Are Hollywood Remakes of Foreign Classics Ever a Good Idea?

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We’re not exaggerating when we say that Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In was our favorite film of 2008. The Swedish film’s mix of emotional realism, dark fantasy and stark, Scandinavian-winter setting — not to mention a pair of outstanding performances from its young stars — proved that vampire mythology can give rise to deeper fare than Twilight.

That said, we were less than thrilled to hear that Cloverfield director (and Under Siege 2 writer!) Matt Reeves was at work on an English-language remake of Let the Right One In. Now that we know its title (Let Me In) and release date (October 1), we can’t say we’re any more excited. Why? Well, when it comes to adapting classic foreign films, Hollywood has a somewhat checkered past. After the jump, we compare five international films with their English-language counterparts to determine whether these remakes are ever a good idea.

Foreign classic: À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) Hollywood remake: Breathless (Jim McBride, 1983

Critical response: “Because the movie looks so filthy rich and so elegantly composed, the emotional experience thus restated becomes a tiny bit confused. Among other American ‘extras,’ this Breathless has its obligatory title song, soundtrack music that won’t shut up and dialogue that spells out what’s happening from start to finish.” — Vincent Canby, New York TimesVerdict: Cheesy music and an a script that keeps smacking you in the face with its meaning doesn’t sound appealing to us. And although Canby spends much of his review damning Breathless with faint praise, we’re fairly clear on the take-away: Don’t mess with Godard.

Foreign classic: Solyaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972) Hollywood remake: Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002)

Critical response: “Over an hour shorter than Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Soderbergh’s is more lyrical than epic. The fragmentary assemblage of Kelvin’s memories — his initial meeting of Rheya, their life together on Earth, and her suicide — suggests Alain Resnais’s underrated, seldom screened, and no less bravely absurd time-travel fantasy Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime. In distilling the action and emphasizing the flashbacks, Soderbergh regrounds his story in genre — although not necessarily sci-fi.” — J. Hoberman, Village VoiceVerdict: Soderbergh can do whatever he wants.

Foreign classic: The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) Hollywood remake: The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960)

Critical response: “Though lacking some of the depth of Kurosawa’s version, it’s a marvelous piece of entertainment with tense action complemented by charismatic performances from its stars. It’s also a reminder, worth examining in the middle of the summer-movie season, that entertainment on a grand scale doesn’t have to jettison good storytelling.” — Keith Phipps, Onion A.V. ClubVerdict: Dumber than Kurosawa’s film, but not half bad.

Foreign classic: La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962) Hollywood remake: 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995) Critical response: “I’ve seen 12 Monkeys described as a comedy. Any laughs that it inspires will be very hollow. It’s more of a celebration of madness and doom, with a hero who tries to prevail against the chaos of his condition, and is inadequate. This vision is a cold, dark, damp one, and even the romance between Willis and Stowe feels desperate rather than joyous. All of this is done very well, and the more you know about movies (especially the technical side), the more you’re likely to admire it. But a comedy it’s not. And as an entertainment, it appeals more to the mind than to the senses.” — Rogert Ebert, Chicago Sun-TimesVerdict: Like Soderbergh, Gilliam can do whatever he wants.

Foreign classic: Chloe in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer, 1972) Hollywood remake: I Think I Love My Wife (Chris Rock, 2007)

Critical response: None of the froggy nuance and mise-en-scéne nonsense here; Rock appears to have been inspired by the opportunity Chloe affords for unloading bitter chauvinism and venting hostility. The moral of this tale is that when women aren’t sexless, boring, and safe (i.e., wives), they’re horny, fun, and frightening.” — Nathan Lee, Village VoiceVerdict: Epic fail.

So, what have we learned from this exercise? Well, for one thing, whether we succeed or fail, Americans tend to dumb down (and cut the running time of) any foreign classic we can get our hands on. But the real moral of the story seems to be this: If you’re not a great auteur yourself, stay away from the work of cinema legends. Why yes, Matt Reeves. We are looking at you.