The Swedish film let the right One In is set during a Nordic winter so bleak that just watching it practically makes your nose run. The two main characters—a lonely, ostracized boy and the creepy, bedraggled girl who befriends him—are as somber and mournful as the chilly, austere landscape. The movie was a critical hit in America and is currently being remade here, retitled Let Me In. Set in sunny New Mexico. Starring two appealingly pink-cheeked, glossy-haired tween actors. The film hasn't been released, but howls of protest are already ricocheting around cyberspace, where the consensus is that remakes inevitably suck. As one commenter cracked, "Who is going to do the voice of the lovable, wisecracking, skateboarding dog?"
The assumption that Hollywood will take all that quiet, moody atmosphere and stomp the life out of it with Godzilla-like clumsiness is understandable: when it comes to remakes, American studios don't have the best track record. And Scandinavian films seem especially likely to lose something in translation: if La-la Land is all about surface, lightness, and escapism, the land of Bergman, IKEA, and the Nobel Prize is somber, cool, and understated. Yet when it comes to cinematic source material, Scandinavia has never been hotter. A remake of the Danish film Brothers came out last year, and many more adaptations are in the works.
Once you watch a few of these films, the attraction becomes clear: unlike Bergman's often arty, ponderous parables, modern Scandinavian movies are brilliant at telling universally recognizable stories without sacrificing an aura of art-house good taste. Often the drama plays against a mournful backdrop of fog-cloaked streets or desolate fields of winter-bleached wheat. The austerity of the landscape lends a gravity to the human drama that American malls and suburban cul-de-sacs cannot. "Scandinavian films are very clean, precise, and the design is functional," says Kyle Reinhart, film programmer for Scandinavia House in New York.
But strip away the Nordic sun filtering through ice-encrusted pines, the eerily pale-skinned children, and the general sense of hushed decorum, and you'll find most contemporary Scandinavian films actually have much in common with the Hollywood films they are allegedly superior to. Let the Right One In might be an exceptionally restrained film, but it's also a vampire flick, part of the same bloodline that brought us Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
By definition, genre films are more concerned with meeting conventional expectations than defying them, and so are the films being remade. Let the Right One In is a horror film, a genre Hollywood invented. The Danish film Terribly Happy, the story of a sheriff with a mysterious past who moves to an insular small town, is, at heart, a Western in the tradition of High Noon. Sweden's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is based on the bestselling crime thriller by Stieg Larsson and has elements of an odd-couple buddy movie. Brothers and After the Wedding, both from Denmark's Susanne Bier, are classic melodramas. The Icelandic Reykjavík–Rotterdam, which will star Mark Wahlberg in the remake, is a straightforward heist flick.
Genre movies, books, and TV shows, especially crime, were huge in Scandinavia long before international audiences took notice. In addition to Larsson's books, crime writer Henning Mankell's Wallander series of thrillers was the basis for a popular TV series in Sweden before being remade for British audiences by the BBC, suggesting that the cool, cerebral Scandinavian aesthetic is surprisingly well suited to conventional plotlines. "No Scandinavians watched their own cinema until they started making more accessible stories for their own audiences," says Reinhart. "Audiences were used to American films, so they welcomed these stories." If the most popular Scandinavian exports, then, are the ones that are influenced by American filmmaking, it does seem perverse for American audiences to turn up their noses at the prospect of a remake, since the original is a work of translation as well.
In fact, the current vogue for Scandinavian cinema is part of the general globalization of film that's been going on for many years. Just as American directors have borrowed from European films, directors in Europe and beyond have been finding inspiration in American genres for just as long. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa paid homage to American Westerns with Seven Samurai, which John Sturges returned to American soil with the remake The Magnificent Seven. The French gangster film Le Samouraï was heavily influenced by American gangster films of the 1940s, and in turn was remade by Hong Kong director John Woo, who has influenced American director Quentin Tarantino. The remakes' success depends on whether the translation adds something to the original, or if the filmmakers were simply borrowing because they were too lazy to come up with original premises on their own. There's an appealing friction in Kurosawa's idea of the iconic American cowboy dressed in a kimono, wielding a sword; the appropriation deepens our understanding of the role of renegade peacekeeper across cultures. Put the samurai back in a pair of chaps, though, and the film just feels like a pale imitation of the original. But as American films become more international, and international films become more American, the question of who's emulating whom becomes moot.
If Hollywood remakes can't get any respect, their inferiority complex is not wholly unjustified. Mainstream American cinema, after all, can bludgeon viewers with heavy-handed literalism, while Scandinavian cinema has traditionally been more comfortable letting viewers supply the film's meaning. "My European view is to have the audience reflect, interact with the story, draw their own conclusions," says Henrik Genz, the director of TerriblyHappy, who will also direct the American remake, "not just sit back and let the music tell you what to feel and the dialogue tell you what to think." Casting, too, can work against a film—the Swedish version of The Girl With theDragon Tattoo stars a gritty, butch Noomi Rapace as heroine Lisbeth Salander, while Kristen Stewart is rumored to be in contention for the American version. No matter how much Stewart grunges herself up for the part, it would be hard not to think, hey, there's Bella from Twilight with greasy hair and torn cuticles.
The contrast in sensibility is often most stark in the way the action is resolved, or, in the case of European films, left unresolved. When foreign directors borrow American genres, they feel no need to wrap up their stories with a bow; Hollywood directors usually can't help themselves from slapping a huge smiley face over the closing credits. The most egregious example might be the remake of the Dutch thriller The Vanishing. In the original, the ending is horrifying, yet bloodless. In the American remake, the villain is dispatched, and the hero and his girlfriend wind up laughing about the whole thing, robbing the viewers of any lingering sense of dread. Terribly Happy, Let the Right One In, and After the Wedding all end ambiguously at best. Genz, who will direct the remake of Terribly Happy, says he'll try to stay true to the original in one regard: "If we give it a traditional American happy ending, then I'm out." No word on whether his plans involve a skateboarding dog.