26
Aug
11

Letting the Right Remake Get Made

A remake, reboot or reinterpretation of a foreign film for the American market likely has pecuniary interests at heart—more exactly, the most riskless money possible. Idyllically that would not necessarily be the primary impetus with either a translation or a simple remake of an older film, or at least not at the expense of a main goal of expanding upon or reinterpreting the existing film, or perhaps simply executing a novel idea better than the original. The Ring was a solid example of the latter while The Departed (the script based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs) was one of the former, with both succeeding commercially.  However, frequently, no chances in variation on the theme were taken in a remake—rather a slicker and more action oriented veneer was applied to get some American asses in the seats and dollars out of wallets. With ready-made buzz, this is theoretically a straightforward prospect, though as an old adage intimates, practice and hypothesis don’t always follow former behind latter.

Of all the movies were this pitfall has been exemplified, the translation of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) to Matt Reeves’ Let Me In is one of the more sympathetic.  While the original film itself was adapted from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, it is, on its own merits, a brilliant horror film, that received recognition on the festival circuit though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed it even for a nomination. Although Reeves’ opus is a game effort, quite faithful to the original, it ultimately failed in its endeavor and, not inconsequentially, at the box office. It also lacked anything more to say about the story of a vampiric young girl and her relationship to an adolescent boy.

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Let the Right One In’s strength lies in as much what it only suggests as in what it demonstrates to the audience. The main focus is the peculiar relationship between the young boy, Oskar, and vampire girl, Eli. Oskar is played competently by Kåre Hedebrant while the vampire role of Eli (pronounced EE-lee) is owned by the haunting and almost impossibly thin Lina Leandersson. Trying to reconcile a being that is decades (perhaps hundreds) of years old residing in a young and innocent frame masks her manipulation of Oskar, though her machinations are considerably clearer with her “father”, a man who kills on her behalf in order to satisfy her need for human blood. The film only suggests that this father figure has some sort of romantic relationship with Eli, as it is never established exactly what kind it is or when it started. Let Me In treats the issue more ham-handedly by clearly showing an old photo booth picture of the young vampire (in this version “Abby”) and a young boy (“Owen”), which is obviously her supposed “father”. In both films, the father begs Eli/Abby not to hang out with the boy (Oskar/Owen) again, suggesting a jilted lover, and in each case Eli/Abby responds by gently caressing his cheek but doing so anyway. The inexact nature of the relationship made this interaction much more unsettling in the original than in the remake. Likewise, Eli’s eventual designs to use Oskar as a replacement are only hinted at where Abby’s plans seem explicit in the remake.

By a similar token, in both films Eli/Abby’s “father” is captured while attempting to kill a teenager for his blood. In the original he has tied up a boy in a gym locker room, but is trapped when the boy’s friends begin pounding on the locked door to the room, rousing the drugged boy who then calls out to them. Meanwhile, the father realizes there are no other exits and that he is trapped. In the American version, Abby’s father hides in the back seat of a car and, after subduing the driver to bleed him, attempts to escape a group of people who believe his is stealing the car, sending it careening off the road in a panic and becoming trapped in the wreckage. Although the scene is filmed in fascinating fashion (from a back seat view as the car flies out of control, rolls and crashes), a much more introspective, character driven scene occurs in the original as Eli’s father realizes he is cornered. The audience sees him slowly coming to grips with his fate as his would be victim’s friends begin breaking down the door. His resignation and hopelessness with this reality and innumerable past crimes weigh on him, as he slowly decides to dump acid on his face to obscure his identity. In the remake, the same action to hide his identity happens much quicker and there is less of a sense of desperation rather than sheer panic on the part of Abby’s father. Although the American remake comes off as slicker and more exciting, the emotional and revelatory content of the original is considerably higher—the remake in effect sacrificed the root of the horror in the film, the reluctant embrace of evil, for a well-executed action sequence, missing the point of the film all along.

