It is tempting to think that all Hollywood films are original, if only because Hollywood is the center of the movie universe for the western world. While remakes of English films are usually well-known and well documented, the movies that remake foreign-language films are not. For whatever reason, foreign films don’t do all that well with Western audiences. Subtitles are often seen as a distraction because they draw the eye away from the action. Even the styles of filmmaking from various countries are sometimes so different from Hollywood that general movie-goers might not love or appreciate it. That doesn’t stop Hollywood filmmakers from recognizing great films and great ideas from other countries and languages. A potential foreign remake gives Hollywood a license for printing money because they have a movie that has already gone through a test run. They can make changes to the areas they didn’t like or the spots that need a different cultural angle.
For many of the films on this list, the fact that they are remakes has not been widely discussed. That’s not to say that the studios were untruthful in any way, just that they likely avoided the topic as much as they could. Films feel better to audiences when they think they’re watching something original. For some reason, remakes feel a little tainted to film audiences, like a second running makes it a little dirty somehow. We all know about the big foreign remakes, films like The Ring (Ring), The Grudge (Ju-On) and Oldboy (Oldboy), but the films on this list are much more surprising. We’re also not talking about influenced films here; we’re talking straight remakes. So no, we won’t be mentioning Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and how much it resembles City of Fire. Let’s get right into it. Here are 15 movies you never knew were foreign remakes.
15. Scent of a Woman
The film that gave Al Pacino a Best Actor Oscar in 1992, Scent of a Woman is actually a remake of a 1972 Italian film called Profumo di donna. Both films were technically adapted for the screen from the Italian novel Il buio e il miele. Scent of a Woman was nominated for Best Picture, Martin Brest, the director, was nominated for Best Director and the screenplay was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. The material is very similar in both versions of the films, but one of the versions doesn’t have Al Pacino and that’s a big difference. The acting legend dominated the screen and captivated the audience. Chris O’Donnell performed admirably and Philip Seymour Hoffman was a nice surprise, but this one is all Pacino.
14. The Eye
The 2008 film, The Eye, starring Jessica Alba, is not the greatest film by any stretch. It’s made a little worse knowing it’s a remake of a hugely popular Hong Kong-Singaporean horror film, The Eye, directed by the Pang Brothers (Bangkok Dangerous). Unfortunately, outside of looking at Alba for over an hour, the film offers nothing for movie fans. Between the two, there is almost nothing that is different, except for the quality. The English film uses all of the same scare tactics as the original, but everything is a little watered down. The incredible atmosphere from the original is all but lost and Alba struggles to take command of the role, though she does look amazing as she fails.
In 2002, Christopher Nolan took the 1997 Norwegian film Insomnia, and made it his own. Stylistically, the films are quite similar, but the material is approached a little differently between the two films and that seems to give it new life for Nolan. The director of the original, Erik Skjoldbjærg, has said that he quite enjoys the remake and feels lucky to have had a director of Nolan’s caliber remake it because he did no harm to the original. The performances in the remake by Al Pacino and Robin Williams certainly help to make it a successful standalone film rather than a tired retread. In the end, the two films actually work quite well together because they don’t step on each other’s feet at all.
12. Let Me In
OK, so the fact that Let Me In is a remake isn’t exactly the best kept secret, but it may not be well-known just how close the two films are. Not two years removed from the Swedish film, Let The Right One In (2008), director Matt Reeves decided to remake it. While he would argue that, compared to the original film, his film is much closer to the novel, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Reeves’ film is almost a spitting image in style, feel and story, with a few exceptions. There a few extra cultural references in the American version as well as some 80s references to get people into the setting, but the major change is in the budget and the quality. It’s very obvious that Let Me In had a much larger budget to work with and the gore and violence are dialed up a bit compared to the original. Many people will argue that this is not necessary to make a movie good, but a significant portion of film audiences, particularly the younger fans, struggle to appreciate outdated or low-budget films. If we were adding up the quality scores of each pair of films on this list, these two films would be near the top.
11. A Fistful of Dollars
When Sergio Leone stole the plot for A Fistful of Dollars from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, no one really thought anything of it. It was clearly a remake and that was that. But then Leone opened his mouth and said that it wasn’t a remake at all. Wait a minute… If it’s not a remake, why is it the exact same movie set in a different place. Well then Leone went on to say that it was influenced by the 1929 novel, Red Harvest (which Kurosawa also acknowledged—though he said the 1931 novel, The Glass Key, was a greater influence). Leone also said all of those stories are influenced by A Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, so he’s ok in his theft. All of it is a bunch of malarkey. Leone was caught red-handed stealing a movie and he paid for it (rumors of the out-of-court settlement suggest he paid 15% of the movie’s profits to Kurosawa). Many filmmakers were influenced and inspired by Kurosawa, but none of them were so blatantly ignorant of their influence as Leone.
10. Funny Games
In 1997, Michael Haneke made the Austrian film, Funny Games, but it wasn’t met with the type of reception that he wanted or hoped for. The film itself is largely a critique of American horror films, so the fact that it was generally missed by American audiences didn’t help spread its message. Because of this, Haneke went back five years later and made a shot-for-shot remake with an American cast (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Bradley Corbet). This new Funny Games (2002) used the same Austrian set, but the exterior shots were filmed in Long Island, New York. Everything about the film is exactly the same. There are essentially no noticeable differences. Even though the film wasn’t met with the greatest reception, Haneke achieved his goals for the film. He did say that if it was a huge success that means it wasn’t understood. So technically he was successful at being somewhat unsuccessful?
