In principle, when it comes to English-language remakes of successful foreign-language films, I’m not as militantly opposed to the idea as some critics. With the right balance of respect and initiative, a reinterpretation can often stand proudly beside the original. William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” (a remake of “The Wages of Fear”), Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia,” Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “The Departed” (a remake of “Infernal Affairs”) and, soon to be in theaters, Jim Mickle’s ingenious gender-flip of Mexican horror hit “We Are What We Are” are among the notable exceptions to a subset of cinema that is, admittedly, crammed with such embarrassments as “Diabolique” and “Swept Away.”
So I’m not immediately panicking at the news that Sony Pictures has optioned a US remake of French auteur Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” — the critically adored prison drama that won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2009, and scooped an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film the following year. But it does give me pause. The film, of course, is one we hold dear to our hearts here at In Contention: coincidentally, Kris and I both named it our #3 film of the year in our Top 10 lists for 2010 and 2009 respectively. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not taking on a property that allows them much room for improvement — so it had better be a very fresh take indeed.
The news that the remake is being driven by the production team of Neal H. Moritz and Toby Jaffe won’t exactly be music to the ears of the film’s arthouse-inclined loyalists. Moritz is most famous for producing all six entries to date in the “Fast and Furious” action franchise, while he and Jaffe have previously collaborated on two less-than-distinguished remakes of Hollywood fare: 2008’s “Prom Night” and last year’s disastrous “Total Recall.” If you’re unfamiliar with Moritz’s lengthy, hit-sprinkled filmography, further perusal will turn up such titles as “Dead Man Down,” “Jack the Giant Slayer,” “The Change-Up,” “The Green Hornet,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Not Another Teen Movie.” In happier news, he also has last year’s delightful “21 Jump Street” to his credit.
Still, it’s not the résumé you’d necessarily expect for a producer on this particular project, and you have to raise your eyebrows slightly at Columbia Picture production president Hannah Minghella’s statement that “[Moritz] has a great track record with this kind of film.” What kind of film exactly is she referring to? He was an executive producer of the hit TV series “Prison Break,” which may be his closest point of reference to “A Prophet,” but even that high-flown jailbreak fantasy is essentially cheese to the chalk of Audiard’s brutal, finely wrought character study.
With those doubts now on the table, it’s only fair to note that there’s no reason why a remake of “A Prophet” shouldn’t be a commercially-minded enterprise: Audiard’s original, after all, was a vast success in its home country, and hardly a specialized item. Indeed, perhaps the best possible alternative incarnation of the film is as a broad, muscular American genre film — one that is hopefully graced with stars as galvanizing as Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, and most importantly, finds an intelligent counterpoint for the original’s fascinatingly conflicted French-Algerian cultural context.
This last point seems crucial to me: stripped of its fractious social politics, “A Prophet” would have been a rather ordinary self-realization narrative. A suitable parallel in the melting pot of America’s prisons shouldn’t be hard to find, but it requires some care and imagination at the writing stage. (Perhaps Moritz and his chosen collaborators would be best off forgetting “Prison Break” and checking out some box-sets of “Oz,” which always struck me as a cultural cousin of sorts to Audiard’s film.)
For his part, Moritz has stated: “This is an epic crime saga with compelling characters and original storytelling. I”m thrilled to have the opportunity to make an English language version of the film and I am grateful to have the trust of Jacques Audiard and his producers, as well as the writers Thomas Bidegain, Nicolas Peufaillit, and Abdel Raouf Dafri.”
He may have Audiard’s trust, but you wouldn’t blame fans of the film for feeling a little more cagey. What do you say? Is this a remake you’re keen to see, or are you feeling a little nervous? Have at it in the comments.