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September 27, 2010


Throwdown: Can You Read Subtitles?

Posted by on Sep 27, 2010

Everyone loves to complain about movie remakes.  It’s a fact of life and teh internets.  And, while most of them tend to be superfluous (cough Platinum Dunes cough), it’s hard for me to get too up in arms.  For example, when was the last time you actually watched A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)?  Trust me, it doesn’t hold up well.  Whether we like it or not, those kinds of remake$ aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve accepted that.  What worries me is that the remake virus seems to be mutating into a far more insidious strain.  Search for a cure after the jump.

If you’re the kind of person who seeks out foreign films, or even has them on your radar, you’ve heard of Let the Right One In.  The haunting 2008 Swedish film tells the story of a vampire girl and the human boy who falls in love with her.  If you just thought and/or said to yourself, “Oh, so it’s just like Twilight“, please exit your browser and run away, Simba.  Run.  Run away and never return!

Let the Right One In differs from its insipid American genre counterparts in two important ways.

  1. People other than your little sister thought it was good.  Booyah.
  2. It’s really damn scary.  You know, like a vampire movie is supposed to be.  When Wade and I watched this, he had nightmares.  I didn’t, but whatever.

Instead of releasing the film stateside, American studios decided it would be a better idea to just remake it in the English language.  While highly illogical and somewhat insulting to the American movie-goer, I thought maybe this was an isolated incident.  I was wrong.  Prosecution Exhibit B: the 2009 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s incredibly disturbing novel of the same name.

Also Swedish, also critically acclaimed, also getting an English language remake while the paint’s still drying on the original.  I will concede that sometimes the developments in technology and filmmaking that occur over several decades can be used to update a good story, provided said update occurs in the form of a remake and not some horrible “special edition”.  Here’s looking at you, George.  For an example of how this can be done well, see 2009’s Star Trek or 1982’s The Thing.  But we’re not talking about old movies here.  Both Let the Right One In and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were made in the last two years!  What’s going on here?

  • Third

    First, I can’t believe you didn’t include [Rec] and the unbearably mediocre remake Quarantine in your article. That pops into my mind immediately, especially since the Spanish original was so incomparably good that any attempt at a remake seemed doomed to fail.

    Then, onto the meat of the debate. When you asked “What’s going on here?,” I decided to check out the history of American adaptations of foreign films. The truth is that frequently in the past American remakes have come out within 4 or 5 years of the foreign original. I also stumbled upon the controversy of Reservoir Dogs and its possible uncredited derivation from the 1987 Chinese action flick City on Fire with Chow Yun Fat. But my point is this: rapid remakes are not entirely new. Are they depressing in their indication that movie makers are often incapable of original ideas? Yes, most definitely. Are they a new scourge against which we must take up arms? No, because they’ve been around a long time, and they haven’t made all movies terrible yet. I say yet because my faith in American cinema dwindles constantly, but I try to fight the good fight.

    • Tom

      You’re absolutely right, young Thirdakin. In this debate, [Rec] is like the monkey from Outbreak, and I can’t believe I forgot to mention it.

      It’s not that the whole idea of remaking foreign movies bothers me, but it’s not like some studio exec is seeing a great five year old foreign film and saying to himself, “I think we could remake this movie to share a great story with a wider audience that would otherwise never see it”. The rights for the English language remake of Let the Right One In sold before the original even made it to international theaters. Read that last sentence again. It was still on the international festival circuit when American studios decided to remake it, without ever bothering to try an American release of the original. What bothers me is that all three of these films ([Rec], Let the Right One In, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) had huge amounts of buzz and could have been successful domestically, if given the proper studio support. To me, it seems a lot worse than a lack of originality. It seems like a deliberate snubbing of foreign films. Xenophobia FTL.

  • I don’t know if it’s a snubbing of foreign films, necessarily, so much as a calculate move based on studies of American audiences. The type of people who find themselves reading and writing for a site like NNAR excluded, Americans in general don’t like subtitles and don’t like foreign things. My dad won’t watch a movie if it is entirely subtitled, as he doesn’t want to spend the whole time reading, and a lot of people are just xenophobic and don’t understand “why they can’t talk good ‘Merican English.”

    One exception is Pan’s Labyrinth was entirely subtitled and actually made abroad and was met with universal critical acclaim while also performing admirably at the box office (at least for a “thinking film,” which will typically gross less money, and deserves it’s own post for ranting).

    I can understand the reasoning behind remaking the movies for Americans, and I can still go out and netflix the original if I want to get the full experience. I’ve heard initial reports that besides being subtitled, Let Me In is a pretty faithful remake of Let The Right One In, so the American audiences will still get it in most of its glory.

    I think the much bigger problem with movie remakes is when they are either dumbed down or actioned up for Americans. This is what I like to call the Eddie Izzardization of movies, whereby the priorities and story lines of films are completely changed for their American versions to either make things easier for dumb Americans to understand or more action-packed to get them to the theater. I’m not sure if this phenomenon is a problem with Hollywood thinking Americans are dumber and more ADD than they are, or studies showing that we are actually dumber and have short attention spans. Either way, it makes me sad.

    • From what I’ve heard, Americans can’t read fast enough for subtitles o-O


    Rage. Also: the subtitle argument. The truth is, foreign films are hard and Americans are idiots. Sorry.

    • Third

      I was going to include the Death at a Funeral example, but somehow I felt like that was sorta different. Maybe because the original was in English, too, so it wasn’t the “Americans can’t read subtitles” issue, so much as it was the “Americans fail to understand British humor” issue.

  • Actually, I think it’s the same issue, but that’s because I don’t think the issue is just the subtitles. It’s the “not being American” and the “being challenging.” Think of how many great alternate endings wind up on the DVD extras rather than *in the film,* or how the ending of Watchmen was altered to include Nite Owl NOT BEING VERY COMFORTABLE WITH THIS, GUYS! and how, as you mention, Never Let Me Go clobbered you over the head with themes.