Hollywood adaptations of asian movies

A lot was riding on the success of Ghost in the Shell. The upcoming wave of anime adaptations such as Death Note and Akira, Paramount Pictures’ chance for a new sci-fi franchise led by Scarlett Johansson, and the chance to stymie the steadily-growing outcry against whitewashing.

But when Ghost in the Shell limped into theaters last weekend, bringing in a meager $20 million domestically on a $110 million budget, that may have spelled the end for Hollywood adaptations of anime classics. But this is not the first time Hollywood has tried and failed to remake a critically and financially successful film based on an Asian property — nor will it be the last time. The question I’m interested in answering is whether or not these Hollywood adaptations of Asian movies actually make money. Let’s look at the numbers. 

Certainly, there have been a share of successes: The Departed was adapted from the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs by director Martin Scorsese and it went on to win scores of awards. The Ring was brought over to the States after the success of the Japanese Ringu, and went on to spawn multiple sequels and spin-offs. And let’s not forget Godzilla, which is based on a beloved and culturally specific Japanese creature feature (it will always be ironic that Hollywood made a franchise out of Gojira, which itself was a commentary on nuclear fears brought on by the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

Godzilla 2014 vs Shin Godzilla

Comparing Box Office Numbers

For the purposes of not delving into every remake of an Akira Kurosawa film (Hollywood really likes remaking Yojimbo) and for the most accurate box office data (courtesy of Box Office Mojo) available, this article only chronicles adaptations of Asian films made in the last 15 years.

Oldboy 2013 vs Oldboy 2003

Oldboy (2013), remake of Oldboy (Korea, 2003): $4.9 million worldwide from $30 million budget vs. $15 million worldwide from $3 million budget.

Winner: Korea.

Godzilla (2014), remake of Gojira (Japan, 1954), comparing to latest film Shin Godzilla (2016): $529.1 million worldwide from $160 million budget vs. $77.9 million worldwide from $15 million budget.

Winner: Japan.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2010), remake of Hachiko Monogatari (Japan, 1987): $46.7 million worldwide from $16 million budget vs. $18.1 million domestically from unknown budget.

Winner: Japan. Hachi didn’t open in U.S. theaters.

Dragonball: Evolution (2009), adaptation of Dragon Ball, compared to the latest film, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods (Japan, 2013): $57 million worldwide ($9 million of which was earned domestically) from $30 million budget vs. $51.2 million worldwide from $5 million budget.

Winner: Japan. For obvious reasons.

The Uninvited vs A Tale of Two Sisters

The Uninvited (2009), remake of A Tale of Two Sisters (Korea, 2003): $41.62 million worldwide from an unknown budget vs. $1 million worldwide from a $3.7 million budget.

Winner: U.S. It should be noted that A Tale of Two Sisters is the highest-grossing Korean horror film, and the first to be screened in American theaters.

Possession (2009), remake of Addicted (Korea, 2002): $682,273 worldwide from an unknown budget vs. $4.086 million from an unknown budget.

Winner: Korea.

Shutter (2008), remake of Shutter (Thailand, 2004): $47.9 million worldwide from $8 million budget vs. $7 million worldwide from unknown budget.
Winner: U.S.

One Missed Call (2008), remake of Chakushin Ari (Japan, 2004): $26.9 million domestically from a $20 million budget vs. $16.23 million domestically from a $1.7 million budget.

Winner: Japan.

The Eye (2008), remake of The Eye (China, 2002): $31.4 million domestically from a $12 million budget; $1.8 million domestically from from $3.2 million budget.

Winner: U.S.

The Departed vs. Infernal Affairs

The Departed (2006), remake of Infernal Affairs (China, 2002): $289.8 million worldwide from $90 million budget; $8.7 million worldwide from $6.4 million budget.

Winner: U.S.

Dark Water (2005), remake of Dark Water (Japan, 2002): $49.5 million worldwide from $30 million budget vs. $1.5 million worldwide from unknown budget.

Winner: U.S.

Shall We Dance? (2004), remake of Shall We Dance? (Japan, 1996): $57.9 million domestic from $50 million budget vs. $9.5 million domestic from unknown budget.

Winner: Japan.

The Grudge (2004), remake of Ju-on: The Grudge (Japan, 2003): $187.2 million worldwide from $10 million budget vs. $3.1 million worldwide from unknown budget.

Winner: U.S.

