English-language Remakes — the pros and le mal

A recent press release by the CBC announced, among other things, that they’ve green lit an English-language adaptation of a successful Quebec TV crime-police series — 19-2.

Now, on one hand, that can be seen as good. It’s a way of kind of bridging the so-called Two Solitudes by importing a popular French Quebec program and presenting it to an Anglophone audience…albeit, not in its original form. But at least it’s something. Though I preferred it when English networks like the CBC and Showcase would occasionally air the original Quebec programs just with added subtitles. Sure — subtitled programs tend not to do great in the ratings, but from a societal point of view, at least it provided a glimpse of what the other Solitude was watching. Stick it in a non-primetime time slot that doesn’t really demand big numbers and let those as are curious tune in. Heck — I’m frustrated by the way even a lot of Quebec series when released on DVD don’t come with an English subtitle option (and some English-Canada series on DVD don’t offer a French subtitle option). I mean, is it just me — or does that smack of a very sinister agenda on someone’s part, eh? Yeah, that was rhetorical. Of course it denotes a sinister agenda, deliberately trying to keep a wall between the French and English audiences.

Anyway…

The thinking behind doing an English-language remake of a French-language program is that there has long been the observation that Quebec films and TV shows tend to do better in Quebec than English-Canada programs do in English-Canada. Gosh — lament the English-Canada entertainment community — if only we could figure out the magic formula that Quebecers have. So, by doing English versions of successful Quebec programs, it’s seen as a way of putting their backs behind something with a proven track record.

And why not? Hollywood has done that for years. Americans adapting British programs helped shape the sitcom landscape of the 1970s with such seminal American comedies as All in the Family, Three’s Company, and Sanford and Son all based on pre-existing British sitcoms. And when a foreign language film does exceptionally well, the Hollywood producers immediately start flocking around like seagulls, hoping to gobble up the rights to an English-language remake.

So it’s a long established tradition…everywhere. The BBC Wallander movies were previously made in Sweden, while American shows themselves have been adapted into foreign languages (sometimes, so the American producers will grumble, without permission!).

Yet the fact that Canadian producers are adapting a Canadian production almost lends it a greater…legitimacy. We’re not looking outside ourselves for success, they can argue, but keeping it in the family.

So why, like so much else in the Canadian entertainment biz, do I feel like it’s the right idea…done in the wrong way?

Up front, maybe a problem is it comes at a time when English-Canada television is doing better than it’s done in years, boasting a number of series with million plus viewers. So maybe there’s less need right now to look to Quebec as the champion to save English-Canadian TV from itself.

As well, as I’ve suggested before, I’m not sure the old “Quebec films and TV are successful, so we must learn from their model” idea is quite as cut and dried as it seems. For one thing: the Quebec industry has its own struggles, and plenty of Quebec productions bomb. Secondly, the very fact that people will brag that Quebecers like to “support” their industry, and they like to see themselves reflected in films and TV is perhaps relevant. Are these shows successful because they are great…or are they successful because Quebecers are willing to cut them some slack? After all, Quebec (Francophone) culture is surrounded on all sides by Anglophones, and where even in the French films imported from Europe everyone has French-European accents. It doesn’t take much to see that at the end of a hard day at work French Quebecers might appreciate kicking back and watching a movie or TV show in a language they understand, in an accent they are comfortable with, over subtitled or dubbed programs, or where it’s French but spoken with a foreign inflection.

Perhaps the shocking thing is that the Quebec industry isn’t more successful than it is! Quebec TV is still crammed with dubbed versions of Desperate Housewives and other Hollywood productions.

My point is: of course there are great movies and TV shows made in Quebec by talented Quebec filmmakers…but that doesn’t mean it’s a given anything out of Quebec is inherently great when removed from the Quebec context.

You see, the CBC already went the route of adapting some popular Quebec shows into English with the sitcoms Rumours and Sophie — and both proved unsuccessful. Rumours ran one season, Sophie ran two and, even then, one can be suspicious it only went that long because the network brass didn’t want to admit they had struck out twice! (And to be fair — I do know people who did like Sophie) In both cases, they were essentially made by the same creative people as the original French-language versions: same directors, crews, even shot on the same sets I believe. The main difference was the casting. Yet it’s hard to blame the actors. Sophie star, Natalie Brown, had critics going pretty gaga for her when the series premiered, and Rumours starred Amy Price-Francis and, well, given all the ink I’ve expended on praising Price-Francis in King you know I’m going to find it hard to believe it was a fault of her thespianic talents that scuttled Rumours.

