Affairs (2002), a fine film and remade it within the American gangster genre conventions as the multiple Oscar-winning The Departed (2006).
While most Hollywood remakes simply attempt to replicate exactly that which made the original great, it does occasionally take the risk of adapting and transforming a large theme into a more westerly-accessible film, as happened when Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai was reimagined in a US setting as The Magnificent Seven by John Sturges in 1960.
Hope for the future of the remake may lie with the horror genre which is more of a mixed bag. Some of the worst movies ever to infect our mind are Hollywood horror remakes. Take The Wicker Man, for instance. The original 1973 UK version by writer/director Robin Hardy, played upon the deeply seated suspicions and fears of the wider largely Christian British public through the avatar of Sgt. Howie, portrayed excellently by Edward Woodward.
Now contrast this with the 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage, which fails utterly on every level. The reasons for this (apart from “The bees, not the bees!”) are many. Poor direction and poor acting play a role. But the main problem is simply because it does not bring anything new to the table, there is simply no need to remake a classic that is so of its time.
The producers made the film on the hope that despite its clear lack of quality the name recognition would be enough to put ‘bums on seats’. This cynical approach thankfully failed and the film was a critical and box-office flop.
In 2010, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves took a risk on his growing reputation, when he agreed to remake the highly acclaimed Swedish teen-horror Let The Right One In (2008). His adaption, Let Me In, is the clearest example of the exception that proves the rule, because not only does Let Me In do justice to the original, it surpasses it thanks to small but significant changes in plot pacing and editing and the magnificent fragile chemistry of the films leads Chloe Grace-Mortez and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Reeves could have ‘Americanised’ the film by making it match up with the hugely financial successful (but shallow) Twilight franchise, instead he stayed true to the ‘feel’ of the original and in the process improved upon it.
So, will the Toni Erdmann remake live up to the original? I hope so for the sake of the two highly talented leads, but I fear not due to the quick dissociation by those involved in the original, whom jumped ship almost immediately. It seems Hollywood can, in the right hands and for the right reasons, do justice to a foreign film. However, Hollywood is an industry of profit first and will therefore always follow proven successes and put the interests of marketability ahead of considerations of cultural difference and originality.