In Which the Prof Passes Along an Interesting Question

Shortly after we moved to Mondoville, I stopped by the local video store and picked up a copy of The Seventh Seal — fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, medievalists gotta watch that movie, right? When I got to the counter, the clerk said, “You know this is subtitled, right?” I said that was a good thing, as I don’t speak Swedish. He said, “I know, but we’ve had people complain, so now we just tell everybody.” I thanked him, and added that I’d stop watching when I got tired of moving my lips. We laughed, and I went on my way.

I was reminded of this by a short post at Now, one of Toronto’s alternaweeklies. The occasion for the post is the fact that Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to the movie Starbuck, a Canadian film about a Quebecois sperm donor who learns that he is the father of some 500 kids. However, Spielberg hasn’t bought the film with an eye toward distributing it here — instead, he’s going to remake it. This is somewhat understandable — the subtitle thing, the Godzilla-esque pitfalls of dubbing, and so forth — but it causes Now‘s Susan G. Cole to wonder about the “Americanization” of foreign films. Why, for example, was it necessary to transplant La Cage aux Folles to Miami?

Cole chalks it up to some sort of American xenophobia — which strikes me as rather chauvinistic in itself — but I think the question is legit.

[American filmmakers a]re always turning to books for cinematic inspiration, but I can’t blame them for that. Adaptation is an art. Remakes are not. Three Men And A Baby (1987), based on a 1985 French film and one of the first American remakes, like Tattoo added very little to the original concept.

I think it’s all about the subtitles. Some of us assume that a film with subtitles will be artful and high-quality, given how few foreign films get distribution deals in the first place. Others run the other way.

And then I guess that there are those of us who are in between, like your genial host. Some of my favorite movies have subtitles; my least favorite movie ever was in English. And I’ve seen thoroughly indifferent Americanized versions of foreign films. Meanwhile, quite a few of the kids here at Mondoville adore anime with subtitles.

So what’s the deal? Why did we have to move Martin Guerre to the American South? Why do we have to move Starbuck to the U.S. ? I’m not interested in answers along the lines of “Cuz Murricans is stoopid” or “Cuz furrin movies are all about gay cowboys eating pudding.” But I do wonder why our filmmakers seem determined to make foreign movies that are lost in translation.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to In Which the Prof Passes Along an Interesting Question

  1. Withywindle says:

    Since the originals were set in their home countries too, presumably there’s a universal interest in the familiar. Focus, I suppose–you (the filmmaker, the audience) can concentrate on the pure plot (if such exists), and ignore the thematicness of a foreign location. Hollywood also makes its own products as generic and placeless as possible, lately, so as to get a foreign audience interested. Subtitles also distract, as opposed to dubbing. As to why remake–they’re in the movie-making business, after all, not the foreign-film-distribution business. Once you assume you’re going to make a movie, why not just set it in America? It’ll be filmed in Canada anyway.

  2. Javahead says:

    As Withywindle says – they’re in the movie-making business, not the foreign-film-distribution business. If they’re remaking it anyway, “location” is just one more thing that may change, and I suspect that it’s easier for them to set it in the US – less effort to be convincingly foreign on the actors’ parts, less difficulty in setting, less chance of getting something jarringly wrong.

    In general, unless the film’s location is essential to the story, or it’s so well known a story that it’s impossible to relocate, Hollywood will almost certainly put in in the US – just as Canadian, or French, or Australian, or fill-in-the-blanks filmakers will by default set stories somewhere familiar and easy.

    It’s not as if Hollywood is known for faithful adherance to *any* story they buy – in Science Fiction alone witness travesties like “Starship Troopers” or “Dune”. How many well known authors are either adamantly opposed to selling movie rights or were appalled by the movies supposedly based on their writing?

    Of course, “cuz Hollywood producers are stoopid” is also a distinct possibility.

  3. Alpheus says:

    I’m not interested in answers along the lines of “Cuz Murricans is stoopid.”

    Would you accept: there are more stupid, insular, and reading-averse Americans than there are stupid, insular, and reading-averse Swedes? Our movie-going population is huge compared to those of other countries. That means that even if the percentage of SIRA moviegoers is no higher in America than elsewhere, it’s much more likely to be worth a studio’s time to try to attract them. In small countries, the cost of remaking or even just dubbing a film may not be worth the extra audience you’d attract. In America, it almost always is.

    And obviously, there’s a vicious cycle involved as well. In countries where subtitles are familiar, audiences are less averse to them. In Greece, a huge proportion of films are subtitled, so the Greeks don’t mind subtitles much. In America, a lot of people have just never gotten used to watching subtitled films. The reason is that the Greeks used to have no choice: if they wanted to watch movies, they were going to be subtitled. Americans have always had a choice.

    • Alpheus says:

      (BTW, the same argument applies, mutatis mutandis, to “domesticizing” a story originally set somewhere else.)

  4. nightfly says:

    There’s probably little-to-no reason to move La Cage aux Folles to Miami, except that if they didn’t, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane wouldn’t get to be in it. I think that’s the real reason behind domestic remakes of foreign films. Unexpected side-benefit – we get to make “La Cage is Faux” jokes.

    Interestingly, I’ve seen the reverse phenomenon. My wife enjoys Harlan Coben’s novels. One of them, Tell No One, was filmed by a French production, and a couple of years ago we watched it (with English subtitles, no less), shortly after a Q & A with Coben at my wife’s alma mater. It was pretty good, and the French setting didn’t hurt the story at all. (Coben explained some of the changes from US-based novel to French thriller. He also had a brief non-speaking cameo in the movie, which was inadvertently funny because he’s 6-3 at least and towered over everyone else.)

  5. ricki says:

    I wonder how the people who complain about remaking foreign films so they are set in America feel about the “resets” of Shakespeare plays (to modern-day, to some other historical era, to a different country than that in which they were originally set)? I’ve seen some Shakespeare resets that worked wonderfully well, and others that were just kind of “Now why did they bother to do that?”

    I think some of the re-dos of movies are kind of silly – like nightfly said, the only real reason for remaking La Cage aux Folles as a Miami-based film is so that Williams and Lane get to be in it.

    But to be honest? I can see “The Return of Martin Guerre” in a post-civil-war South reset as being a very interesting companion piece to the original. Probably the movie didn’t turn out that well or didn’t have that lofty of an intent (I’ve seen the original “Martin Guerre” but didn’t even know of the remake before reading your post).

    I think like a lot of things, remakes/resets can be good or bad depending on how they are done.

    Then again: I’m more likely to want to read a book or watch a movie that is set in a time or place other than my own. I want that sense of escape or possibility of learning a bit about another culture or era. If you’re just taking a foreign movie and making it modern-day American for Americans, I will yawn and pass it by. But if you’re resetting the movie in some way that makes it interesting – then I might give it a look.

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