Ronan Doyle over at Next Projection wrote a very interesting review of Michael Haneke‘s 2007 American remake of his own 1997 German film, Funny Games. It’s essentially a negative review, but not in the normal sense. While Ronan acknowledges that in many ways it’s a great, extremely well crafted and challenging film, the fact of its existence is what brings it down. By being a shot-for-shot remake, merely translated, but still only reaching a small cinephile audience, Funny Games US is has no need to exist. First of all, is it true that the film didn’t expand upon the audience of the original? More importantly, even if it didn’t does that mean we can discount the quality of the film?
From Ronan’s review:
The problem with the American Funny Games lies in the simple fact that it is, all things considered, unnecessary. Haneke’s aim was to reach that same mainstream market he had missed out on with his original, the kind of audience which would not have seen a subtitled foreign film. The remake, however much its profile might have been raised by the presence of Watts and Roth, was never to be the kind of film that would make it any further than the independent market (a reality corroborated by its ultimate box office failure). Funny Games was Haneke’s most difficult film, an intellectually motivated mental exercise come viewer indictment that should be considered more a didactic text than a piece of entertainment. It was never going to be something that would reach an audience outside of the arthouse theatres. The moviegoers most likely to find this incarnation of Funny Games are, for the most part, those same ones who would have been among the audience of its predecessor.
For me it’s pretty easy to refute this claim. I have personal experience with the benefit of the remake being in English and starring recognizable actors. In fact, I had never seen a Michael Haneke film before Funny Games US, and the reason I watched it was not his name, but because I heard it was a really great home invasion thriller. In fact, it wasn’t until about a year or so after seeing the film that I found out it was a shot-for-shot remake of his own foreign film.
Now, you could say that I am the wrong example to use because given my youth and my growing knowledge of cinema I would likely have stumbled on Haneke and the original Funny Games at some point. Fine, I can accept that.
But then I have other examples. I have gotten two separate groups of friends (not fellow cinephiles) to watch Funny Games US, and I can almost guarantee that getting them to watch the original film with subtitles would have been much more difficult, if not impossible. My dad saw the Blu-ray on the shelf and recognized Naomi Watts and decided to watch it. Of course, I got a call that night where his opening line was, “I just watched a movie, and I need to ask you, why do you own a movie like that?” I immediately guessed he was talking about Funny Games US. And you know what? Despite his immediate reaction to the film, the fact that he actually watched the whole thing, and the wonderful conversation it inspired the next day was totally worth it.
So I completely reject the idea that Haneke didn’t achieve his goal of reaching a broader audience. Maybe the film didn’t set the box office aflame, but it certainly got seen by more people, and a wider variety of people than the original.
But this leads to a question. One that I have a difficult time answering. Even if the remake does get seen by more people, does that make its existence worthwhile? And what about other close remakes? On this question I tend to relate to it this way. If you’ve seen the original Funny Games, or even the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or other such close remakes, you probably aren’t missing much by also watching the remake. But in the end, the film justifies itself by being good. Funny Games US, at the end of the day, whether it’s “necessary” in light of the original or not, is a great film. The way I see it, a great film is a great film is a great film, and getting hung up on whether it was necessary or a waste of Haneke’s time is itself unnecessary.
Maybe I’m wrong, though. Do you think close remakes are acceptable? Do you differentiate between shot-for-shot remakes like Funny Games US and very different remakes like The Departed? What about film like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Let Me In, which are somewhat close remakes of very recent foreign films? Do you apply the same logic to older films being remade, like the Coen brothers’ recent True Grit or the Straw Dogs remake?