It is a truth universally acknowledged that American TV executives love to plunder British television for their material, hence the remakes of Shameless, Skins, Till Death Us Do Part (as All in the Family) and Broadchurch (Gracepoint). But they all had one thing in common: they sucked. True, many people preferred the American retool of The Office – and not just because it didn’t star Ricky Gervais – but it is the exception that proves the rule.
What is less widely acknowledged is that British and American asset-strippers remake foreign-language TV shows so that viewers in our monoglot polities don’t have to watch stuff with subtitles. The latest example is Ten Percent, a remake of the French comedy drama Dix Pour Cent, curiously broadcast on Netflix under the title Call My Agent!.
Here, we look at 10 other remakes and ask: were they better or worse than the original?
This British-French crime drama was adapted from the 2011 Danish-Swedish series The Bridge (Broen/Bron). The original revolved around the outlandish idea that a corpse had been found on the marvellous Øresund (or Öresund) bridge, straddling two countries and two police jurisdictions.
Enter the odd couple Saga Norén (played by Sofia Helin), a gifted but emotionally distant and socially awkward Malmö detective, and her Copenhagen-based counterpart Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), a cheery serial philanderer, who have to work together to solve the mystery.
If only anyone had listened to my pitch for an English-Welsh drama that begins with a dead sheep on the Severn Bridge, The Tunnel might not have existed. But, for three series, it did. It trumped The Bridge in bleakness since, as you will know if you have spent the 20 minutes on the Eurostar between Folkestone and Calais, it is darker down there than a Scandi noir has ever managed to be.
In The Tunnel, the cross-cultural dynamic between Helin and Bodnia was replaced by the froideur of a Franco-English mesalliance between the French cop Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poésy) and the British plod Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane).
As in the original, the entente didn’t get very cordiale: there was as much sexual tension between the two protagonists as there was between Michel Barnier and David Davis during Brexit negotiations. But the remake added something missing from the original: an Anglo-French relationship of mutual suspicion. The Tunnel may not be the only reason Brexit happened, but it didn’t help.
It’s a Knockout
It was the Italians’ fault. In 1959, a TV gameshow called Campanile Sera pitted teams representing two towns against each other in a series of games featuring obstacle courses.
In 1962, French telly bosses, bereft after a dispute prevented the broadcast of the Tour de France, filled the schedule with their own version, called Intervilles. Live cows and bulls were among those corralled into battles of civic pride so fractious that Charles de Gaulle reportedly altered his schedule so that he could watch the weekly antics.
Only in 1966 did the British get their own version. It’s a Knockout featured bizarre games, such as the one where a woman was pelted with bags of flour by opposing players while she bounced up and down on a trampoline and attempted to bat away the projectiles with a tennis racket.
It’s a Knockout was never officially cancelled, but there are no plans for it to return to our screens. Happily, the French format continues.
The 2012 dystopian Swedish drama Äkta Människor (Real Humans) posited that, in the near future, hubots (a portmanteau of humans and robots) will be bought as domestic servants, making humans redundant in many workplaces. What’s more, hubots will be illicitly hacked to become humans’ sexual partners. A year after its release, the format was sold to 50 countries.
Gemma Chan played a domestic robot in Channel 4’s Humans. Understandably, she balked at having sex with Katherine Parkinson’s errant husband. Later, as in the Swedish version, she became involved with a maverick group of synthetic beings who rose up against their mentally and physically weaker masters.
The Swedish original was cancelled after two series. The British clone lasted for three. A Mandarin replicant started broadcasting last year. As Swedish exports go, Äkta Människor proved not quite as successful as Ikea.
Long before Kenneth Branagh decided his destiny was to spend hours in makeup having ludicrous moustaches applied to his face so that he could play Hercule Poirot, he interpreted another Euro shamus, namely Kurt Wallander, the hero of Henning Mankell’s most popular crime series.
Over four series (so far), Branagh proved more satisfyingly lugubrious than even the two great Swedish-language interpreters of Wallander, Rolf Lassgård and Krister Henriksson. Not that it is a competition – each was cherishable. Nonetheless, it seemed wrong that Branagh’s Wallander spoke English yet read Swedish newspapers.
For all his excellence as a detective spiralling into a mid-life existential crisis, Branagh has not yet played Wallander as he descends into dementia, as Henriksson did. I still get chills thinking of the scene in which Henriksson’s Wallander pulled back the clothes in his wardrobe to reveal a wall of Post-it notes, each reminding him of something he must not forget.
In the 2015 Israeli TV drama False Flag, five ordinary Israelis woke to find themselves the leading suspects in the kidnap and possible murder of the Iranian minister of defence. Were they being fitted up for the crime? Were they as innocent as they claimed? Was Mossad, in fact, responsible for the kidnap?
This year, this drama was adapted as Suspicion for Apple TV+. The action was shifted to New York, where the son of Katherine Newman (Uma Thurman), an American PR guru and possible future ambassador to the UK, disappeared from a luxury hotel after being attacked by four British assailants. In a cute touch, the assailants wore masks of the royal family.
As in the Israeli original, there were lots of questions. Were the four Britons named for the crime the real perps? Was there a conspiracy to blame them for something they never did? Why did none of the kidnappers get to wear a Prince Andrew mask?
The real mystery of the adaptation was how Thurman got so much press for such a tiny cameo. “This thriller is about as forgettable as they come,” concluded the Hollywood Reporter. This is a shame, since the original was memorable – and not only because it was based loosely on the 2010 assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the co-founder of the military wing of the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas.
