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Are Americans afraid of everything foreign?

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If it's good enough to remake, why is it not good enough to just watch...?

What was wrong with the Brit version?

A few months ago, I was in a heated internet debate about the American film Let Me In. The film is a remake of the Swedish horror film Let The Right One In, based on the novel Låt Den Rätte Komma In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. While I haven’t yet had the chance to see the original film, I found it in very bad taste to remake a film that had only been recently made in another country. The other poster hit me with all of the usual remake supporter rhetoric, telling me that remakes don’t hurt the original movies, and that we can bring the story to a wider audience. And then they hit me with one of those comments that make me dive right out of a discussion. They said “America makes the best films”. I may be an American, but I’m also a lover of film of all genres, and a statement like that makes me more than a little a little angry, and pretty much thinking less of the person making a statement like that.

The Seven SamuraiDon’t get me wrong, America makes some damned fine films. From indie cinema to blockbuster popcorn films, we’ve done pretty well. Star Wars, The Godfather, Clerks, Seven, just to name a few. The list could go on and on. But to say we make the absolute “best” films is sort of subjective. Sure, Hollywood has the most money to throw at the film industry, so to say we have the best looking films, or the best effects, or can hire some pretty good screenwriters would not be out of line. But throwing money at a movie doesn’t necessarily make it good, and there are so many great foreign films out there that could give most American-made films a run for their money: Fist of Fury (AKA The Chinese Connection), The Seventh Seal, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, 28 Days Later, Ju-On, Ringu...and so many others that are fantastic movies.

But there are so many more that are never seen or even heard of by the American public because they are simply ignored by distributors who feel that foreign films won’t play outside of art houses and the Independent Film Channel. But if the story is good enough, they will remake it. The Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven, Ju-On as The Grudge and Ringu as The Ring (in fact, Hollywood spent quite a few years remaking Asian horror films).

Those who support remaking these films usually use the excuse that most Americans can’t relate to a film that’s foreign, and that in remaking them, maybe it will garner interest in the original works. I will admit, there have been a few of the J-horror remakes that opened my eyes to the much better original films. But is it really that hard for American audiences to relate to a film just because it takes place in another country, or is in another language? I can’t believe that. Although it had a built-in audience due to its religious nature, The Passion of the Christ did huge numbers at the box office, even though it was in another language altogether. I think it has to do more with our own xenophobia that anything else, or perhaps with a feeling of patriotic superiority. Maybe my fellow countrymen believe that if it isn’t American, it isn’t worth watching.

Rimmer and 'Mr. Flibble' from 'Red Dwarf'It’s not a new phenomenon. Movies from abroad have been re-cut for years, going back to films like Gojira (re-edited and released in the states as Godzilla, King of the Monsters). And it isn’t just movies. Television programs are remade just as often and usually with disastrous results. While the American version of The Office plays well overseas, the British version has only been a success on cable stations. Other series that have played for years on PBS stations have been remade for American stars. One Foot in the Grave was repackaged as Cosby, reuniting Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad, and adding comedy veteran Madeline Kahn. However, taking it out of the original setting took away most of the charm of the original program. Fawlty Towers was rewritten for John Larroquette as Payne, which while funny, was not quite as good as the Cleese classic. The Patrick Stewart vehicle The Eleventh Hour was redone well, but tried too hard to be another over-the-top American cop show. Red Dwarf didn’t even get past being a pilot, and for good reason. No American was ever going to be able to fill Rimmer and Lister’s shoes (if you haven’t seen the pilot, it’s posted at YouTube, but I really don’t recommend watching it unless you want to waste a half an hour of your life).

And I don’t think we even need to dwell on the terrible miscarriage of justice that was Life on Mars. Now it was just announced that MTV is premiering a new remake of the UK teen drama Skins, and SyFy is getting ready to premiere their version of Being Human. While I’m not a big fan of Skins, the show is entertaining at times, and the US version seems to be nothing more than a shadow of the original. Being Human is one that seems like a terrible idea, especially based on the previews I’ve seen. The three cast members seem too upbeat and cheery for the source material, and it looks as though they’ve filmed it in a brighter lighting, which takes away from the dreary, neo-gothic feel of the original; although if they keep it as dark in tone as its predecessor it will be a welcome alternative to anything seen on The Vampire Diaries.

Kayako in 'The Grudge'I suppose in the end, people like me are making too much out of nothing. We can’t stop the remakes from happening, and we definitely don’t have to watch them. But for me, I feel like the repackaging of an already working program is cheating, in a way. I understand that networks want their own programming, and don’t want to have to make room for imported goods. And if the viewing audience in general has no problem with getting lukewarm leftovers, why should I complain? Because someone should. There are some fantastic movies and programs out there that are being missed, and are just as good if not better than a lot of what Hollywood and the television broadcasters want to spoon-feed us. Go out and find those original movies and programs on DVD or on the internet, and give them a chance. You might just surprise yourself, and become a fan of something worth watching.

See also:

I Was A Teenage Doctor Who Fan In America

Will the real geek please stand up?

The loneliness of the long-distance 'B'-movie fan


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Comments 

 
#1 RE: Are Americans afraid of everything foreign? ypocaramel 2011-01-01 14:36
Without ranting on about my experiences living in the USA for several years, sometimes it's just expedient. I asked a friend in NYC, Caucasian American, what he thought of the original Hong Kong Infernal Affairs - he had some trouble telling the characters apart. I suppose that makes sense - different fashions, haircuts, and it takes time before you know what to look for in another ethnicity. It's happened to me with other ethnicities I've had only limited exposure to.