9. The Sound of Music
In 1956, the rights to Maria von Trapp’s memoirs were swindled away from her for next to nothing and the German film, The Trapp Family was made. This early version of The Sound of Music was a romping success in Germany and it showed something promising to the American Studios. From this film, the more fictionalized Broadway musical, The Sound of Music (1959), was made and it was massive during its run. Then, in 1965, the American film was finally made after years of trying to secure the rights. The film became a massive success almost everywhere it was filmed, at home and internationally, everywhere except for Austria and Germany. In these places, not only was the original film much preferred, the Austrians and Germans took issue over the changed costumes, which were not authentic, and the changes to the Nazi side of the story. Still to this day, The Sound of Music is not much loved by those audiences.
8. The Departed
The incredible Martin Scorsese film, The Departed, is actually a remake of the Hong Kong crime-thriller, Infernal Affairs, which follows the double infiltration of the Triad and the Hong Kong police department. After the Hong Kong film gained some huge attention, often cited as one of the better Hong Kong films ever, Brad Pitt’s production company picked up the rights to film a remake. The subject material was simply transferred to an American setting (Boston gang and police department). It certainly helps to get a director of Scorsese’s ilk to adapt it, plus the all-star cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson, to name a few. Both films have gone on to do wonders in their respective markets.
7. 12 Monkeys
By no means a direct remake, Terry Gilliam‘s 1995 film, 12 Monkeys, borrows several themes and much of the concept from the French short film, La Jetée. The story goes that the Writer’s Guild was not happy with even crediting La Jetée with an “inspired by” credit, but it’s quite clear that the story is very much an extended version of the French short film. One of the producers for 12 Monkeys was a massive fan of the 1962 short film, made up almost completely of photographs, so he pitched it to the studios. Gilliam was picked up for his ability to deal with complex and twisted themes (see Brazil), even though he didn’t write the script (something he almost always does). While 12 Monkeys is only inspired by, La Jetée, it deserves to be on this list because of how much of the original movie lasted in the remake. It is said that The Time Traveller’s Wife is also inspired by this interesting short film.
6. The Birdcage
The 1996 Mike Nichols‘ film, The Birdcage, was initially seen as an unnecessary remake of the 1978 Franco-Italian film, La Cage aux Folles—itself a film adaptation of the 1973 play of the same name. Today, at least in America, the original film has been largely forgotten, thanks in large part to the great performances from Robin Williams, Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane. The silly comedy, The Birdcage was praised early on for its treatment of gay stereotypes on the big screen and it received fairly decent reviews. In terms of material, the films in both languages are quite similar, but, at least for American audiences, the quality of the comedians in the remake make it much more relatable.
5. Vanilla Sky
It might surprise you to learn that the 2001 film, Vanilla Sky, is actually a remake of a 1997 Spanish film, Open Your Eyes. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar (The Others), the original film Open Your Eyes, starred Penelope Cruz, in the role she would reprise in the English film, Vanilla Sky. The two films are very similar, though the Cameron Crowe version changes the ending up quite a bit. The big difference between the two is that only one has Tom Cruise, and, since Tom Cruise is actually a crazy person, his role in the English film is very convincing. The story was written by Amenábar and because of its plot and various confusing themes, it has been compared to—or even accused of being influenced by—Life Is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Both films have garnered attention by fans of the surreal, but the American remake has been more heavily criticized by critics.
You don’t often see remakes of successful Icelandic films, but that’s exactly what the 2011 film, Contraband is. The original film, Reykjavík-Rotterdam was released in 2008 and starred Baltasar Kormákur. It received mainly positive reviews from critics and did quite well on the award circuit. The American remake was picked up by the studios and was directed by none other than Baltasar Kormákur, the star of the original film. Well despite the star power of Mark Wahlberg, the remake was not much loved by American audiences. It might have been the most predictable heist-type movie of the century so far, and it had a stupidly convoluted story which tried to confuse viewers to camouflage its predictability.
3. Some Like It Hot
You might not know it, but the classic comedy Some Like It Hot is a remake of the 1935/36 French film, Fanfare of Love. Billy Wilder, the director and screenwriter of Some Like It Hot, knew he wanted to remake the French film, but he was unable to find a version of the script. Therefore, he got a hold of the German remake, Fanfaren der Liebe, and remade that film. The films do vary in material, but it’s quite obvious that they are very closely related. Some Like It Hot, with a cast of Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, was a massive success at the time. Since the film deals with themes that were thought to be taboo at the time, themes like cross-dressing and homosexuality, it was produced without going through the proper censorship channels. The film’s success would eventually lead to the acceptance of these type of “moral” themes and the collapse of the “Hays Code,” which restricted these elements.
2. Eight Below
The tragic Disney story of the eight sled dogs that were left behind at an Antarctica base camp, Eight Below could have been a lot more tragic. In the Disney version, eight dogs are left behind and six survive for Paul Walker to return to. This film is actually a remake of the Japanese film, Antarctica, in which 15 dogs are left behind but only two dogs survive… Not as happy a story as Disney would lead us to believe. The original, 1983 film, tells the true story of the 1958 Japanese mission to the South Pole. When you hear the sad details, it becomes pretty straightforward why Disney left out 7 dogs (they were never even able to break off of their chains and go on that crazy journey). Many of the details of how six of the other eight dogs died or even how the two dogs survived are unknown, so both films fictionalize most of the dogs’ journeys, but the stories are remarkable nonetheless.
1. The Uninvited
An American remake of the 2003 South Korean K-horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Uninvited gave fans the opposite of what they wanted. After the colossal success of the South Korean film, you would expect a half decent movie to come out in the remake, but it is generally considered a massive failure. A Tale of Two Sisters is considered to be one of the best K-horror films ever made and one of the better horror movies in general. The plot is loosely based on a fairy tale, but the execution of the film is near perfect. The American remake, released in 2009 was predictable, lazy and boring. Even if you had no idea what the original was, the plot twist was so obvious it was actually difficult to guess because it seemed so much like a red herring.