The news last week that Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig will be remaking Toni Erdmann took a lot of people by surprise - mostly because the idea seems not just unnecessary but impossible. Can that story even work removed from its distinctly European setting? And what about its mammoth running time?
Hollywood remakes foreign films all the time, of course - The Magnificent Seven sprang from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, after all. To put the new Toni Erdmann in context, we've assembled a few other examples of narrative appropriation to see how it all worked out.
Naomi Watts in The Ring (2002)
The Ring (2002) based on Ringu (1998)
Based on Koji Suzuki's ingenious novel, Hideo Nakata's Ringu was a cult sensation - its gimmick of a cursed videotape only amplified by the fact that the movie was itself passed from fan to fan in North America on bootleg VHS tapes. For the American remake, director Gore Verbinski riffed on both Suzuki's novel and Nakata's adaptation, lifting visual references, adding new elements of his own and fleshing out the relationship between Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson's estranged couple just enough to add a new level of emotional tension to all the supernatural stuff.
The result set a bar so high that no other Ring movie has measured up - not even The Ring Two, which Nakata came to America to direct, or the paltry new sequel, Rings. NW
Sorcerer (1977), based on The Wages Of Fear (1953)
Once difficult to find, William Friedkin's remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic underwent a restoration and critical reappraisal a few years back. Four criminal outcasts meet in a South American hellhole and transport six crates of unstable dynamite on rickety trucks through the jungle in this relentlessly cynical, nasty and macho antidote to the trite "we-are-all-connected" narratives. Its philosophical underpinnings, great use of locations and thrillingly grimy climax make it a masterpiece in its own right. KR
Chloë Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee in Let Me In
Let Me In (2010), based on Let The Right One In (2008)
Cloverfield director Matt Reeves relocated the Swedish coming-of-age horror flick (originally based on a 2004 novel) about a bullied boy and his bloodthirsty friend from Stockholm to Reagan-era New Mexico, but kept the minimalist aesthetic of Tomas Alfredson's earlier film. These decisions made it one of the more successful recent European-to-American remakes, and the inclusion of Reagan's controversial "Evil Empire" speech to an evangelical group gave the story a subversive and distinctly American psycho-political subtext. Seven years later, it's more relevant than ever. KR
The Vanishing (1993), based on the 1988 original
George Sluzier's Dutch thriller about a young man obsessed with the circumstances of his girlfriend's disappearance, and the stranger who says he can lead him to the truth, was a critical darling and an art house smash in the late 80s, and for good reason: it's a meticulously constructed mystery that builds to an unforgettable ending.
The rights were snapped up by 20th Century Fox in a heartbeat, and the studio hired actor Todd Graff to write the adaptation and Sluzier himself to direct. Things looked even better when Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges were cast as the two leads. But Bridges gives a mannered, hammy performance that works against everything Sluzier did the first time around. The remake also sells out the original's merciless ending, but by that point you don't even care. NW
Shall We Dance (2004), based on the 1996 original
Some films are so culturally specific, they make no sense when relocated. That's the case with this pic about a married Tokyo accountant (the soulful Koji Yakusho) who's reinvigorated when he discovers Western ballroom dancing.
Transplanting the setting to Chicago and putting silver fox Richard Gere in the role, with J-Lo as his attractive instructor, Peter Chelsom turned it into just another stop-and-smell-the-flowers film. There's no American equivalent to the Japanese salaryman, and dancing, even in the mid-00s, was ubiquitous, watering down the original's potency - and charm. GS
Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage (1996).
The Birdcage (1996), based on La Cage Aux Folles (1978)
It took almost 20 years for the American remake of the hit French comedy to make it to the big screen - typical of the U.S. industry's discomfort with a flaming gay narrative. Mike Nichols works too hard to make it unthreatening, and Nathan Lane and Robin Williams camp it up way more than necessary.
It's the story of a gay couple who try to hide their real relationship - and their ownership of the titular queer club - from their right-wing soon-to-be in-laws. The original French film is a trifle, and effortlessly charming, while the American version aims to be winning and falls flat. SGC
Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), based on the 2009 original
Here's another example of a completely unnecessary remake.
The original adaptation by Neils Arden Oplev features Swedish star Michael Nyquist as Mikael, a journalist unable to solve the mystery of a woman's disappearance without the help of angry young hacker Lisbeth Salander (the one with the tattoo, played by Noomi Rapace). David Fincher's American version stars Daniel Craig and, typical of America's obsession with high-powered macho heroes (to say nothing of Craig's Bond image), makes him much less passive than his Swedish counterpart.
Fincher claims he never saw the Swedish version, but it's obvious that the art direction team did. Even so, they aren't able to replicate the menacing mood of the Swedish film that made you shiver every time Mikael crosses the bridge toward the small-town scene of the crime. SGC