In addition to an action oriented presentation, the American edition also includes more brutality and gore. Although the original certainly doesn’t shy from splatter, it is more judicious in its use, limiting it to sudden outbursts in somewhat shadowy circumstances. The remake revels in it almost pointlessly on several occasions, such as during the pointless flash forward that opens the film. Likewise, Owen’s bullies are almost comically cruel and engender no sympathy themselves, although the suggestion exists in both films that the lead bully is influenced by his older brother’s oppression of him. In the Swedish film, the bullies mainly stick to taunting and when they physically injure him, they show some remorse and run away. In the remake, the lead bully rather creepily instructs Owen to not tell his mother what happened; curiously, the bullies in the foreign version run away fretting that is exactly what will happen. Oskar is unable to tell his mother, likely out of shame as much as fear of retribution. This highlights Oskar’s impotence and his lack of a protector and companion, which inevitably draws him to Eli.

Though both movies feature divorced parents, Owen’s mother is a bizarre drunk, far more removed than Oskar’s mother who seems overworked and a bit inattentive rather than outright negligent. Likewise, Oskar’s relationship with his father is detailed at length, demonstrating some happy times interlaced with other instances where his father appears to relegate Oskar in favor of his friends.  In the remake we never see Owen’s father, merely overhearing him on the telephone misunderstanding Owen’s worries as generated by the religious fervor of his mother rather than a tangible and real problem: his association with a dangerous person.  The dearth of parental care serves to make Owen’s plight too sympathetic as a terribly alone, abused child that is understandably driven to Abby’s friendship and protection (“what choice did he have?”). In Oskar’s case, his choice to remain friends with Eli is less forgivable, as his parents, though far from perfect, have been there for him at times, despite not quite comprehending his predicament at school or otherwise. For Owen, it was a choice between a barren wasteland punctuated by sadistic bullying versus security in evil; for Oskar, the options were less distinct, with normality characterized by alternating bouts of kindness and impotence offset by a violent, evil, and empowering creature. The differing nature of Oskar/Owen’s dilemma is highlighted by the title of each film: Oskar, facing varying social pressures, must decide which is the right one to let in, while Owen is virtually ejected by his unenviable surroundings into the demanding arms of Abby—his is less a choice than an inevitable erosion.

One plot device that Reeves was wise to omit was the questionable cat scene, wherein a hoard of cats detect the infection of a woman was recently bitten by a vampire and swarm her in a CGI flurry. As is often the case in many horror novels such as (potentially—I’ve not read it) the one that provided the source material for the film, effectively describing a superficially silly situation like this can be far easier in print and can lose a large bit in translation to the screen. In the Swedish film it appeared campy and ridiculous, as opposed to disturbing or revolting. Reeves’ film ignored this scene entirely by having the woman bitten be immediately rushed to a hospital rather than being forced into medical care after a feline ambush. However, the sound decision to forego this unfortunate sequence highlights another place where Reeves faltered. In the original, another tenant in the apartment complex Oskar lives in becomes suspicious of the young girl whereas in Let Me In a police officer investigating the case eventually links the murders and crimes he is investigating to Abby. In both cases, Oskar/Owen is in Eli/Abby’s apartment when this suspicious party breaks in and warns her of the intruder, saving her life but costing the life of an innocent person as she pounces. The audience has little emotional connection to the police officer in Let Me In, while the tenant in Norwegian version is someone that has played a role throughout the movie: he invited Eli’s father for a drink; his close drinking buddy was Eli’s first victim in the apartment complex; and finally his girlfriend is the woman who is bitten. Although the last element also happens in Let Me In, the man and his girlfriend are always seen from a distance, appearing to be yuppies aloof from the rest of the tenants. Thus, when Eli kills the tenant who is partly avenging the deaths of his friend and lover, Oskar’s moral conflict resonates much more strongly with the audience as opposed to a police officer’s whose actions are admirable but emotionally distant.