But on some basic level I'd agree - just should watch the foreign originals, isn't that what everyone else does? Different people in this world have interesting worldviews, go explore what's going on.
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#2 Richard Cosgrove Richard Cosgrove 2011-01-03 19:53
We clearly think alike on this subject - I've lost count of the number of times I've said to people "check out the original, it's much better"only to be told that they don't like subtitles!

I have a pretty hefty DVD (and latterly Blu-Ray) collection and I'd say that a good 5%, maybe 10% of these are 'forgeign flicks', many of which would easily make it into my top 100 movies. In fact just taking French cinema alone of the last few years, movies like Irreverible, Haute Tension, Martyrs, Frontiere(s), In Their Sleep and Ils (aka Them), the level of originality when compared to the recycling nature of the American studios is huge. None of these films would benefit from a remake in terms of quality, but you can bet your life that they wouldn't get / haven't had distribtion in the US much beyond arthouses and festivals.
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#3 RE: Are Americans afraid of everything foreign? l spooner 2011-02-13 05:19
I agree about the subtitles.
Most Americans are unable to read the text and comprehend what is going on the screen simultaneously.

Another part is that the sheeple don't like nuance, noir, or anything else that resembles subtlety or wit.

It has to be spelled out, in clearly defined symbols or dialogue, or it will be dismissed.
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#4 RE: Are Americans afraid of everything foreign? Mark Cotterill 2011-03-29 11:11
Not to mention that dreadful remake of Taxi. The original was a great little film written by Luc Besson, but the remake jettisoned all of the gallic charm in favour of a generic car chase buddy movie.

It's a stereotype that most Americans don't have a passport and have no idea of global geography. I don't know if that's true, but the whole remake thing gives the rest of the world the impression that Americans think their country is the best in the world (despite never having been anywhere else) so why should they be interested in any other culture but their own.

If travel broadens the mind, then isolating oneself from the rest of the world narrows it.
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#5 RE: Are Americans afraid of everything foreign? Caleb Leland 2011-03-29 18:43
Mark, you're not far off. There are numerous Americans that truly believe that what we produce here is the best, and anything else is subpar. As far as comedies go, we take subtle humor and turn it into near slapstick, peppered with toilet humor. Horror films that can be atmospheric and creepy when done in other countries turn into gore fests. I'm an American, and I'm proud of many of our accomplishments . It just shames me that we think that films and television programs that are popular enough for us to use have to be remade for a new audience. I know many would tell me I'm wrong, but that's how I feel.
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#6 enigma Paul Nicholson 2011-05-13 11:36
An enlightened article and on the ball too. As a Brit who has visited many parts of the U.S. and worked worldwide with Americans (in the oil industry) I've noticed certain differences.

In New York and Boston there seems to be a similar open-minded thinking to that in, say, California. However, in the mid-west, the Carolinas and the Alabama/Texas/Louisiana area it's far less so. I often wonder if many people in those states understood Seinfeld and Frasier, never mind Blackadder and Fawlty Towers.

Americans are not alone in their unacceptance though. Try and watch German TV or in their cinemas. All English speaking programmes and films are dubbed. It's unbelievable.

I agree with the other letters about Hollywood. It has lost credibility and has no guts. Too many poor copies of much better originals and far too much brain-dead, terribly scripted fodder. We are being insulted.

I
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#7 at Paul Nicholson Any 2011-05-13 14:26
That German TV is dubbed has nothing to do with "unacceptance". On the contrary: here in Germany many foreign films and series are beloved. One of the reasons we have so much foreign films/series here is because of the dubbing - no one has problems unterstanding it.
I don't say this is ideal but almost every foreign DVD here has the original language with subtitles included so that we can also watch the film undubbed (what many people do nowadays, especially with their improving foreign languages skills and the wish to practise these skills)
The stating that the dubbing is the same unacceptance as the possible american unacceptance of british TV/films seems really ignorant and generalized.
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#8 RE: Are Americans afraid of everything foreign? V. Lange 2011-05-13 15:52
I think there are two things at work here. One of those things is what you claim - Americans would rather watch something in English, and moreover, something with familiar settings. Subtitles aren't the only foreign thing that people avoid, I know some who really don't want to have to deal with approaching/understanding a different culture in order to get their entertainment, in the some way that some people don't want an intellectually challenging movie after a hard day's work.

But another thing entirely is distribution. How many of the inferior remakes you see coming out of Hollywood are remakes of something that was released in American theaters, much less wide release? The originals didn't attempt to capture the American market, leaving it open for a remake.

An then, beyond even that, it's not as if it's only foreign films Hollywood is remaking. They'll remake American films too. I can't think of any of those that were wildly successful, though...
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#9 I think it's false superiority Adora 2011-05-15 19:08
I can't imagine that an American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo would be better in any way that the original. All 3 of those movies are excellent and longer than most American audiences would sit still to watch. I think that is one of the reasons they are better, you get the whole story.

As for Being Human, I much prefer the UK version, in every way. Although the American version surprised me by have more homoerotic overtones than the UK.
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