“When I first envisioned Funny Games in the mid-1990s, it was my intention to have an American audience watch the movie. […] But because I made Funny Games in German with actors not familiar to US audiences, it didn’t get through to the people who most needed to see it.” –Michael Haneke in 2008
When Michael Haneke embarked upon the English-language remake of his 1997 Cannes contender Funny Games, he joined a not terribly long list of filmmakers from other countries who have remade their own films – some faithfully, others less so – in an effort to reach subtitles-averse American viewers. The classic example is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his 1934 British film The Man Who Knew Too Much, which didn’t have a language barrier to overcome, but did afford him the opportunity to work with American stars on a proven property. By that time, Hitchcock had been entrenched in Hollywood for a decade and a half, but many who followed his lead did so to establish a foothold there.
That was certainly the intention of Israeli filmmaker Boaz Davidson, who turned his 1978 sex comedy Lemon Popsicle (such an overwhelming hit it spawned eight sequels and a spin-off) into The Last American Virgin in 1982. Davidson updated the setting from the 1950s to the present, a cost-cutting measure that surely pleased producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and also freed up part of the budget for a soundtrack stacked with popular songs by Blondie, The Cars, Devo, Journey, and The Police. Such measures didn’t distract from the gearshift into serious drama Davidson faithfully carried over from the original, though, proving he had more on his mind than simply riding Porky’s coattails.
In 1989, French writer-director Francis Veber was lured to Hollywood to turn his 1986 comedy Fugitives (the third pairing of Pierre Richard, star of Veber’s The Toy, and Gérard Depardieu) into Three Fugitives with stars Nick Nolte and Martin Short. Veber only made one more film in the US, though – the obscure Matthew Broderick comedy Out on a Limb – before returning to his native country. (He’s had much more success with letting others remake his scripts.)
The next decade brought with it remakes of two European thrillers, both of which suffered from meddling during the translation process. While Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer’s 1988 film The Vanishing is in the Criterion Collection for a reason, its 1993 remake starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges – bastardized ending and all – is not. Meanwhile, Denmark’s Ole Bornedal had the help of screenwriter Steven Soderbergh to adapt his 1994 film Nightwatch into his American debut for Dimension three years later. Even with stars Ewan McGregor, Patricia Arquette, Nick Nolte, and Josh Brolin attached, though, I fully expect my fellow Crooked Marquee scribe Craig Lindsey to write up the result in “Harvey’s Hellhole” at some point.
More successful from an artistic standpoint was Sluizer’s countryman Dick Maas, who reached back to his 1983 Amsterdam-set techno-thriller The Lift for his second film with an American cast. Maas improved upon it with the 2001 model, alternately titled Down or The Shaft, but dropped the original’s superior tagline, “Take the Stairs, Take the Stairs. For God’s Sake, Take the Stairs!!!”
Looking farther east, the J-horror boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s reached critical mass with the blockbuster success of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of The Ring starring Naomi Watts (one of the stars of Maas’s Down). Its worldwide take of just under $250 million guaranteed a sequel, so it made sense to hire Hideo Nakata, director of the original Ringu (1998) and its sequel Ringu 2 (1999), to make The Ring Two in 2005. The champion of the J-horror remake, however, has to be Takashi Shimizu, who chased the Japanese-produced Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) and Ju-on: The Grudge 2 (2003) with the American-made The Grudge (2004) and The Grudge 2 (2006). Those were soon followed by The Echo, Filipino director Yam Laranas’s 2008 remake of his 2004 original.
Five other filmmakers have gotten in on the act in the last decade, to varying degrees of success. French-Canadian writer-director Ken Scott turned his 2011 comedy Starbuck into the 2013 Vince Vaughn vehicle Delivery Man, which led to the two of them re-teaming for Unfinished Business in 2015. Belgium’s Erik Van Looy remade his 2008 thriller Loft in 2014 as The Loft and even retained cast member Matthias Schoenaerts. And Indian filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra used his 1989 drama Parinda as the basis for Broken Horses, which I was less than impressed with when I reviewed it for The Dissolve in 2015.
On more solid ground was Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, who already had 2017’s Disobedience under his belt when he remade the 2013 comedy-drama Gloria nearly shot-for-shot as the Julianne Moore-starring Gloria Bell in 2018. In this way, it most closely echoes Haneke’s Funny Games remake, straying very little from its template.
To date, the most recent example of this phenomenon is 2019’s Cold Pursuit, the Liam Neeson-fronted remake of Hans Petter Moland’s 2014 Norwegian crime thriller In Order of Disappearance. Moland returned to Europe for his next film, however, a trait common to those brought over to remake one of their films.
Following their forays in the mid-’00s, Takashi Shimizu and Hideo Nakata both returned to Japan to pick up their careers where they left off, and Dick Maas has worked exclusively in the Netherlands since making Down. A notable exception is Boaz Davidson, who made multiple films for the Cannon Group before becoming a prolific producer in his own right. Lelio looks primed to continue working in English, however, most recently on the Netflix-produced Emma Donoghue adaptation The Wonder, due later this year.
For his part, Haneke never intended his American adventure to be anything more than a one-off. But as anyone who’s watched them back to back can attest, as similar as the Austrian and American Funny Games are, the latter isn’t a mere carbon copy of the former. While the two films line up on a scene-by-scene basis, laying out how polite psychopaths Peter and Paul invade the vacation home of a family of three and mercilessly toy with them, cutting off their every avenue for escape, the differences between them are telling.
For starters, Haneke makes a few concessions to advances in technology. In 1997, the phone that’s disabled by the crafty Peter is a cordless model that stays at the family’s lake house. By 2007, they’ve upgraded to a flip phone, which is just as capable of being rendered useless by a sink filled with water. Similarly, while Anna and Georg in the 1997 version have to figure out who to call since neither knows the number for the local police, Ann and George, their counterparts in the remake, immediately dial 911 the moment they get a signal.
Another major difference is the state of undress Anna/Ann has to endure after she’s been forced to strip to satisfy Peter and Paul’s curiosity about her muscle tone. In both cases, Haneke frames the scene so the viewer doesn’t see any nudity – just as he’s careful not to show any violence directly, with one pointed exception – but while Susanne Lothar’s Anna gets to put on a slip before she’s tied up, Naomi Watts’s Ann is bound in only her bra and panties. (So much for Paul’s mocking insistence on preserving “moral decency.”) These alterations don’t change Haneke’s innate ability to unnerve the viewer, though, and the moments where Michael Pitt’s Paul impishly breaks the fourth wall still accomplish the distancing effect he was going for.
In spite of the efforts to make the film more accessible to American viewers – including casting Watts, Pitt, Tim Roth, and Brady Corbet – Funny Games again failed to reach Haneke’s intended audience when it went into limited release in the US in the spring of 2008. As the director conceded in a 2017 interview included on Criterion’s edition of the original, “people still realized it was a Trojan horse and they never gave the film a chance.” Or perhaps they simply echoed Ann’s sentiments when she tries to dismiss Peter and Paul: “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but I don’t want to be a part of it.”