Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Knowing Your Audience (What American Remakes can teach you about writing)

One of the questions that every writer should ask themselves is: “Who am I writing for?” The answer to this question may change depending on whether it is fiction or nonfiction, the genre in which the work falls, and how much research was performed on the subject. But the author must know their audience, otherwise the story will be lost in translation.

There are not that many people in America who read novels in both English and other languages. However, most of them have seen movies that originated from other countries. These movies are called, “American Remakes.”

Some are successful at the box office and with critics, but most aren’t. And why is this? Why is a foreign film praised and applauded in its native country, but then critically destroyed here in America, even if the story was adapted exactly? The answer lies in knowing how people perceive a story’s origin and genre.

When we watch a foreign film. Let’s say, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (since it was popular with audiences worldwide), we may not understand everything that is happening from an American standpoint. If something in the movie is foreign to us (and as long as it isn’t too strange), we can still accept it, because we understand on a subconscious level that the film we are experiencing is not of our country. Our critique of the film is not as strong because we have nothing to really base it on, unless of course, we have already immersed ourselves in that particular culture.

When we try to translate these movies for an American audience, suddenly, the reception changes. Even if the story hadn’t been altered except for the language, there is something lost to the American people. American audiences become more critical of these remakes, even if they are unaware they were once foreign films, because they understand to some degree what an American film should feel and look like. The film industry is catering to a whole new audience now and they must understand what makes them happy. Many movies that weren’t received (and had foreign origins) are as follows: Quarantine, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Oldboy, Let the Right One In, The Grudge, Godzilla…

When catering to a specific audience, one must understand that audience’s expectations, culture, collective knowledge and common beliefs. An example of a foreign film done right is The Departed. Based on the Chinese film, Infernal Affairs, The Departed was critically acclaimed, nominated for Academy Awards and overall made good money at the box office. But it wasn’t just the story that captivated audiences, it was the alterations to the narrative that helped it shine.

The director and screenwriters of the remake could have simply followed the premise: A mobster infiltrates the local police while a police officer, in turn, infiltrates the mob, with both parties unaware of each other’s intentions. They could have left it at that.

However, the director decided to take the narrative a step further by immersing it in American culture. Using the Irish mob as a foundation and basing it off of real gangsters in American history, the movie was able to become more than just the average remake. The basic premise may have been taken from the Chinese film, but it was altered and adapted for American audiences. The result was a satisfying and lucrative payout for all those involved.

As writers, we must understand our audiences in order to succeed. It’s not enough anymore to want to write a memoir. We have to now understand who we’re writing it for. Detailing your life on the farm in rural Nebraska won’t resonate so easily with those of inner city New York. What themes in your memoir speak to all people universally? Writing a fantasy novel about a princess finding her prince might be exciting to the author, but how does the story stand out from all of the others? How can a brand new science fiction writer capture the heart of a reader that has been following the genre for decades?

A premise, even the adaptation of a premise, isn’t enough anymore. There has to be a flavor or at the very least, the illusion, of originality. If you tell someone that The Departed, A Fistful of Dollars, True Lies, and Scent of a Woman were all foreign films, they would probably be surprised. But it’s true, and these remakes hold their own alongside the originals.

You may want to be the next George R.R Martin, Philip K. Dick, Victoria Holt, Stephen King, J.K Rowling, or others, but you believe that you lack what it takes to achieve their status of success. Don’t be discouraged. You have the potential to rise even further than they. Immerse yourself into the market you’re writing for, know your readers, understand their likes and dislikes, develop or adapt a powerful premise, and then give it your own unique take for all the world to awe in.

Remember this: even if there are no more original ideas left in the world, there will always, always, be original combinations.

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