The Ring vs Ringu

The Ring (2002), remake of Ringu (Japan, 1998): $129.1 million domestically from $48 million budget vs. $9.1 million domestically from $1.2 million budget.

Winner: U.S.

Disclaimer: This list does not include Bangkok Dangerous (Bangkok Dangerous, Thailand), The Lake House (Il Mare, Korea)Pulse (Kairo, Japan), and Mirrors (Into the Mirror, Korea) because there wasn’t sufficient box office information for the Korean and Japanese releases.

Out of 14 films, eight U.S. films did better at the box office than the original version. So judging from the last 15 years of box office numbers, it’s about a 50-50 chance that the U.S. adaptation will be more successful than the original from China, Japan or Korea.

Often, it is horror movie remakes that do the best when released Stateside — a bigger production of a fairly universal story will successfully bring the films to a bigger audience, even if those horror films lose the originals’ nuance or cultural context. A Tale of Two Sisters, for example, was rooted in a distinctly Korean folk tale, “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon,” while The Grudge was so rooted in Japanese urban horror myths that the U.S. version sets its new adaptation in Japan, just with Sarah Michelle Gellar inexplicably in the lead role.

Death Note Netflix 2017

The Case Against Adaptations

Ghost in the Shell’s box office haul tips the scales against Hollywood — not just in the numbers, but in the debate revolving around whitewashing, following steps of failures like The Last Airbender, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Aloha and Pan, as well as recent outcry surrounding The Great Wall, Doctor Strange and Iron Fist. Ghost in the Shell may too be the tipping point against the flood of misguided adaptations of Asian films that we’ve seen in the past decade.

Death Note, the next anime franchise and Japanese live-action film to be adapted with an American cast and crew, has already accumulated scores of petitions protesting its casting and development — meeting more resistance than other past American adaptations of Asian properties like The Ring, The Grudge, and The Departed.

American adaptations of Korean hit films like last year’s Train to Busan and 2006’s The Host are still planned, though with the resounding failure of Spike Lee’s Oldboy at the box office, they too may not see their stories adapted for the States.

So what does this mean? Should Hollywood should stop adapting foreign films altogether? Not at all — I’m aware that it’s a practice that has been done since the beginning of cinema. French, German, Swedish films are remade every year, some of which become more beloved than the originals. It’s all a matter of approaching the material from the right perspective.

The Great Wall

Bringing More Foreign Films to the U.S.

But if Japan, Korea or China are already making classic movies, why not distribute more of the originals to theaters in the U.S. — without needing to place a white actor at the center of the film? The main reason, major studios have been arguing, is that Americans are notoriously resistant to reading subtitles and wouldn’t go to the theaters for foreign films.

However, the rising popularity of movies from foreign film festivals like Cannes, as well as the increase in major Hollywood stars acting in foreign productions have started a trend toward greater acceptance of subtitles. Just last year Park Chan-wook’s lesbian Gothic thriller The Handmaiden sold out on deals to screen in U.S. and international theaters.

Additionally, a new report by the Motion Picture Association of America shows that more minorities, including African-Americans and Asian-Americans, were going to the movie theater in 2016. The number of regular Asian ticket-buyers jumped from 3.2 million to 3.9 million since 2015, and while Asians account for 8 percent of the U.S. population, they made up 11 percent of frequent moviegoers last year. Indeed, Asian-Americans are showing up in force at the box office, over-represented the most of any group in terms of per capita ticket buying in 2016, which may explain the increased interest in foreign films from China, Japan and Korea, as well as the bombing films dogged by diversity controversies like Ghost in the Shell.

Hollywood, like every other international movie industry is wont to do, can and will continue adapt successful foreign franchises — it’s a way to easily introduce unfamiliar stories in ways for their audiences to understand.

The beacon of successful adaptation will probably always be The Departed, where Scorsese took the skeleton of Infernal Affairs and dropped the Buddhist subtext for a distinctly Catholic/Bostonian take on the codependent tension between police and organized crime.

But perhaps Hollywood will learn from flops like Ghost in the Shell, Oldboy, or heck, even Hachi, that they can leave classics be. And if they must adapt a story, approach it mindful of the cultural differences and context, and don’t just mimic the original without understanding what makes it tick.

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Correction: A pervious version of this article incorrectly compared the domestic and worldwide box offices of Godzilla (2014) vs. Shin Godzilla (2016), and The Ring vs. Ringu.

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