One of the great joys of Sofie Gråbøl’s performance as the Copenhagen homicide detective Sarah Lund in Forbrydelsen (The Killing) was that she was not so much a woman in a man’s world as a traditionally male character played by a woman. She was as maverick as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and a frightening obsessive, like John Wayne in The Searchers.
Eleven years ago, Forbrydelsen captivated British viewers. It averaged 500,000 viewers each episode when it screened on BBC Four in 2011 – and it led to Lund-style Faroese sweaters becoming must-have knitwear that year.
But the show did not take off in the US. “I don’t think the original will ever screen there,” the creator Søren Sveistrup told me in 2011. “It’s unthinkable that Americans would ever screen it with subtitles.” Hence the 2011 remake, starring Mireille Enos as Detective Sarah Linden, investigating a murder in Seattle, a US city as wet as Copenhagen.
But while the US version received ecstatic reviews and many awards across the Atlantic, it induced only a sense of deja vu in many European viewers. The adaptation was very close to the original, not just in terms of the knitwear, but also with the case Linden investigated in the first series. As with Branagh’s Wallander, though, perhaps there is room enough in the world for both versions.
Hatufim, the espionage drama on which Channel 4’s US hit Homeland was based, became Israel’s highest-rated drama when it was broadcast in 2010. Before a single frame of it was shot, the story was bought by US TV for an English-language adaptation.
The showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon had finished working on 24 and developed Homeland as a thriller every bit as tense as the Kiefer Sutherland crime vehicle. Claire Danes was cast as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative with bipolar disorder, while Damian Lewis played Nicholas Brody, a Marine Corps scout sniper traumatised after his kidnap and torture by al-Qaida.
The pilot of Homeland cost more than both seasons of Hatufim. The dramatic focus shifted in the remake on to the relationship between Mathison and Brody and, later, on to her mental health.
Gideon Raff, who created, wrote and directed Hatufim (which means abductees in Hebrew), became an executive producer on Homeland. He told the Guardian the two dramas catered for different sensibilities: “What’s relevant for an American audience is the enemy within, whether the war hero’s been turned. Israeli audiences are more interested in the relationships, the emotional ride, the secrets and suspense.”
In 1999, a handsome playboy called Armando Mendoza became the head of Colombia’s leading couture company, Eco Moda. But, as so often happens in life and art, his good looks were inversely proportional to his business acumen. Were it not for the fact that his secretary, Beatriz “Betty” Pinzón, had fallen in love with him and was covering for his incompetence, Eco Moda’s board of directors would have binned him off sharpish.
But eventually the firm’s ruin came to light, Mendoza’s Prince Charming was disgraced and Betty fled to the port city of Cartagena, where she had an emotional and physical makeover, returning in triumph – minus her unbecoming specs and unfortunate fringe – to become the new president of the firm.
Such was Yo Soy Betty, la Fea (which translates as I Am Betty, the Ugly One), one of the best-rated dramas in Latin America. Essentially a soap opera Cinderella with a fast-fashion twist, but minus the validation by Prince Charming, it was shown around the world in dubbed or subtitled versions. I particularly love the title of the Japanese version – Betty, Ai to Uragiri no Hishojitsu which, as you know, translates as Betty, the Secretarial Office of Love and Betrayal.
Only in 2006 did ABC in the US make an English-language version called Ugly Betty. America Ferrera played Betty Suarez, a hapless, bespectacled assistant made to do ridiculous jobs and work ludicrously long hours for her fearsome boss, the editor of a grotesque fashion magazine. She also fell prey to bitchy remarks from colleagues who, implausibly, could afford to wear Roland Mouret cocktail dresses to work. It established a cult audience. But as Hadley Freeman pointed out in the Guardian, storylines were too predictable and jokes well worn. No one needed another gag about a haute couture poncho.
The Good Doctor
Several Korean-language dramas have been remade in English. In the 2013 medical drama Gut Dakteo, Joo Won played Park Si-on, an autistic savant given six months to prove himself as a resident in the paediatrics department of a hospital. Some colleagues distrusted him, thinking he was a soulless robot who couldn’t empathise with his patients. Unsurprisingly, this proved to be nonsense. Si-on quickly became the kind of hero that TV dramas, especially medical ones, favour: an underdog of a genius battling prejudice, finding love and saving lives.
In 2017, Gut Dakteo was remade in the US as The Good Doctor. Freddie Highmore played Shaun Murphy, a young autistic savant surgical resident at a fictional hospital in San Jose, California. It quickly filled the voids left by Nurse Jackie, House and ER. But there was a visual twist: when the director was particularly keen on calling attention to his genius, organs, veins and glands floated above his head like illustrations ripped from a medical-school textbook.
The Good Doctor, like the original, became an award-winning drama and resonated with many people on the autism spectrum. “The Good Doctor does a fine job of navigating this razor’s edge,” wrote Kerry Magro on the website Autism Speaks, noting that it shows “several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis … such as social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, playing with his hands during stressful situations”. The show was recently renewed for a sixth series.
In a small French mountain town, the dead begin to return as if their deaths never happened. This was the premise of Les Revenants, a 2004 French film that was adapted into a Canal+ series of the same name in 2012. It aired, despite the subtitles, to much acclaim on Netflix.
Not so the 2015 US adaptation, The Returned, even though it transferred the action from the French Alps to the marvellously named town of Squamish in British Columbia.
The problem for Brian Moylan, writing in the Guardian, was that he could not connect with the characters’ plight, only with the $18m modernist house in which one of the families lived. “It is so beautiful, especially when lit up at night. Seriously, when I think of this show, I just think of that house. That’s probably a bad sign.” And it was: the remake was cancelled after one series.