Hollywood remakes of European films: Who’s copying whom?

Given all of the Hollywood remakes of recent European films, it is worth asking: Who in Hollywood best channels French movie star Sophie Marceau?

Is it Angelina Jolie, who fills Marceau’s elegant shoes in the recently released romantic thriller “The Tourist” — a film based on the 2005 French film “Anthony Zimmer”?

Or how about Demi Moore, who will fill Marceau’s house slippers in the 2011 single-mother/daughter film “LOL (Laughing Out Loud)” costarring Miley Cyrus in a remake of a 2008 French film of the same name.

The question resonates, when you consider that a Hollywood adaptation of Marceau’s charming 2010 film “L'âge de Raison” (The Age of Reason), in which a hard-charging businesswoman’s life is shaken up when she receives letters from her childhood self, is already in development.

The rising tide of such remakes is hardly limited to Marceau, but the fact that at least three of the actress’ films have drawn such attention from Hollywood is a clear sign that Hollywood is harvesting Europe with unusual intensity. In the last year, five American retreads of French films have been released. Even the small Swedish film scene sparked a Hollywood bidding war in 2010 to adapt the drug-world film “Snabba Cash” into “Easy Money” (with Zac Efron), while a popular Swedish vampire film was recently remade into “Let Me In” — not to mention the Millennium Trilogy film adaptations.


Hollywood’s enhanced efforts to adapt — or simply copy — foreign-language films highlight a cultural transformation of popular European cinema in recent decades. Many technically capable European filmmakers are surprisingly intimate with American film traditions. The cliché of French films as motionless stories with run-on intellectual discussions is impossible to square with the thrilling action-driven filmmaking of Jean-François Richet’s “Mesrine” or Olivier Assayas’ swaggering 1970s-era radical biopic “Carlos.”

Fred Cavayé, who wrote and directed the 2008 film “Pour Elle” — which Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis remade into “The Next Three Days” — notes that he and his thriller-making contemporaries are extremely referential to Hollywood. “The irony,” Cavayé says, “is that we do American-style films that they are redoing.”

While earlier-generation European auteurs sometimes saw Hollywood remakes as a crass denigration of their art, many next-generation European filmmakers see it as a gateway to greater opportunity. “It is part of industry logic these days to seize on original ideas from foreign films and adapt them,” says Paco Plaza, the co-writer and co-director of the Spanish zombie film "[Rec]” that was remade as “Quarantine” and released in the U.S. before the original film. “It is a stamp of approval. And it increases the popularity of the original films, so I have no complaints of any sort.”

Hollywood’s temptation to remake is understandable. Producers can watch a coherent film and decide whether it works rather than having to extrapolate from a script that needs refinement. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that foreign films tend to have exotic touches of sex, violence, drama or humor that can come across as fresh to Americans.

There is a long tradition of remaking groundbreaking European films. Giovanni Pastrone’s historic epic “Cabiria” inspired D.W. Griffith’s 1916 “Intolerance.” And silent films from the 1920s, such as Fritz Lang’s expressionist sci-fi film “Metropolis” and F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror” — believed to be the first-ever vampire film — have been reproduced again and again. Groundbreaking can hardly describe the star-driven remakes that became common in the 1980s and 1990s, including “Three Men and a Baby,” “True Lies,” “The Bird Cage” and “Vanilla Sky.”

But more recently, with Hollywood studios buying fewer pitches and spec scripts from their shrunken development budgets, the race to remake is about trying to place safer bets, according to Nick Spicer, a partner at XYZ Films. With much of the “low-hanging fruit” long gone a risk-averse Hollywood has begun to turn toward stories with a track record of success.

The result is that Hollywood studios have been systematizing the process — for instance, by conditioning funding for European films on remake options and hiring staff to track down film properties — and cutting the turnaround times on remakes.

The sassy 2010 romantic comedy “L’arnacoeur” (Heartbreaker), starring Vanessa Paradis and Romain Duris, has a sharp original script that, minus a couple of vulgar (and funny) lines, could be directly translated into Hollywoodese. Universal Studios International and Working Title signed on for a remake before the film’s release last spring, and an English-language script is being developed.

The makers of “L’arnacoeur,” which is about a professional breaker of couples, actually had to overcome concerns that the film’s core conceit was “too Anglo-Saxon” to get the production funded. But the professional heartbreaker concept has since proved more universal than they ever dreamed, drawing remake interest from China and India. Says director Pascal Chaumeil, laughing: “I want to see the Bollywood remake.”

“My film culture is as much or more Anglo-Saxon than French,” Chaumeil adds. That mixed culture helps to explain why so many filmmakers are being asked to helm Hollywood remakes of their own films.

Lisa Azuelos, the writer-director of “LOL,” has retained those job titles in the American version, but all of the filmmakers interviewed for this article said that they declined when asked if they wanted to be considered for a repeat job.

Still, many European filmmakers graduate on to larger-budget English-language films once Hollywood picks up their work. Jérôme Salle, the director of “Anthony Zimmer,” credits the go-ahead of the high-profile adaptation of his film with persuading Sharon Stone to perform in his soon-to-be-released “Largo Winch” (graphic novel) sequel.

Actresses with cachet seem to have facilitated most of his projects, suggesting that filmmaking in France and Hollywood are driven by many of the same forces. “What made it easy for me to make [‘Anthony Zimmer’] is that Sophie Marceau jumped on the role,” says Salle. And when the same mysterious seductress role lured Angelina Jolie to get on board, “The Tourist” got on the fast track.

But “The Tourist” struggled at the American box office (and with critics), which raises a question about the financial viability of this remake culture.

“Whether or not this translates into commercial films is questionable,” says producer Roy Lee, something of a commercial remake guru thanks to his involvement with “The Departed,” “The Grudge,” “The Ring” and “Quarantine.”

“It is really case by case,” says Lee, who notes that Hollywood’s version of “The Ring” was more successful than the Japanese original. “It depends on the studio, the writer who adapts it, the director.”