Gained in translation: top 10 adaptations of foreign films

5 Jun

We’ve all heard of “lost in translation”. But what about “gained in translation”? It can happen. A good friend, Frank Wynne, is an award-winning translator of novels who often picks up errors and infelicities and corrects them along the way. I can’t always judge the quality of the original prose, but I can say his books read wonderfully.

What of film? I was asked this question by someone at www.smartling.com, who specialise in translation software. They clearly want to promote their product (so: Smartling! Smartling! Smartling!), but since I find the question intriguing, I’m happy to answer. Do please add your tuppence-worth in the Comments section.

There is a tendency to regard Hollywood adaptations of foreign films as lazy knock-offs. Whatever induced them to take Godard’s joyful New Wave game-changer A Bout de Souffle and remake it as the hollow 1980s Richard Gere vehicle Breathless? But there are honourable exceptions. Here’s my Top 10, in no particular order:

for-a-fistful-of-dollars-pictures-12A Fistful of Dollars (1964). This is the film that single-handedly invented the Spaghetti Western genre, and turned Clint Eastwood from the clean-cut, yawnsome hunk of TV’s Rawhide to an edgy counter-cultural anti-hero. It is also heavily based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a fact which landed director Sergio Leone with a hefty lawsuit. But since Kurosawa himself was inspired by Westerns, notably the films of John Ford, perhaps it’s a fair cultural trade.

magseven-e1314596581742The Magnificent Seven (1960). I couldn’t claim that this is better, artistically, than Kurosawa’s masterly The Seven Samurai, on which it is based (the original script was more faithful than what the studio eventually produced). But it was a classic of its time. A remake is due in 2017.

a-the-departed-HD-WallpaperThe Departed (2006). For me, the Hong Kong original, Internal Affairs, is tighter than the Scorsese version, though it finally won him the Best Director Oscar he’d been denied for so long. But this is certainly a gripping piece of film-making, with the wonderful central premise intact: an undercover police agent is placed within a criminal gang; a gangster is placed undercover within the police force; each must uncover the other without blowing their cover. Confused much?

willis12 Monkeys (1995). Great though the French short La Jetée is, 12 Monkeys goes the Whole Gilliam, taking Hollywood’s then biggest action star (Bruce Willis) and weaving around him a nigh-on incomprehensible, genre-bending dystopian sci-fi with philosophical heft.

true-lies-arnold-schwarzenegger-jamie-lee-curtis1True Lies (1994). If you like Arnie films (and I do, I do!), this loose remake of 1991’s La Totale is a superior example of the genre. Directed and written by James Cameron, it was at the time the most expensive movie ever made. Until Titanic, of course.

Vanilla_Sky_G_01Vanilla Sky (2001). Amenábar’s original Open Your Eyes was excellent, but Vanilla Sky has direction from Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise at the peak of his powers, and even had the good grace to retain Penélope Cruz in her original role. How the BBC’s otherwise wonderful Life on Mars thought it could get away with lifting the rooftop scenes after not one but two films had used it, however, I don’t know.

InsomniaInsomnia (2002). I haven’t seen the apparently excellent Norwegian film on which this is faithfully based, but Christopher Nolan’s adaptation is certainly a goodie. It contains one of Robin Williams’ least annoying roles, and even Pacino is prevented from going over the top.

Some_like_it_hotSome Like It Hot (1959). I haven’t seen the 1951 original of this, either: Fanfaren der Liebe. But no comedy could possibly beat the chemistry of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, Marilyn Monroe at Peak Sex, and the genius of director Billy Wilder. “Nobody’s perfect”? This film is.

Let-Me-In---2010-007Let Me In (2010). There’s no question that the original modern vampire pic Let The Right One In was better. But the adaptation that followed it with indecent haste was not far off it, thanks largely to a typically precocious performance by Chloë Grace Moretz.

birdcageThe Birdcage (1996). This kind of ultra-broad farce is not really my cup of tea; and the American adaptation is even broader than the French La Cage Aux Folles. All the same, it can be a joy to see Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, as the drag queen who has to play it straight to impress their son’s potential in-laws, go way over the top. Hank Azaria as the butler is flat-out hilarious.

Do you prefer The Ring to Ringu? Clooney’s Solaris to Tarkovsky’s? Have your say in Comments, below.

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3 Responses to “Gained in translation: top 10 adaptations of foreign films”

  1. Tom June 6, 2015 at 1:47 am #

    xcept I see you couldn’t come up with 10 that actually improved on the originals, ha! Some Like It Hot might be one example though I haven’t seen whatever it was based on. I also love Jim McBride’s romantic paean to kitsch, Breathless, much more than True Lies, Insomnia or Vanilla Sky for sure. I do agree that Let Me In is underrated (even the title is an improvement). I suppose one could make case for All That Jazz as a worthy make over for 8 1/2, and some of Woody Allen’s films are nearly remakes of Bergman, but good in their own right (scarcely better). But Truffaut was right when he complained people always remake good films, when it would make more sense to remake movies that didn’t quite come off – and fix them.

  2. dominicwells June 6, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    True! But they at least equal (or nearly) the originals. I think the list of remakes, rather than adaptations, that are improvements would be longer. Interesting point about All That Jazz. Like Breathless, I haven’t seen it since it first came out in the cinema. And at 16, I certainly hadn’t yet seen 8 1/2 to compare it to! I’ll rewatch them both next time I stumble across them, thanks.

  3. Robinzon Post June 6, 2015 at 7:30 pm #

    For example ‘Ocean’s 11’: I first saw the ‘George Clooney’ one, and I said ‘this one is entertaining, but the old one must be better, because, you know, it is old and stuff’. And then I saw the original one, and realised it is from another time, when films were made a bit differently, slower rhythm, without dialogue spitfire (which is completely annoying in tv series of today, but still, I am more used to that than to old school). So I liked the newer one better.
    When you mention Solaris – to me, those are 2 completely different films, I do not observe them as original and remake; Tarkovski’s is focused more on contemplation and suspense, and ‘George Clooney’s’ on emotions, whereas the novel is completely scifi (that is what I found in them).

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