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'Dragon Tattoo': Why do so many foreign remakes struggle?

December 27, 2011 |  8:55 am

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," starring Daniel Craig, did only mediocre business on its opening weekend
On paper, the idea of an English-language "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" made a lot of sense. Take a book that has sold 30 million copies around the world, draw on a concept that's already proved cinematically successful (via a Swedish trilogy) and add big stars and a big filmmaker. A blockbuster is sure to follow.

This past weekend, though, David Fincher's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" showed that the premise was just a little bit flawed. Despite the presence of Daniel Craig and exploits presented in English, the movie picked up $19.4 million over the four-day holiday weekend, good enough for only fourth place in the weekend box-office race.

The idea behind producing a new version was to make the saga of Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander accessible to a far broader audience. But the totals were hardly overwhelming when you consider how many copies the books have sold in the U.S. If the film attracted, say, even 40% of the people who bought Stieg Larsson's first Millennium novel and not a single person more, it still would have made more money.

The numbers will climb, of course; as of Monday, "Dragon Tattoo" had taken in $27 million in the U.S. over six Christmas-week days. But for a release with this much hype and this much brand recognition, that figure doesn't bode screamingly well for future weeks, or a sequel.

Studio Sony understandably points to stiff competition, a long running time and an R rating as inhibitors to the film's success. Those may be factors, but the truth is that "Dragon Tattoo" doesn't need to look at such specific culprits.

Many of Hollywood's star-driven follow-ups to foreign-language hits have been flops. In the last few years, you can count films as diverse as the war drama "Brothers" (a remake of a Danish film) and the buddy comedy "Dinner for Schmucks" (a Steve Carell spin on a French movie) as critical and commercial failures.

Even films that attracted praise -- and "Dragon Tattoo" did, despite some skeptical reviews, like this one from The Times' Kenneth Turan -- didn't bring out many people to see them. "Let Me In," which like "Tattoo" remade a Swedish cult hit, and "The Debt," which took on an Israeli title, were both lightly seen. (Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," a remake of the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs," is a notable exception.)

No single theory explains why so many foreign remakes fail, though pundits will note that a foreign sensibility can get lost in translation. And many moviegoers will nonetheless have a sense that the new movie isn't very new (even if a relative few actually went out to see the original).

And all of this points to one truth: The idea of taking a compelling foreign story and giving it a Hollywood gloss doesn't work nearly as well as its backers might think. It's a worthy lesson as other remakes -- such as new versions of Argentine Oscar winner "The Secret in Their Eyes" and a Ben Affleck take on French thriller "Tell No One" -- move through the pipeline.

As "Dragon Tattoo" was opening this weekend, Sony took the unusual step of emailing reporters favorable reviews from the Swedish media. For anyone who thought Hollywood was tin-earedly messing with an original, the message seemed to be, here's what the birthplace of said original had to say.

Like the newspaper Dagens Nyether, which, as the email informed, judged Fincher's picture "a luxurious and venous film that by far surpasses the Swedish version." As those who've been making new versions of foreign-language hits have been discovering, though, praise like that doesn't much matter in this country.


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Movie Review: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

"Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is cool and crafted, critics say

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Rooney Mara in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Credit: Sony Pictures