With the commercial success and awards recognition of foreign-language films like Roma, Parasite, The Farewell, and Minari (the latter two are partially in English) in the U.S. over the past three years, debates about subtitles, dubbing, the descriptor “foreign” and English-language film adaptations have been resurfacing online, with users reevaluating our relationships with international works of art.
A version of this conversation appeared again on social media this week after Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson’s production company Appian Way, along with Endeavor Content and Makeready, announced that they would be developing an English-language remake of the Danish film Another Round—about a group of teachers who embark on a binge-drinking experiment as a potential star vehicle for the Wolf of Wall Street actor. Just a day after director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg took home Best International Film at the 93rd Academy Awards for his beloved and incessantly memed comedy-drama, fans of the original were less than enthused about the announcement of the adaptation on Twitter.
“There's no rhyme or reason to remake ANOTHER ROUND,” said one user. “The film is accessible af. It’s literally right on Hulu. International films have a greater reach than ever before in America because of growing interest in world cinema in audiences. We don’t need a fucking American remake.”
Most complaints echoed the sentiment above—that an English-language remake simply isn’t necessary with the accessibility of streaming and the availability of subtitles. Users also argued that the film’s plot, about a group of teachers testing a theory that being drunk all the time will enhance their lives, is specific to the culture of alcohol consumption in Denmark and would lose the essence of its story if translated for an American audience. There’s also the fact that the film’s Danish lead Mads Mikkelsen, who starred on NBC’s Hannibal in the titular role, can also speak fluent English, which undermines a need for recasting.
The uproar over this announcement would give an outsider the impression that American remakes of popular or critically acclaimed foreign movies are a new trend in Hollywood when, in fact, the U.S. has a long history of adapting successful (and unsuccessful) films from other countries, with Martin Scorsese’s The Departed—an adaptation of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs—and David Fincher’s 2011 remake of the Swedish film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo being just two popular examples. Countries outside of the U.S. with robust film industries such as India, Nigeria, Japan, China, and Italy also routinely churn out their own versions of American movies translated to their national languages and narratively altered to speak to their specific cultures, such as the 2010 Japanese remake of Ghost and a 1999 Indian remake of The Silence of The Lambs. One of my favorite foreign films, The Seduction of Mimi by Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, is loosely adapted from the 1977 American comedy Which Way Is Up? starring Richard Pryor.
But in light of Hollywood’s recent embrace of certain international films, particularly Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which became the first foreign film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the first South Korean film to receive any attention from the Academy at all, folks seem to have become more enlightened—or at least more vocal—about the xenophobic barriers and prejudiced consumption habits that keep American viewers from enjoying non-English films, and voting bodies from awarding these films and their actors. Dually poetic and scathing soundbites from Bong throughout the 2020 awards season, urging Americans and English speakers to “overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” also served as a catalyst for this criticism. Interestingly though, before Parasite had swept the Oscars but won practically every precursor award and amassed huge box office sales, Bong seemingly became a victim of the Western myopia he had so incisively dragged when HBO announced a limited series adaptation of his film from writer and director Adam McKay in January of last year.
While Bong has co-signed the television adaptation—as did Vinterberg for his film’s remake—serving as an executive producer, and confirmed that the series will be an original story within the fictional world of Parasite, the announcement still spurred accusations of typical Hollywood whitewashing (actor Mark Ruffalo is set to star).
In an article for Esquire, writer Olivia Ovenden argued the needlessness of an Americanized version of the satirical thriller.
“It’s entirely possible to tell these stories in English, or about an American family, but doing so begs the question of: why? Foreign cinema can transport us to worlds we might not otherwise see and encourages empathy for people who don’t look like us at a time when it’s dearly needed. The setting and the language might not be familiar, but the experiences and the humanity are.”
An American spin-off, as others have also pointed out, would require the producers and writers to consider the generational, racialized existence of poverty and social stratification in the United States that differs from the sort of classism Bong depicts in his South Korean story, where race is not remarked on. To many fans of the original film though, whether or not McKay—whose liberal punditry has become a defining quality of his work—and Bong can successfully pull this off is irrelevant.
The truth is, there’s a specific set of implications that exist when Hollywood participates in this cultural exchange that smaller, less globally powerful countries don’t necessarily bring to the table, even when a racial element is removed, as with the remaking of Another Round. It’s still an active debate among film communities of who gets to co-opt what stories. But as writer Adesola Thomas notes in an article for Paste, “because of America’s history of economic and cultural imperialism,” Americanized remakes, particularly the handful that we’ve decided are worthy of consumption and acclaim, can often read as a “gesture of dominance” as opposed to an inspired artistic expression or a filmmaker spreading the gospel of the original film. It goes without saying that it also feeds into xenophobia and racism (in the case of non-white countries) and encourages a sort of narcissism central to American patriotism that tells us not to empathize with people outside of our own borders.
On the flip side of that notion about empathy—and what Ovenden discusses in her article for Esquire—is a problematic tendency among well-meaning white Americans, particularly at the height of Black Lives Matter and other social movements led by people of color, to confuse their consumption of non-white, non-American media for activism and solely look at diverse works of art through a political lens. It’s a question that critics like Lauren Michele Jackson and Emily VanDerWerff have been grappling with recently, of whether that approach to art is truly as progressive and in service to the artists as we assume it is.
The underlying point of anxiety in both the Another Round and Parasite debacles seems to be that the American remakes will obscure or discourage people from seeking out their brilliant, presumably better originals. A simple guesstimate is that an American remake of Another Round will almost certainly introduce a number of people—who knows how big or how small—who otherwise wouldn’t have known about it or been interested in it to the original text. Nevertheless, the problem still remains: whether we find out about these non-English films through their American remakes or the publicity they both received from their Oscar wins, we’re still in a place as a country where we have to be encouraged or convinced to watch these films, primarily through the validation of our highly exclusive, money-driven awards system, rather than having the natural urge to seek them out the way we do English-language films.
Hollywood should certainly do a better job of supporting international filmmakers, distributing more non-English language films, and encouraging the use of subtitles. But if someone is truly interested in diversifying their cinematic taste, particularly with the convenience of streaming, they’ll do that small bit of work themselves.