Lost in Translation: Looking back at the Arab world’s obsession with remaking ‘The Godfather’
DUBAI: Remakes of Western TV shows and films are all the rage in the Middle East these days and considering the hype over “The Offer,” which dramatizes the making of iconic film “The Godfather,” we take a look at the attempts by Arab filmmakers to remake the Mafia movie.
“The Offer,” now streaming on OSN+ in the region, follows film producer Albert Ruddy as he fights to bring the cinematic masterpiece to the silver screen.
Regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, 1972’s “The Godfather” is about an Italian mafia family headed by Don Vito Corleone, played in the first of a trilogy of films by Marlon Brando. Corleone decides to hand over his empire to his youngest son Michael, played by Al Pacino. However, his decision puts the lives of his loved ones in grave danger.
Scroll down for Arab critics’ ratings of the Middle East’s remakes of the cult Mafia classic.
Not only was the movie influential in the West, but it also inspired filmmakers and production houses in the Middle East.
In 2015, the late Syrian director Hatem Ali created an Arabic version of “The Godfather” for TV called “Al-Arrab” and even borrowed the US film’s iconic logo.
The two-part series, “Al-Arrab: Taht Al-Hezam” and “Al-Arrab: Nady Al-Sharq,” starred Jamal Soliman, Bassem Yakhour, Basel Khayat and Amel Bouchoucha, but was it any good?
Essam Zakaria, an Egyptian critic and artistic director of the Alexandria Film Festival for Mediterranean Cinema, thinks not, describing it as “an inferior production. The story and the details are not convincing.”
According to Saudi film critic and actor Baraa Alem, one of the reasons some remakes are unsuccessful is because they lack the cultural references of the productions on which they are based.
“When you take something that is internationally acclaimed … you cannot just expect me to forget about it totally and re-receive the story from your end as a new story,” he said.
“You talk about ‘The Godfather’ and we remember Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, and whoever you are going to put in that place is never going to have the same emotional load that we have for these characters. You can take the theme and remake it, but you cannot take the cultural aspect. That’s why I find that it is so hard for a remake to succeed.”
Lebanese critic and writer Jamal Fayad said the challenge was in changing the production from a movie to a TV show.
“The difficulty in transforming a movie into a series of 30 episodes is making the script not boring,” Fayad told Arabian Weekly.
“We can take a movie and remake it into a movie; a series and make it a series,” he explained. “But, for us to change a movie and make it a series, it will lose a lot of the joy in the script because the writer will be forced to elongate the scenes. He will reach a point where he will create new scenes and that might spoil the production.”
“The production was good and the actors are all veteran stars from Jamal Soliman to all the actors with him,” Fayad said. “I find that director Hatem Ali, peace be upon him, was amazing. He was always exceptional.”
That same year, “The Godfather” was turned into another Arabic series — also called “Al-Arrab” — starring Salloum Haddad, Assi El-Hallani and Mustafa El-Khani and directed by Syrian filmmaker Muthanna Sobh.
“In both ‘Al-Arrab’ parts that were done, the story expanded and that is not recommended in drama. It’s either we get the same writer and he/she can stretch out the story in his way or we don’t remake the movie into a series,” Fayad said.
Another work inspired by “The Godfather” is the 1991 Egyptian film “Assr El-Qowa,” directed by Nader Galal and starring Egyptian icon Nadia Al-Gendy. But Zakaria described that as “not good at all.”
“Both (the 2015 series and the 1991 film) don’t live up — in any way — to one of the parts of the original production,” he said.
When speaking with Arabian Weekly about “Assr El-Qowa,” Fayad countered and said that he is a fan of Al-Gendy and her work.
“The best thing about Nadia Al-Gendy is that she found a place for herself in the industry that made her the most successful,” he said. “In all her works, she portrayed strong women that can stand against men. Despite that, she never repeated her characters and always portrayed new roles.”
The critics agreed that context matters when it comes to remaking international classics.
Zakaria, who is also an instructor at the film department of the American University in Cairo, told Arabian Weekly that remakes can only succeed if their creators add “something that will touch the society” they are based on.
“They find a successful American or Western movie and they want to steal its success, but they don’t always have something to add,” he said.
“Writing is the hardest part of the production. So they cut this step short, which is considered the most important, and start working after the writing process. This is laziness sometimes (and) not putting enough effort to look for regional ideas.”
Zakaria said a rare example of a successful transition into Arabic was the Egyptian film “Om El-Arousa,” based on the 1950 US film “Father of the Bride.”
“When they transformed it, it became like an original Egyptian movie,” he said. “If the team doing the remake are creative, skilled, have ideas and a vision, it will be good. But, if it is done out of laziness just to do a movie or a series, the result is the inferior productions that we see.”
Meanwhile, the most recent Arabic-language remake — Shahid’s “The Killing,” based on the hit Danish police show of the same name — has also received a warm welcome on social media.
Set in Cairo, the show, which stars Syrian Bassel Khayat and Egyptians Riham Abdel Ghafour, Bassem Samra and Salma Abu-Deif, follows a police investigation into the murder of a young girl.
Remakes versus original story telling
While it is understandable that studios in the Middle East might be drawn to remaking films that have already been successful elsewhere, industry insiders largely agree that original story telling is the way forward.
“I always encourage my friends who write and the writers around me in the Arab world to look for new ideas and find original content that could come from our culture because we have a lot of stories that are not told yet,” Alem said.
“We have heritage and stories. We also have imagination and we have the ability to fantasize and create new worlds and new characters … not just depend on the success of things that were done in the West,” he added.
Fayad walks a middle line, declaring remakes can work if writers take the general idea of the story and built it into something original.
“In this case, we build on the idea with a new script, a new story and new scenes. This is more successful and more convincing,” he said.
Critics get candid
We asked the critics to rate the Arab remakes out of 10 to help you decide if they are worth watching.
“Al-Arrab: Taht Al-Hezam” and “Al-Arrab: Nady Al-Sharq”
Critics rating: 5/10
Critics rating: 5/10
Critics rating: 6/10