I mean, it could be the stars. Not that the actors were bad, merely maybe miscast. Or maybe the Francophone talent was just having trouble switching to English (comedy being more vulnerable to missed nuances than drama). But equally, maybe the original versions did just appeal to a unique Quebec sensibility or — more contentiously — maybe they just weren’t that good to begin with. Maybe they were perfectly adequate sitcoms, nothing more, given a boost by a Quebec audience eager to support and embrace Quebec sitcoms.

And now we get to the proposed English version of 19-2, a cop drama apparently — according to the press release — about mismatched partners (though a drama, as opposed to a buddy comedy).

Stop me when that sounds bracingly unique.

Okay — seriously — there’s nothing wrong with mismatched partners. There was nothing wrong with it in the zillions of previous movies and TV shows that have employed that premise. There’s absolutely nothing about the description of 19-2 that suggests it couldn’t be a great show, or that it won’t be worth turning on for an episode or two just to give it a try.

But if you’re going to adapt a pre-made property…shouldn’t it be a bit more than that? Shouldn’t it be because the core idea itself sounded like a great idea? Based on that (admittedly vague) press release, it kind of sounds like the network brass latched onto 19-2 simply because it was successful in Quebec…not because there was anything about it that screamed out “hit”, or that made the English-language executives pound their heads against a table and moan: “Why didn’t we think of that premise first?”

Just as there was nothing wrong with the ideas behind Sophie and Rumours…but equally there was nothing really unique or unusual about them, either.

I mean if you’re going to do a re-make, should it simply be because you looked at the numbers and said, huh, it seems to be doing well in the ratings…I guess we might as well try it. Or should it be because you think: hey! that’s a great idea!

(Cynically, though, it could be the problem is a lot of Quebec producers are holding out for Hollywood money. Hollywood producers throw development money around like rice at a wedding and option hundreds of premises they never seriously intend to re-make, in some cases just to keep them away from rival producers. Maybe English-Canada producers are simply left to option the properties…Hollywood already passed on.)

But it’s the concept, more than the execution of the concept, that should be the focus…because that’s the only thing you can carry over into a remake.

Indeed, an interesting question with remakes is how faithful they should stick to the source. On one hand, there is the thinking — legitimately — that if you are going to remake something (or adapt it from another medium in the first place) you should stick to it. After all, it was successful to begin with, so it’s insane hubris to think you have the vision to re-interpret it. And that makes sense. And that was clearly the thinking behind the English-language versions of Sophie and Rumours which called upon the original behind-the-scenes talent and even, I believe, just used the same scripts, only translated into English.

But the other thinking is: if you’re just going to do a play-by-play recreation, then what’s the point? For that matter — how can you guarantee an exact duplicate? Sometimes the key to a good scene is just an actor’s wry delivery, or the perfectly timed edit — serendipitous things that couldn’t be replicated even by the people doing them, let alone in a remake. Besides: everything can use a little tweaking. Maybe the key is to use the source as a guideline more than a blueprint. Which then relates to my point about latching onto series that weren’t simply commercially successful, but ones that have a great, unique, core concept…a concept that is strong enough to sustain a new interpretation.

The problem with straight translations is, of course, as I say: maybe the original wasn’t that great to begin with and its popular success was due to outside factors. As well, there are cultural and sensibility factors. Jokes that play better in one language than another. Cultural archetypes that resonate with one group and not the other. And — though it’s perhaps controversial to say — I’ve occasionally seen some Quebec movies and TV shows that can seem a bit, um, reactionarily conservative in their attitudes toward race and gender issues that might seem odd, or at least, archaic, if faithfully replicated in an English language version. So maybe there is something to be said for focusing on the core elements of Quebec productions…but then re-interpreting them (not simply translating them) for English-Canada.

You see, I’m all for the idea of looking to Quebec for inspiration for English-Canadian movies and TV shows (and vice versa: maybe Quebecers should do a French version of Corner Gas!). But my feeling is that you should sift through the projects looking for the idea that sounds interesting, the core gimmick that makes you stop and say: hey — that sounds good. Not a premise that is probably similar to a few dozen other proposals you’re already mulling over — it’s just this one happens to have already been made, in French.

