Translations and Adaptations

Recently, several credible media outlets announced that Netflix, the current top streaming platform, had bought and ordered an American adaptation of the truly incredible film The Raid. If you have not seen The Raid, oh do I envy your ability to go and see it for the first time as soon as you can. It is an Indonesian martial arts film that tells the story of a Special Forces squad being led into a trap in an apartment complex owned and operated by the crime lord they have been sent to arrest. What follows is roughly 100 minutes of pure, unadulterated action from legitimate, accomplished martial artists. Truly a visceral, no frills, no gimmicks, all out action film. Again, see this film as soon as you can; you will not regret it.

Like a majority of the internet when this article broke, the immediate, and really only, question that came to mind was: why? Genuinely, of all the possible creative works to make, the one that rose above the rest is an Americanized version of The Raid. There are so many potential new works that resources could be given to. Or hell, there are a litany of past failed films, television series, or pilots that never found an audience deserving of a second chance. Yet, the biggest streaming platform with one of the largest purses to dole out money from that sells itself as the artists’ platform decided to make a bastardized, Westernized version of a highly acclaimed and respected foreign action film. And, yes, I know the major reason is money.

For the studios and execs and “money people”, the math of adapting the foreign film into an American version will be in their favor. It will be cheaper to create and launch because writers are merely changing some dialogue and circumstances instead of wholesale creating them, so can pay less or simply get cheaper, less experienced (or skilled) writers. Adjust for other departments and components, but the mentality is still the same: it will be cheaper. Plus, the original was popular and has a following which will obviously translate to having an inbuilt audience for the new version, right? The answer to anyone who has casually kept up with film and television knows the obvious answer: NO.

Ignoring the fact that adapting or translating a work does not inherently mean it will be cheaper or cost effective compared to making an original idea, most adaptations tend not to work or be well received even less so when a foreign film or show is translated to American audiences. Why are they so usually poorly viewed? Well, in case it wasn’t obvious different things tend to be different. I know, seems like such a clear concept, yet somehow outside the bounds and comprehension of many.

I should not have to explain that culture, history, society, experience, etc. influence an artist’s work both explicitly and implicitly. As well, different people, particularly from different backgrounds and countries, have different experiences and backgrounds. Again, seems like such a basic concept, and yet. So, what made foreign films and projects like The Raid, Train to Busan, and others is not just a veneer or aesthetic that can be lifted and put on top of a domestic work like a paintjob. There are specific subtleties and nuances that concern history, culture, race, social contract, etc. utterly outside of an American lens or understanding. There will just be some aspects that will go above American audience’s heads because they are not familiar or part of the culture and community that created that art.

And that is perfectly fine. Everyone will have blind spots when it comes to their knowledge and understanding of the world. That is kind of the point of traveling, studying, and engaging with foreign places and cultures. To learn about them for better understanding and appreciation. Or at least it should be. Which is why so many of these adaptations feel hollow and lifeless. For the most part, they take aesthetics and “cool” looks of the film or television program without the appreciation of the actual themes or the culture that influenced them.

Who knows? Maybe all this is just worrying for naught and the final adaptation on the screen will actually be amazing. One would hope so. Fingers crossed.

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