Language Insight has written before about the great debate among world film lovers of the respective merits of subtitles or dubbing. However, perhaps the greater debate at the moment is the original versus the film remakes.

Hollywood has been remaking non-English language films for decades, so there’s nothing new there. However, western audiences are now more likely to know if the latest Hollywood blockbuster is actually a foreign film remake – and if it lives up to its predecessor. Now, production companies have cast their nets wider than world cinema. This means the rights to numerous non-English language TV shows are also being snapped up and prepared for a makeover.

The obsession with film remakes

Remaking films is a particularly US phenomenon. Although it’s by no means limited to there. Some critics claim the reason for the remakes is that American audiences don’t like movies with subtitles or that are dubbed. Another theory is that producers prefer to back something that has had demonstrable success in another market. One thing’s for sure is that whenever Hollywood announce another adaptation of a non-English language movie, there is an outcry among fans of the original.

In 2008, Swedish horror Let The Right One In caused a stir among cinema lovers across the globe. The Tomas Alfredson-directed film was an adaptation of the acclaimed John Ajvide Lindqvist novel. It was widely praised by critics for the chillingly touching central relationship between bullied schoolboy Oskar and child vampire Eli.

The same was the case for the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This time acclaimed director David Fincher was at the helm. James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, took on the role of journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Yet still the naysayers questioned why an adaptation had to be made when the original was such a hit. The 2009 Swedish version not only took a worldwide box office haul of nearly $105 million (£67.9 million), but it also made a star of lead actress Noomi Rapace, who went on to star in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel.

However, reservations among movie fans have done little to dampen Hollywood’s enthusiasm for adapting foreign language movies. In the pipeline at the moment is Spike Lee’s remake of Korean cult classic Oldboy. Meanwhile, numerous European TV series have been snapped up for redevelopment across the Atlantic.

Making over the small screen

Adaptations of non-English language shows have proven popular recently. Homeland, which is adapted from the Israeli hit Hatufim, is a multi-award winner. The original show was a huge success in its native Israel, where the story differed in that two prisoners of war returned home after a 17-year absence following successful negotiations for their release. In Homeland, the creators and scriptwriters took into account America’s policy of not negotiating with terrorists, so the central character is broken out of captivity in a military manoeuvre following an eight-year imprisonment.

Yet for every Homeland there is a The Killing. The Danish crime drama became a hit when it was shown by BBC Four in the UK in 2011, bringing in a larger audience than the other cult favourite Mad Men. The original series was also broadcast in countries as far away as Australia, Japan and Russia. However, American cable network AMC made the decision not to broadcast the Danish version, but to remake it instead. It largely followed the same plot as the original with lead character Sarah Linden wearing the same Faroese jumpers as her Danish counterpart Sarah Lund. Yet despite the care taken to recreate the charm and atmosphere of the original, the remake was cancelled in 2012 following the second season.

Despite the relative failure of the American version of The Killing, there are yet more remakes of non-English TV shows on the way. Indeed, another Scandinavian thriller has recently had the makeover treatment. Broen (The Bridge) follows a Swedish and a Danish detective who have to team up when a body is found at the centre of the Öresund Bridge, which links the two countries. It has been adapted for an American audience, with the action relocated to El Paso in the US and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico.

Brit hits across the pond

It’s not only foreign language shows that get the remake treatment, but English language ones too. Popular British TV series including The Young Ones, Spaced, Being Human, Skins, The Inbetweeners and even Fawlty Towers have been adapted for American audiences, despite there being no language barriers to overcome. While all these shows have either performed poorly or failed to get off the ground at all, there are rare examples of success. The American version of The Office, starring Steve Carell, not only won numerous awards but has also run for nine seasons, compared to the UK original’s two.

This is a rare example though, and countless other shows that have performed extremely well in the UK have sunk when remade for an American audience. There have been three attempts to remake 1970s’ classic comedy Fawlty Towers, created by Monty Python‘s John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth, for an American audience. Chateau Snavely was the first, in 1978, and two further remakes – Amanda’s and Payne – followed, but all of them failed to take off. Another classic British comedy that was the subject of an attempted adaptation was Absolutely Fabulous, but this failed to even get past the pilot stage.

For every The Office: An American Workplace there is a Payne – so why do production companies continue to fund film remakes? English shows have no language barrier to overcome and justify an adaptation. Similarly, as numerous commentators have pointed out, the type of person who would choose to watch a pared-down crime noir like The Killing or a supernatural family drama like The Returned probably won’t be put off by subtitles anyway.

Film remakes just seem to keep on coming!

However, it’s likely the film remakes will keep on coming. In both TV and film, producers’ eyes will be caught by the attractive audience figures and ratings. It’s this that will prompt them to look for ways to wrestle the story into a new setting. However, recent viewing figures are showing us is that making them better than the original series is almost always impossible.

Perhaps part of the reason these original television shows and films succeed in foreign territories is that by watching a television show made and set in another country we are giving our senses a mini break without ever leaving the sofa.

Film remakes aren’t going anywhere. However, they all succeed in drawing in new audiences for the original film. As these figures keep rising, television networks will continue to take a risk on innovative new non-English language programming. So, in the end we’re all winners.

What are your favourite non-English language films and TV shows? Share your tips below