Some things that were successful — and good — might make iffy remakes. Le decline de l’empire americain was a big success in its day — but, I’ll admit, as a concept I’m not sure if it really begs a remake, or whether that’d be like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. I mean, all it was was just a bunch of bourgeois intellectuals sitting around discussing sex and relationships (indeed, a lot of filmmaker Denys Arcand‘s films actually strike me as being more just satirical essays with actors rather than, y’know, movies). I recently saw Starbuck (starring Bon Cop, Bad Cop’s Patrick Huard) and yet, strangely, I’m hard pressed to advocate for an English remake — and I’m not sure why. It was a very funny, clever, and touching movie (even though I went into it expecting some lame, sophomoric farce) and certainly cross cultural in its appeal. Maybe I’m just hard pressed to imagine doing it better than the original! So what would be the point? Just watch the sub-titled version for crying out loud! Off the top of my head I can’t even imagine a casting alternative (well, strangely, I could almost picture Ryan Reynolds as the lead of an English language version). But my point is, even though I really liked Starbuck, and even though I realize it will have trouble finding an audience in English…I’m still not sure about a remake. Or maybe it’s just that I worry a remake wouldn’t be as good.

If I were an executive, looking into acquiring Quebec productions for remakes, what are some that leap to mind? (And most of these I review at my Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV site).

Movie-wise…

Well, Jesus de Montreal for one — I mean, who doesn’t like a good Christ allegory? La Grande séduction was a good, funny, entertaining movie…but I could easily see doing an English version that could tweak it here and there (personally, I’d play up the romance). The horror film Sur le seuil I bet could make a creepy chiller with a rewrite or two. I didn’t fully enjoy De pere en flic, a comedy about an estranged father and son police duo forced to go undercover at a father and son retreat — but I still think, with a little polishing, the concept could make a great comedy, maybe set it in Newfoundland with Shawn Doyle and Jonny Harris as the leads. Okay, Doyle isn’t really old enough to be Harris’ dad — but, hey, it’s a movie.

And what about TV (since that’s what kicked off this essay)?

I still say Fortier — about a female criminal psychologist aiding the police — offers a good premise for a remake: at least it offers a “concept” you could put in the press release. Maybe starring Amy Price-Francis now that King has been cancelled (oh, ain’t I shameless?) Or what about Music Hall? A story about the trials and tribs of a cabaret theatre, mixing the performers lives with noir-ish plots of gangsters and other doings, would seem like an obvious candidate given the success of Glee. Or how about a comedy based on Si la tendance se maintient about a bumbling politician whose very idiocy makes him a populist hero. Or how about La misere des riches (the original mini-series…not the subsequent mundane soap opera) which itself was just a rehash of the old classic, Gaslight? What about the Twin Peaks-esque Grand Ourse?

The above ideas vary from things I did like in their original forms and think could make good English versions, to things I didn’t so much care for, that I didn’t think were that well done…but I still think the core premise was sturdy enough that it could warrant another going over.

At this point, I’m not sure what the plan is for the English-version of 19-2 — whether, like Sophie and Rumours, it will literally be the Quebec version, even using the original scripts, just remade in English with new actors, or whether it will be an entirely new creative team and approach, but drawing upon the original for inspiration. And as I say: there’s absolutely no reason to think it can’t or won’t be a good show.

But if you’re an executive fishing around for remake possibilities — there are plenty of waters where you could cast a line.

Addendum (I) July 27: Just an added thought about the whole question as to how faithful one should be to the source material. In the case of doing, say, an English version of a French program, presumably the assumption is the audience won’t see the original, so you are literally trying to translate it for a new audience. However, if there’s a thought (or a hope) that seeing the re-make will then inspire curious fans to seek out the original (as might happen with, say, an American version of a British show) maybe you don’t want to be too faithful. A factor in favour of re-imagining the property is that then it isn’t simply competing with itself. If you do a straight remake, every aspect is just being compared to the original (well this actor wasn’t as good that actor in the role, and this scene didn’t work as well as in the original) whereas if it’s a new interpretation…then both versions can stand next to each other and a fan might come to love them equally because one’s not simply a repeat of the other.

Addendum (II) July 27: an e-mailer directed my attention to press releases indicating both La Grande séduction and Starbuck are, indeed, slatted for English-language remakes. And here you thought I was just a pretty face! Starbuck is being made by Hollywood — with its original director (though, as I suggested earlier, only time will tell if it actually does get made). While La Grande séduction is going to be made by Canadians (apparently some European versions are also in the works). Though maybe this is a good illustration of another pet peeve of mine: PR in Canada. Googling the topic, most of the articles I found were from back in May (when it was announced Don McKellar was going to direct) — and nothing since. Nothing about casting (surely the audience is going to be more intrigued by who’s in front of the camera than who’s behind it). Nothing about news from the set. Surely part of the way to get an audience eager to see your film…is to keep it in the public’s eye.

And since I sometimes will write a mini-series of posts on a certain topic, let’s continue the English-French discussion in a later post…here.

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