Remaking a foreign film for an American audience can be a difficult task. One example of a successful American remake of a movie from another country is 2009’s Brothers. Based on a Danish film, it tells the story of three characters caught in a very tangled web of deceit, lies, and emotions, when one of them is presumed dead in Afghanistan.
Like Brothers, the film The Departed is another successful American remake of a movie from another country. While this film maintained the basic plot of its Hong Kong-counterpart, the cultural details were altered substantially. The film demonstrated that telling the same story for a new audience often requires making certain changes to ensure it resonates.
On the other hand, the American remake of the French/Dutch production The Vanishing did not resonate with audiences despite the fact that it closely copied the original, which has a reputation as one of the most effective thrillers of all time. The American version hews very closely to the plot of the original, and even has the same director. And yet, something got lost in translation.
The team behind Brothers made wise choices when adapting the film for American viewers. Here are some of the important decisions they made that allowed this movie to succeed where so many others have failed.
When watching a movie from another country, it’s often difficult to appreciate the importance of casting. Unless you’re a devoted film enthusiast, you may not be familiar with the stars. Thus, you may not fully understand how the choice of actors influenced the film’s quality.
That’s one of the reasons why filmmakers struggle to remake foreign films in the United States. Even many Hollywood producers and directors aren’t familiar enough with foreign actors to appreciate who their American counterparts might be.
In many cases, the best remakes don’t necessarily involve trying to find actors who possess the same exact qualities as those who starred in the original versions. Instead, smart filmmakers rely more on their understanding of the essential dynamics of the characters’ relationships, choosing actors whom their primary audience will recognize.
Brothers works because American audience have never struggled to imagine that Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire could be related. True, while there are some physical similarities, the primary resemblance between the two has more to do with their choices of roles. Both have always been willing to portray a certain degree of sensitivity on the screen, while also diving into more intense parts.
Casting Natalie Portman was also beneficial to the film. The audience needs to feel sympathy for her character. Natalie Portman has always been likable enough to easily win that kind of sympathy. More importantly, though, she has the acting skills to convincingly embody a wide range of complex emotions.
The team behind the American adaptation of Brothers didn’t try to cast American versions of the Danish actors who originally played these characters. Instead, they let the story guide their decisions.
Again, despite being very similar in many ways to its source material, the U.S. remake of The Vanishing was not widely embraced by audiences. To some degree, this was related to the nature of the story itself. The narrative of the original film relied on factors such as geography, cultural norms, and the relationship between the French and Dutch characters. Simply taking that story and telling it in America with few other changes didn’t make sense.
On the other hand, Brothers was the ideal story for a remake. The Danish film upon which it is based tells the story of a young man who was believed to have been killed in Afghanistan. This is the type of narrative that is very easy to adapt for American audiences. The war on terror was still fresh in the minds of viewers upon the film’s release. The characters in the movie did not feel like foreign characters who’d been transported to the United States and made to speak English. Instead, they felt like real people that members of the audience knew.
Understanding what to change about the story in this type of situation is not easy. To refer back to the example of The Departed, the team behind that project clearly understood that the Buddhist themes of the source material might not be as relatable to American audiences. That’s why they focused more on the Irish-Catholic culture in their version.
The team behind Brothers had an arguably more difficult task. They had to ensure that they told a story from an American perspective on a global issue. It was smart to choose a story that Americans could relate to, but it still required careful decision-making on the part of the filmmakers.
Luckily, everyone who worked on the film appears to have understood this fact. Brothers stands out as a shining example of what can happen when talented people work hard to translate a foreign story for a new audience.