In 2004, a Danish filmmaker named Susan Bier released a feature called “Brothers,” which so struck a chord with some American filmmakers that they proceeded to remake it for the American audience. This second-generation copy, also called “Brothers,” was released in 2009. Producers on the project replaced writer/director Bier with Irishman Jim Sheridan, the beautiful Connie Nielsen with American actress Natalie Portman, the suave Ulrich Thomsen with Toby Maquire, and the hunky Nikolaj Lie Kass with the even-hunkier Jake Gyllenhaal.
Both films are worth the time it takes to watch them. But experiencing them both is even better, because it provides a nearly complete lesson in screenwriting for Hollywood.
Warning: Spoilers Follow…..
Here are just a few thoughts on the changes Hollywood saw fit to make, and my guesses at the reasons behind them:
An early clue that we are being led by the hand in the American version arrives when the two brothers are driving home after the younger one gets out of prison. They drive past a bank and our hero, the older one, asks the younger one to consider apologizing, which he does only a few screen-minutes later. In the Danish version, the conversation takes place more ambiguously, with no physical anchor like a bank to help us understand what’s happening, and the apology doesn’t happen until much later in the film.
But there are more obvious instances of leading the audience and simplifying the story in the American version. The wives in both films are played by beautiful actresses, but only in the American version is her beauty actually mentioned in the film. When the younger brother, drunk and unable to pay his bar bill, calls his sister-in-law for a ride home, she asks “Which bar?” In the Danish version, the filmmakers see no need for that piece of conversation. Still later, when our hero becomes a prisoner of war, he’s simply locked in a room in the Danish version, while he’s more formidably barricaded into a much less hospitable subterranean dungeon in the American version.
Another simplification concerns our hero’s fellow prisoner of war. In the Danish version, it’s a guy who was already a prisoner before our hero reaches Afghanistan. In the American version, he’s a member of our hero’s own unit whose life he apparently has saved, so there’s a prior relationship and a hint (not well explored) of battlefield comaraderie. There’s also a lot more conversation between the two prisoners in the American version, with our hero ordering the other prisoner not to think about his family and life at home, and not to give up any information to their captors. In the Danish version, there’s almost no conversation between the two prisoners, although our hero does promise they will return home safely, a promise which is omitted from the American copy. In the Danish version, our hero actually commits treason by showing the enemy how to operate a shoulder-fired missile launcher (powerful enough to shoot down a helicopter full of his own guys), and so has twice as much to feel bad about after he returns home. This treason is totally omitted from the American version, simplifying the story.
While significant material in the Danish version is missing in the copy, the American version includes new information that helps guide audience reaction: we learn our hero was the high school quarterback and his wife a cheerleader. She says clearly that she has loved him since she was 16. The father of the two brothers makes explicit that the older brother never quit anything while the younger brother quit far too readily whenever life got difficult for him. I found it interesting that the Afghanis in the Danish version look like stereotypical Talibanis, while the American version has plenty of those types on view, but shows the enemy leader to be smaller, more neatly dressed, wearing glasses, and well-spoken enough to have been educated in the West. In one of the key scenes, our hero wrecks the kitchen his younger brother has generously completed for him, but only in the American version does he use the same destructive tool he used as a prisoner of war, and explain not just that fact but also his feeling of torment and regret over things he did as a prisoner in order to maximize his chances of returning home. In the Danish version, all this remains unspoken.
The father of the two brothers does a lot more explaining in the American version, too: explaining that he likes and admires his older son much more than his younger son, explaining that the younger son needs to get his life together, explaining that his older son is a hero and his younger son is bum, and more.
While much of the dialog and action remains the same in both versions, there are some changes that don’t seem to add much to the story. For example, in the American version the brothers’ mom is dead, replaced by a step-mom, perhaps only to permit casting a younger actress in the part. Another change is made when the younger brother brings a date to a family dinner. Only in the American version do the filmmakers make clear that he met her just one hour ago, and only in the American version does she prattle on about her career aspirations and current job and school situation. Her talk doesn’t help to drive the story forward, but nevertheless it earns some American screen time that more relevant material in the Danish version does not.
The characters are also different in the two films. The war hero is capable of warmth in the Danish version. His brother is much coarser, less ambitious, and it takes him longer to improve. In the American version, Toby Maquire’s war hero comes off as stiff, even brittle, with hardly any warmth or sensitivity. His brother never seems out of control or a wastrel, and begins his smooth, steady reformation relatively early in the film. Our hero’s wife is portrayed very similarly in the two films, but in the Danish version she forcefully removes her children from a dangerous situation. In the American version of this film, she is more passive and does not.
The filmmaking language is different in the two versions, as well. There’s a wonderful moment in the Danish version in which our hero’s wife is ironing her husband’s shirt, then crushes it to her face and cries into it. In the American version, she merely holds the shirt and cries. In the Danish version, the two brothers revisit a sore point between them, and the younger brother reacts by impulsively storming off and walking alone into the distance, then sheepishly shows up later at his brother’s home. In the American version, that simply doesn’t happen. There’s also somewhat more action, although there’s no shortage of guns and explosions in the original Danish version. At one point, our hero in the Danish version creates a situation where local cops might shoot him dead. In the American version, he uses his own gun instead of one he lifts from a cop’s holster, and he threatens to blow his own head off instead of inciting the cops to do it for him. Finally, our hero in the Danish version merely cries at the climax, while our hero in the American version also gets dialog to indicate the reasons for his torment. It’s the same ending, but one is for grown ups, the other is for people who can’t easily connect the dots.
And that’s the real difference between these films. The Danish version seems made for an audience of relatively intelligent people who can understand a character’s conflicts and pain without much guidance because they’re sensitive to these matters in their own lives. It’s paced and portrayed for an audience that can interpret events on the screen and draw their own conclusions about what any part of it means. The American version seems to be aimed at a younger and less sophisticated audience. To get through to them, the filmmakers ask the audience to do less thinking, simplifying the characters and the plot, laying out events and motivations more clearly, providing more clues about the characters’ inner lives, and even adding explanatory dialog to reduce any ambiguity that may remain.
Rather than do a direct remake of a good film, the Hollywood talents associated with this remake chose to make these and other adjustments. They provide important clues as to the specific elements that Hollywood filmmakers do and do not want to see in a project they deem worthy of greenlighting.
Have you seen both versions of Brothers? What do you think of the differences and the reasons behind them?