21 Apr Remakes, reimagining and revolt
The Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise action movie Knight and Day was remade for the Indian market as Bang! Bang! (a much better title, I’d say). What Women Want was made in Chinese, with Gong Li in a lead role. The American Western Unforgiven, originally starring Clint Eastwood, was remade in Japan with Ken Watanabe in the lead role. TV shows also get remakes, Breaking Bad was remade in Latin America as Metástasis.
These are remakes of movies, but there have also bean adaptations of books or plays, which is a slightly different kettle of fish. Les Liaisons dangereuses was adapted as Untold Scandal in South Korea and Wuthering Heights was adapted with a Latin American cast in the 1950s.
So what does this mean? Does it mean that people complaining about the recent casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell is hypocritical? Hold on there because to tackle that, rather than employing the words white-washing, I’m going to talk about power and homogeneous populations.
To discuss power I will quote Facebook pal Ritchie Tenorio: “Stealing from the Wal-Mart is not the same as stealing from the mom-and-pop immigrant run store, to use a clumsy analogy.”
Hollywood has long been the most powerful movie-making industry in the world and that means the balance of things is lopsided. Hollywood remakes foreign movies more often than other countries remake American ones. Mexico’s film industry collapsed after the 1950s, so there has been little money to make anything, much less remake it. In the case of Mexico, they are more likely to remake soap operas, where there is still an industry. Mexico often imports soaps, casts Mexican actors, and does its own version.Café, con aroma de mujer, Mari Mar, Betty la Fea and other successful soaps were South American products redone for a Mexican audience. In the case of Betty, that soap was adapted into very many countries, including as Ugly Betty.
But, anyway, when you have an economical power like the United States and its vast movie industry, you often find it transforming movies or other products rather than the other way around and this imbalance is like the Wal-Mart and mom-and-pop analogy.
Then comes the issue of homogeneous populations. When countries like Mexico adapt properties, of course they are going to go with an all-Mexican cast because they have a more homogeneous population (though even this can get complicated, many times fair skinned Mexicans get the lead roles over darker or more indigenous-looking ones). Nevertheless, a big chunk of Mexicans are mestizo. It is therefore easier to say, well, this mestizo person will play the lead role. In the case of the United States, it is a very diverse country. According to Wikipedia “The White, non-Hispanic or Latino population make up 62.6% of the nation’s total, with the total White population (including White Hispanics and Latinos) being 77%.”
This means determining who gets to represent people on screen becomes a lot more of a pickle a lot faster. If an adaptation is supposed to represent the local population and customs, what qualifies as ‘local’ in the United States? Does it mean Motoko should become Maria, since there’s a big Latino population in the US? Or should it be an Asian actress? Let’s face it, is not like there are many plum roles for Asian actresses so one can imagine the anguish they might feel realizing one of those plum roles is gone. It’s like being told Othello will be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s not like there’s a dozen African characters in Shakespeare plays.
Filmmakers, when faced with these decisions, may decide that the safest course is to cast a white performer, believing it to be a neutral choice. But of course white is not neutral, it merely gives the illusion of impartiality. Nor does it reflect the reality of the audience in the USA who are definitely not all white, not by a long shot. The solution to some of these controversies is for filmmakers to acknowledge there cannot be neutral choices here.
Adaptations and movies are, after all, reflections of the time and place where they are produced. One movie which seems to understand this is the remake of The Magnificent Seven, with a cast that includes Denzel Washington, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, it is not the Western we might have associated with Eastwood, but then, it is not the 70s even if Eastwood was in some very fine Westerns. The Magnificent Seven, was, of course, a Japanese movie in the beginning: The Seven Samurai.
Now I’ve seen some people say Ghost in the Shell cannot be transposed to any other context, that it is uniquely Japanese and I understand that train of thought. However, I believe the malleability of adaptations is their charm, just like fanfic charms by transposing characters into completely different times and places. The problem is a world where the one version we witness is the American, where characters are transposed to the USA and are all made white in a bid to be as unthreatening as possible.
So, in the end, I don’t know about you but I’m saving my money for The Magnificent Seven.