American Remakes of Foreign Films: A Threat to Foreign Culture?

Extract from my MA dissertation

ImageConstantine Verevis explains how film remakes are considered inferior in comparison to the original. He expresses this view by explaining, ‘the vast majority of critical accounts… understand remaking as a one-way process: a movement from authenticity to imitation, from the superior self-identity of the original to the debased resemblance of the copy.’ (2006: 58) Verevis here expresses the view that the remake is an imitation of authenticity, an inferior reproduction of a superior original. This raises the question, can any film be granted the credit of originality? Especially if the ‘original’ is based on a set of conventions, that are a normative practice in filmmaking. Despite this issue, any film granted the status of originality is recognised for its authenticity and creativity, and the remake is often disadvantaged by this status. Carolyn A. Durham describes this view in relation to Hollywood remakes of French films explaining that, ‘Hollywood remakes are condemned for their inferiority to- and thus, for their difference from- the French films on which they are modeled, they are simultaneously accused of not being different enough.’ (1998: 11) Durham highlights an unbalanced opinion over American remakes and their foreign originals. However, Durham raises another issue in the protective nature of a national cinemas representation of its national and cultural identity, which is overshadowed by the dominance of Hollywood. In essence a national cinema loses its distinctiveness as the remake conforms to the methods of Hollywood practices, it appropriates a foreign culture. Forrest and Koos explain, ‘cultural difference is the ultimate obstacle to the homogenizing culture of Hollywood.’ (2002: 7) Forrest and Koos suggest that Hollywood is unable to translate the uniqueness of their foreign originals; for example, they instead adapt the cultural differences making them universally recognised. They go on to suggest that the untranslatability of cultural elements damages the authenticity of the original and this is why there is a dislike toward American remakes of foreign films.

As well as the challenging differences in culture Forrest and Koos express the view that European film resembles a finer model to American films. They explain, ‘We are led to believe that European films adapt, readapt, cite, pay homage to, parody, but do not remake, the former activities being linked to artistic and literary traditions of high culture, the latter being representative of American films and their ties to commerce and commercial interests.’ (Forrest and Koos, 2002: 29) The dominance and commercial incentives which fuel Hollywood overshadows any artistic tendencies which prevail in its films, instead the lesser known European film industry strives to succeed in this role. Verevis offers an explanation for why European films are superior to American ones. He explains, foreign films are dispossessed of ‘local detail’ and ‘political content’ to exploit new (English-language) markets… remaking is not only evidence of Hollywood being an ‘aesthetic copy-cat’, but (worse) of ‘cultural imperialism’ and ‘terroristic marketing practices’ designed to block an original’s competition in the US market.’ (2006: 3) Verevis expresses the view that an original text loses its uniqueness as Hollywood takes advantage of foreign productions by debasing them of their identity in order to make them more accessible to an English speaking audience. He emphasises another point, in that the American remake is designed to maintain Hollywood’s global dominance by replacing the original with its own imitation, by doing so the richness of the original is lost.

The assumptions of the views that have been discussed point to Hollywood prioritising success over substance, debasing originals of their artistic and cultural specificity. Dominic Strinati explains, ‘surface and style… are said to predominate at the expense of content, substance and meaning.’ (2004: 207) Verevis’s thoughts indicate the belief that the original is valued more than any reproduction; he attacks the superficial elements which fuel Hollywood to remake foreign films.  As Strinati’s comment suggests, there is a belief that American films are more style than substance, this is supported by Forrest and Koos previously mentioned views. They explained that American remakes challenge the distinguishing cultural features of a foreign film, which results in an almost automatic dislike for the American production. Of course, this view is only relevant for an audience which shares a knowledge or awareness of the original. Verevis explains that viewers who have a limited knowledge or none at all of the original text ‘may understand a new version (a remake) through its reinscription of generic elements, taking the genre as a whole (rather than a particular example of it) as the film’s intertextual base.’ (2006: 146) This again refers to the issues previously discussed concerning the similar qualities shared between a remake and genre. His comments also outline the natural process of Hollywood films, driven by the familiar which Verevis describes as conventions of genre.

However, the above views share the assumption that foreign films purposely represent their national and cultural identity through their films, in order to differentiate and rival the dominance of Hollywood. Andrew Higson expresses this concern; ‘the concept of a national cinema has almost invariably been mobilised as a strategy of cultural (and economic) resistance; a means of asserting national autonomy in the face of (usually) Hollywood’s international dominance.’ (2002: 133) In other words national cinema evokes a sense of otherness to rival the domination of the American film industry. Jinhee Choi explains Benedict Anderson’s concept of a nation as an imagined community. ‘Anderson claims that a nation is an imagined community that provides its members with a sense of identity and belonging. Such an identity… is achieved through the consumption of the products of modern print culture.’ She continues to explain, ‘as national history unfolds in newspapers, literature, and the media against the backdrop of familiar settings and locales, readers acquire a sense of community marked by national boundaries as well as a sense of shared history and destiny.’ (2005: 312) She goes on to explain that Anderson’s views are relative to film, which can also evoke a sense of national identity within the viewer.

This is reminiscent of the view shared by Dominic Strinati, who explains, ‘popular culture signs and media images increasingly dominate our sense of reality, and the way we define ourselves and the world around us.’ (2004: 205) He goes on to note postmodern theory ‘is an attempt to understand a media-saturated society.’ (2004:206) Tim Woods briefly discusses Fredric Jameson’s view on postmodern culture. Jameson’s ‘terms are largely derived from his conviction that postmodern culture ushers in a new ‘depthlessness’, celebrating ‘surfaces’ in a denial of material history and an effacement of the historical past.’ (Tim Woods, 1991: 211) Firstly, Strinati’s comments express the view that we define ourselves and the world around us by our exposure to media images, yet Wood’s describes Jameson’s view that these images distort our sense of reality by manipulating and shaping our understanding of reality. Jean Baudrillard best expresses this view through what he terms hyperreality, which he defines as ‘a real without origin or reality’. (1994: 1) Choi explains that ‘if national identity as represented in film is fictional in a sense that it is constructed, it can still have causal influence on the viewer.’ (2005: 313) She goes on to explain that ‘the apparent authenticity of a culture represented on film may lead the viewer to imagine, however unwarrantedly, that he or she has been participating in unique cultural practices.’ (2005: 313) This representation of national and cultural identity is superficial.

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