Text Vladimir Kozlov
For years, people in the Russian film industry have been complaining of a lack of good scripts and interesting ideas. Perhaps it is for this reason that in the last few years, domestic filmmakers have often turned to well-known Hollywood pictures for inspiration, although it sometimes looks more like ripping off ideas than making legitimate “localized” versions of high-profile U.S. films.
In fact, the practice of using ideas from Western commercial movies was common back in the Soviet era, but at that time the originals were not readily available. So Soviet audiences eager to watch, say, an action movie had no choice but to stick to domestic versions, such as Alexander Mitta’s Ekipazh [Flight Crew] or Boris Durov’s Piraty dvadtsatogo veka [Twentieth-Century Pirates], two box office champions of the early 1980s.
Interestingly, sometimes two different filmmakers independently came up with the same idea, such as with Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985) and Alexander Grishin’s Poyezd vne raspisaniya [Unscheduled Train], both of which told a story about people trapped on a train with no brakes and nobody at the controls. The two movies were released at about the same time in the mid-1980s, so nobody could have possibly stolen ideas from each other, but the similarity of the plots is quite striking.
These days, however, the situation is notably different, and recycling a Hollywood film that many people here have already seen on video or on TV is a challenging task, as the comparison with the original could turn out to be quite unflattering to the remake. But directors seem eager to try anyway.
It was a son of the aforementioned Andrei Konchalovsky, Yegor, who started the most recent wave of Russian remakes of Hollywood films three years ago with his Pobeg [Escape]. The plot of the movie was strikingly similar to that of 1993’s The Fugitive by Andrew Davis, with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones as the leads. However, it was never said that the movie was a “remake” and only some people noticed the conspicuous similarities with The Fugitive, which, although seen here on pirated videotapes in the mid-1990s, was not theatrically released in Russia and thus not a huge hit in this country. Konchalovsky’s movie was lackluster, earning little success with either audiences or critics, and that’s probably why no one really bothered to accuse him of ripping off The Fugitive’s storyline.
The remake trend continued with 12, by veteran director Nikita Mikhalkov, this time an official remake of Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men. Although the movie was among six nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar in early 2008, observers in Russia could not help but notice how the differences between the U.S. and Russian legal systems presented difficulties for the adaptation of the American “jury-room drama” to a Russian setting.
Still, the outcome was not as dismal as that of two highly publicized remakes released in 2008: the first of William Wyler’s 1953 Roman Holiday, which in the hands of director Alexander Chernyayev became Vsyo mogut koroli [Kings Can Do Anything], and the second of Mark L. Lester’s 1985 Commando, remade by Mikhail Porechenkov as Den D [DDay]. The quality of the two originals is hardly comparable, though audiences wouldn’t know that from watching the two remakes, which are equally shoddy. Predictably, both films’ performance at the Russian box office was poor, and domestic film critics enjoyed the chance to indulge in sarcasm and scathing remarks.
The main question is what the producers’ rationale was for doing the remakes. Was it the notorious “lack of ideas and good scripts”? The idea that people who saw the originals would be eager to see the “localized” versions? Or the fact that remakes account for quite a substantial share of films made in Hollywood these days?
If the latter is true, and domestic producers just want to follow current Hollywood trends, then they might consider more carefully the true appeal of the remake. Hollywood remakes films so as to render them more accessible to American filmgoers, who have been raised on a diet of Hollywood movies and thus often require “translation” into the “language” of contemporary Hollywood cinema. However, years of exposure to Hollywood’s products has made Russians quite fluent in its language. So if Russian audiences are comfortable watching the originals, is there any need for “localizing”?