For years now – even longer than you might think – Hollywood has been remixing, rebooting, and redoing pre-existing films from around the world. From Japan to Mexico to India and beyond, few countries with a significant film industry have been exempt from the Hollywood remake machine, and France is no exception.
In all likelihood, you’ve probably watched a Hollywood remake of a French film, possibly without even realizing it was a remake – some cult and comedy classics, such as “Some Like it Hot”, “Three Men and a Baby”, and “The Birdcage” were all adapted from French films, originally titled “Fanfare d’amour”, “Trois hommes” et un couffin, and “La Cage aux folles” respectively.
So, why does Hollywood seemingly have such an interest in adapting French films?
A pessimistic view would be that it simply points to a lack of originality in Hollywood, where studios are simply looking to make a quick buck rather than take the time and money to invest in creative and original stories – and foreign films are easy targets for such an industry, given that they come with pre-existing plotlines and characters that merely need to be reimagined for an English-speaking audience.
A more optimistic view could be that Hollywood filmmakers have a genuine interest in, and love of, French cinema, and want to try their hand at telling some of these stories in their own way. It’s up to individual interpretation, and the truth very likely varies on a case-by-case basis – most, however, seem to take the pessimistic view, and it certainly seems as though many American remakes of French films lose what made the original so intriguing.
French and American cinema, after all, have two quite different approaches to storytelling. Generally, big-budget Hollywood movies like to maintain a rather simple moral ideology of good vs. bad, where the audience is encouraged to relate to the good characters, with very little in the way of psychological complexities. If a main character has moral failings at the beginning of the film, the audience can usually expect to see him or her learn how to be a better person by the end of the film.
The French, on the other hand, fully embrace moral ambiguities, even in their relatively light-hearted comedies.
Take, for example, “Dinner for Schmucks”, a 2010 remake of the French film “Le Dîner des Cons”. In “Dinner for Schmucks”, Paul Rudd’s Tim is far from perfect, certainly – the whole plot revolves around him finding an eccentric person to invite to a dinner that’s intended to mock that person – but his French counterpart Pierre is doubtlessly more flawed.
For one, whereas in “Dinner for Schmucks”, the titular dinner is a one-off event for Tim and is directly linked to a potential job promotion, in “Le Dîner des Cons” it’s a weekly event for Pierre, with no real point to it.
By dialing down the moral complexity of the main character, it seems that Hollywood was overly concerned with making sure that the audience doesn’t find themselves relating to a bad person, despite the fact that the entire premise of the film revolves around the moral failings of the protagonist, whereas the original French film is willing to confront the audience with their own possible flaws.
Often, social commentary that is specific to France also may be lost in translation, or discarded entirely. For example, the 2011 French film “Les Intouchables” was remade in 2017 as “The Upside”. While “Les Intouchables” was criticized for relying a bit too heavily on stereotypes, it did have a clear point to make about socioeconomic disparity in France, as displayed by the difference between the banlieue and the center of Paris.
“The Upside”, which transplants the story from Paris to New York, could have done something similar – socioeconomic disparity is not unique to France, after all, and New York is a great setting for discussing such a subject.
Instead, however, any commentary the film might be trying to make is incredibly vague – as one Rotten Tomatoes review put it, the movies “veers into conflicts of class, race and physical abilities but frustratingly pulls back at the mere suggestion of an uncomfortable moment.” After scrubbing the original film of such a major theme, it’s not surprising that most think that “The Upside” doesn’t live up to its source material.
In short, these films often fail due to Hollywood’s unwillingness to embrace difficult subjects and moral complexities, instead erring on the side of the generic and safe. This isn’t to say that all American remakes of French films are doomed to failure, however. Whereas movies like the aforementioned “Dinner for Schmucks” and “The Upside” landed with a thud, other American remakes of French films have actually been quite successful in translating themselves into films that, while often still quite different in tone from the originals, are still good films in their own right.
As previously mentioned, “Three Men and a Baby” is a remake of the French film “Trois hommes et un couffin”. At first glance, “Three Men and a Baby” underwent a similar transformation as “Dinner for Schmucks” – in the original film, the protagonist(s) are much more morally gray and complex. However, while both films dial down the moral complexities, “Three Men and a Baby” compensates for this by dialling up the gags and wacky antics of the main characters.
As a result, while the film is still arguably less interesting from a psychological standpoint, it transforms into a new, different, but equally enjoyable film.
Other films, like “The Birdcage” and “Some Like it Hot” succeed by either being relatively straightforward remakes of the original (“The Birdcage”), or by borrowing only the central premise of the original and applying the director’s own vision to it (“Some Like it Hot”).
Still, while these films are proof that Americanized of a film doesn’t inherently mean that the remake is doomed to failure, it can’t be denied that there is a certain je ne sais quoi about the original French films that will likely never be replicated in the American remakes. If possible, we would encourage you to seek out some of the French films discussed in this article, and see for yourself what differentiates them from their American counterparts.