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Six films that are better than their English-language remakes

The 2014 Swedish comedy-drama has been remade for English audiences in 2020 as Downhill. Magnolia Pictures

From new episodes of the never-ending saga of Star Wars to Disney’s desire to remake every classic cartoon as a live action film, Hollywood has a penchant for recycling existing material. An aspect of this rinse-and-repeat approach that has irritated some cinephiles is the remaking of successful films from world cinema in the English-language.

The most recent example of this is Downhill, the Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus American reinvention of the 2014 Swedish hit Force Majeure. The Swedish original has received critical acclaim and won several awards, including best foreign language film at the 2015 Golden Globes. Downhill, meanwhile, has received lukewarm reviews and was judged to be “an unnecessary (and hugely inferior) version” of the original, in one negative review by New York Observer’s Rex Reed.

Read more: Anglo-centric film culture and the continuing resistance to subtitles

There are, however, a selection of English-language remakes that have been held up as quality films in their own right. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) for example – a remake of Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, 2002) – as well as Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002) from the Andrei Tarkovsky film of the same name (1972) and Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964) – a loose remake of Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa’s (1961).

While these are stellar examples, supporters of international cinema should be concerned about letting US remakes eclipse the original non-English language films.

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Remakes either erase or shine a light on their original. Many people will only know the Hollywood-ised remake and not the source, while other remakes can bring attention to its predecessor. This depends on the level of critical attention paid to the original as well as the availability of the film and audience engagement with it.

There is no doubt that cinema audiences are missing out on some cinematic gems by remaining ignorant of the originals. So here are a selection of great films that should not be eclipsed by their Hollywood remakes.

1. Force Majeure (2014)

This is a Swedish Danish, French, Norwegian co-production directed by the Swedish director Ruben Östlund who also made the critically acclaimed and award-winning film The Square (2017).

Force Majeure, set in an Alpine ski resort, is visually stunning and existentially profound. The film takes us to the heart of the frailties of the human condition through a study of a “model” middle class family.

2. Abre los ojos (1997)

Directed by the Chilean Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, Open Your Eyes is a wonderfully inventive Spanish sci-fi drama about dream realities, cryogenic future selves and virtual new realities.

This was the first Spanish film to have a Hollywood remake – transformed into Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001), featuring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, who reinterpreted the role of the idealised woman she played in Open Your Eyes. The use of Cruz and overt references to the original drew attention to the Spanish classic, rather than eclipsing it.

3. Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)

Wings of Desire is a timeless classic by the German auteur Wim Wenders. The film tells the story of two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), who provide us with an angels’ eye view of a divided Berlin. A quirky feature of the film is the presence of Columbo’s Peter Falk, an ex-angel, who can sense Damiel’s presence and his longing for mortality and love.

Its remake, City of Angels (1998) – directed by Brad Silberling and starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan – turned this masterpiece into a functional romance.

4. El secreto de sus ojos (2009)

The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella) is a compelling Argentine and world cinema political thriller and love story starring Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil. It straddles the art cinema and commercial divide, and raises important questions about (in)justice, memory and revenge through its treatment of Argentine recent history.

The shifts in context to a post 9/11 United States in the star-studded remake Secret in Their Eyes (Billy Ray, 2015) with Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor, results in the loss of the original’s political and social weight in favour of a human drama that unfolds amid a muddled storyline of an Islamic terrorist plot against Los Angeles.

5. Old Boy (2003)

Old Boy is a classic of South Korean cinema directed by Park Chan-wook and the second film in his “Vengeance Trilogy”. It follows the imprisonment and “liberation” of its protagonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik). It is a hard but thrilling watch; a film that shocks as it entertains, while presenting a disturbing take on the human condition. Old Boy is filled with wildly imaginative twists and turns that fully illustrate its themes of revenge, sadism, despair, love and frustrated hope.

Its remake (Oldboy 2013) was unusually poorly received for a Spike Lee film, suggesting perhaps that he should not have attempted to remake the cult Korean classic.

6.Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)

Directed by the Danish director Niles Arden Oplev, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first of the trilogy of Nordic adaptations of the award-winning Millenium crime series by Stieg Larsson. Following brilliant but troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) as she helps the Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist uncover some dark secrets. This action-packed film demonstrated that European cinema can break out of the art film festival circuit and secure global release.

The remake by David Fincher in 2011 and starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, was well reviewed, but was – arguably – unnecessary considering the international reach of the original.

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