The American production should, in any event, be applauded to some extent for allowing a mostly free hand for Reeves to remain faithful to Alfredson’s film while engaging in graphic violence and some creative cinematography. However, the point of all this, given that though visually interesting many of the changes detracted from the strengths of the original, is lost. Certainly as a vehicle for a quick buck, the film didn’t leave out the blood and shock, but the tits and glee of a mindless slasher flick were lost in a story that was more provoking than “the kids go to summer camp at Slaughter Lake”. The movie was a slow burn, unsuited for an escapist audience while failing to add anything for fans of the original. Thus, while the earnest attention to the original and the liberal use of gore might seem a worthy goal, they alone both aren’t a significant departure from the original nor sufficient to maintain the interest of any particular audience.

A remake of Let the Right One In might have taken another avenue, as opposed to a nearly carbon plot copy of the original. The American film could have kept much of the plot elements similar (e.g., apartment complex, a lonely youth in a divorced household, the mysterious arrival of a sympathetic and protective visitor) but could have explored a new direction by making the vampire a boy and the main character a girl. Although this would have reversed the interesting twist on the vampire mythology in the original of a female seducing a male, it would have, for an American audience given the age groups involved, a direct counterpoint to the romance novel version of Nosferatu encapsulated in the horrendously popular Twilight. By presenting the moral dilemma of defending and accepting protection from a vampire with whom the romantic aspect of the relationship is much more clouded than the superficial teenage angst and gallant fantasy of Twilight, an American audience might have been challenged on a deeper level. This tact would have necessitated a much more intensive—and risky—rewrite of the original screenplay. The filmmakers could have even expanded further by keeping the vampire female and introducing a subtext of sexual confusion of an adolescent/ young adult, twisting the Twilight story even further.

The American version could have also addressed a glaring incongruity of the original. As the story takes place in the 1970s, the obvious question is why Eli didn’t instruct her “father” to steal donated blood from a hospital or blood bank (it seems given her supernatural prowess and that such thefts would naturally occur at night, she could have even done it herself) or better yet even work there as a nurse or doctor and skim blood off the top. As Eli appears to not relish killing people for blood, this alternative would seem natural rather than the tremendously more perilous and morally questionable murder and collection of raw blood. The American viewing public has, at least in some segments, been exposed to this variant in the television series True Blood whose vampires manipulate or outright hypnotize humans and slowly feed on their blood over periods of time. By the same token, an American remake might even feature a “family” of an older woman and/or man, as well as siblings which the vampire would extract blood from time to time to satisfy his thirst.  This would negate doing anything overtly illegal that would risk exposure. Perhaps as in the first film where a failure by Eli’s father to find blood caused Eli to kill, an arrest in an attempt to steal blood might prevent the vampire from feeding normally, either causing him to kill another apartment complex tenant or even on the members of the “family”. Such an unforeseen accident might precipitate other members to flee or commit suicide, with one remaining who was recently feed on and couldn’t give anymore blood, and thus possibly being forced to do something illegal to gain blood.

This new direction is hardly bulletproof as the question would arise if the vampire, besides charming the now female Oskar character, would seek to feed on her blood or kept the non-violent relationship as in the original wherein Eli resisted her urge as that might have led her to kill Oskar. However the potential is there for creating a new story around the original’s foundation to explore similar as well as some novel aspects of vampire-human relationship and Oskar’s moral crucible.

The expansion upon an original film is the bolder form of a remake rather than a simple recasting and redo with perhaps slicker editing and cinematography. There are exceptions, as in the translation of Ringu to The Ring, with the original suffering not so much from plot but a film that dragged heavily and mainly needed a change of pace. Indeed if the original failed to realize its own potential rather because of budget or shoddy execution, a more direct remake might be in order. But if the original is a rather successful and complete film on its own, the screenwriter and director of a remake can look a wholly new direction, such as in The Departed. One can hope that David Fincher’s upcoming remake of another popular Norwegian film and novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is successful on one of these levels.

UPCOMING: Films that Deserve a Proper Remake

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2 Responses to “Letting the Right Remake Get Made”


  1. 1 Mindbeat
    October 2, 2011 at 1:21 am

    Very interesting and well written. Especially about Oskar’s/Owen’s choice. Your interpretations and ideas about both the original film and the remake are almost spot on. One little detail, though: “Let the right one in” is a Swedish flm, not Norwegian as you mention once.


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