The success of any foreign film or television show immediately puts it on Hollywood’s radar. If a concept worked, if it made money and won awards, it’s highly likely to soon be eyeballed by big studios seeking to not merely recapture lightning in a bottle, but to turn a comparatively small success story into a bona fide blockbuster.
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — recently nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award — is the latest such project being considered for stateside reimagining. Joon-ho is reportedly teaming up with writer-director Adam McKay to make a television version of the film for HBO.
For decades, negative rhetoric has shrouded this kind of remaking. US reproductions are routinely slammed by critics as loud and boisterous; they take small and beautiful foreign films and turn them into sanitised, simplified, white-washed American nightmares filled with too-beautiful people and too-happy endings.
I’d like to mount a counter case. Not only are such productions inevitable, but, far from degrading a foreign original, American remakes in fact increase the profile of the first film and help to secure its place in cinema history.
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For a foreign film, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite has done exceptionally well with critics and award nominations. But for all its accomplishments, it’s not a film that can compete financially with English-language offerings.
Outside of a foreign film’s country of production, distribution is notoriously low. Multiplexes almost never show foreign content because the assumption is that audiences just don’t pay to read subtitles.
So unless you live in a big city with a decent art cinema, your access to South Korean content on the big screen is low.
Big studios see Parasite’s success and are convinced that there’s more money to be made from the story. An American spin would capitalise on the cultural chatter around the original while targeting both a domestic multiplex crowd and a lucrative global audience who want slick Hollywood films.
So what’s the problem here? Why the furore?
First, there’s a belief that Parasite is just such a tremendous film that everyone should see it in the way that Bong Joon-ho intended: subtitles, Korean faces, Seoul filming locations and all. Some argue that making a Hollywood version merely panders to the worst stereotypes of English-speaking audiences. I don’t disagree. I saw Parasite; I thought it was terrific, and agree it’s a very fine excuse to go to the movies.
History, however, indicates that this likely won’t happen. Also, physically forcing people into cinemas is frowned upon.
There are multiple reasons — from subtitle-aversion, to racism to a bias towards films filled with chiseled, Lycra-clad US celebrities — to believe that a film like Parasite simply won’t ever yield the box office of a blockbuster American flick.
Second, there’s a widespread, if misguided, belief that reproduction cheapens an original. That a new version takes something from the first film.
But this is magical thinking. A second version can never steal from the first. The first will always be there — can always be rewatched and nostalgia triggered at any time — and the fondness we had for an original remains untarnished.
Third, there’s a belief that the first film will somehow be financially short-changed by the mere existence of a remake, as though through reproduction the original misses out on money.
Unless an idea is outright stolen — without suitable attribution paid or rights purchased — this is folly. The South Korean Parasite’s box office dollars are fixed; either it made money or it didn’t.
A new version can’t burgle from the original’s kitty as the films are never in direct competition. In fact, not only does the original make more money from selling the rights to reproduction, but a new market for that first film opens up.
When Greta Gerwig’s Little Women was released, articles compared the new version with the older ones, providing details of where fans could watch the earlier incarnations. The same thing happened with the 2018 version of A Star is Born.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. In the early 1990s when new takes on Father of the Bride and Cape Fear were released, a spike in rentals of their predecessors was reported. When the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out, older, dustier Hood productions were reissued by studios seeking to cash-in on a rediscovered Sherwood Forest fetish.
With the 1998 Psycho came Universal’s chance to flog their Hitchcock back catalogue. Reproduction of Parasite guarantees renewed interest in the original: from critics and scholars, but also from those many viewers who didn’t see it in the cinema, but — thanks to streaming services — now have an opportunity to do so effortlessly from the comfort of their couch.
For every US remake of a foreign hit that has financially worked — from The Birdcage to Scent of a Woman to The Departed — exist a slew of failures: the butchered American riffs on Life on Mars and Broadchurch are just two of many awful examples. But the quality of a reproduction matters little.
If a remake is good, the profile of the original elevates and the audience likely increases. And if the remake is rubbish, the original’s stock goes up — it’s canonised as the far superior predecessor — and a disappointed audience seeks out the better first.
Far from being something bad, viewed pragmatically, remaking foreign titles is a positive, potentially lucrative and certainly legacy-solidifying thing for international productions.
Lauren Rosewarne is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her 11th book — Why We Remake: The Politics, Economics and Emotions of Film and TV Remakes — will be published in 2020 by Routledge.