Foreign Remakes and an Assumption About American Cultural Literacy

Force Majeure Movie

The most prevalent photo from Force Majeure is the shot of the avalanche coming down the mountain toward the blissful vacationers. The one above – featuring what appears to be Swedish Jason Sudeikis, Norwegian Bridget Moynahan and two children who hate oral hygiene – is far closer to the spirit of the film. It’s a slow trek uphill before the big catastrophe that sets everything in motion, and even after that, it’s a testament to how funny/nerve-shearing awkward silences can be. The avalanche isn’t just the biggest action of the movie, it’s the only action, and that will undoubtedly change when it’s remade by Fox Searchlight. Not that they’ll add explosions, or anything. They’ll simply have to add more more energy. Force Majeure is a movie where the scenarios are quiet, and the audience is loud.

Scoring Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the project is an eyebrow raiser in the best way (so hopefully that sticks), and there’s promise, but I’ll eat Werner Herzog’s shoe if they keep in the stunning amount of silence and uncomfortable build-up that the original has. I’d even be surprised if they resist giving the married couple at the heart of the movie more backstory. Or resist squeezing into a tighter three-act structure where the outcome has more significance and meaning than the original’s microcosm nudging finale.

I understand the temptation to quickly remake foreign films with momentum, but every time it happens I pick up the distinct implication that producers assume a fundamental gap in American movie literacy. This thing is great, but you won’t watch it, so we’ll change the wrapper so that you will.

After all, what’s the point of remaking a 2014 Franco-Scandanavian comedy if not to repackage it in a way that you think will resonate more with Americans? Americans don’t like movies in not-English, so make it in English. American like familiar faces, so hire familiar faces. Americans don’t like slow-burns with large segments focused on scenery, so punch it up and give it more energy.

That last one is an assumption, too, but it’s not outlandish, and you get the point. It’s a situation where the movie and its idea were big enough successes to score name-recognition points but not successful enough to score bigger box office points as is.

On that front, let’s look to Let the Right One In for a moment. It was a foreign movie practically made for remaking, and it existed at the beginning of a new trend in co-opting dramas and in the middle of a long history of co-opting horror from other shores. It scored $11m, and most fans scoffed when a remake was announced so quickly. Let Me In got a familiar cast, an Americanized location, and the original was already structured in a horror style Americans are familiar with (which added to the confusion over why it would be remade at all, except how scary subtitles are). Then a funny thing happened. At $24m, it barely made back its budget, so from a financial standpoint, remaking it was a terrible idea, but from an artistic standpoint, Matt Reeves managed to justify the decision by making a gorgeous, thrilling, different-enough entry. Life’s little ironies.

(Also, remaking foreign movies is rarely a slam dunk from a financial perspective anyway, but studios keep doing it.)

Force Majeure is a different animal in a few ways. The most pressing is that it’s a comedy – a fact only magnified by the tone, structure and source (i.e. the vulnerability created by traditional masculinity’s impossible standard) of this particular movie’s laughs.

Of course there are cultural differences inherent in watching movies from other countries, but that’s part of the enjoyment – discovering something new, challenging tired formulas and doing it all with the safety net that somebody finds it funny/moving. Even if you don’t share the appreciation, you can find out why it works for others fairly easily.

As you might have guessed by now, the twist here is that I don’t necessarily disagree with the assumption producers of foreign remakes are making. We Americans don’t watch enough foreign films. We just don’t. The truth is that Force Majeure has already been released here, and it’s not like we ran red lights in order to get to the theater. Fox Searchlight also wasn’t its distributor so scoring remake rights is the best option for a group interested in profiting from a movie that already exists without being able to profit from it directly. Maybe they like the name recognition, or maybe they simply like the core idea and want to build a comedy around it that works for a local audience.

There are a lot of factors involved in these decisions (and who knows if what I’m assuming will be called The Avalanche or The Ski Trip will even get made), but at the core of each of these foreign remakes is at least a hint at an ugly truth about an American unwillingness to see movies that aren’t our own.