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Perfect Strangers – film adaptations

Italy - Perfect Strangers poster

Movie: Perfetti Sconosciuti (Perfect Strangers)
Director: Paolo Genovese
Released: 2016
No. of adaptations: >25

We first watched Paolo Genovese’s 2016 Italian film Perfetti Sconosciuti (Perfect Strangers) and then only realised, while watching the Arabic production of As7ab Wala A3az from 2022 (a joint Egypt, Lebanon and UAE collaboration), that the latter was an obvious adaptation of the other. We subsequently found and watched the 2017 Spanish version titled Perfectos desconocidos, the 2019 German version titled Das perfekte Geheimnis and the 2022 Indonesian version titled Perfect Strangers. We were intrigued as to why and how the same film would be remade, albeit with in a different language and setting, with subtle directorial changes and even a slightly different ending, to suit its intended audience. 

With some research, we learnt that this film Perfect Strangers holds the record for the number of adaptations into other languages, currently standing at more than twenty-five. So far, we’ve only watched five of these, but the full list of the alternative language versions made so far is impressive. Even the choice of titles may be a giveaway of the cultural differences and adjustments that are required to make this universal gem work in differing linguistic and social contexts, all with at least roughly and at most exactly, the same premise: 

2016 – Italy – Perfetti sconoscuitti (Perfect Strangers) + 

2016 – Greece – Τέλειοι Ξένοι (Perfect Strangers) 

2017 – Spain – Perfectos desconocidos (Perfect Strangers) + 

2018 – France – Le jeu (The Game) or (Nothing to Hide) 

2018 – Türkiye Cebimdeki Yabanci (Stranger in my pocket)

2018 – Mexico – Perfectos desconocidos(Perfect Strangers) 

2018 – South Korea – 완벽한 타인Wanbeokhan tain (Intimate Strangers) 

2018 – Hungary – Búék (Happy New Year) 

2018 – China – 电狂Lai Dian Luang Xiang (Kill Mobile) 

2019 – Germany – Das perfekte Geheimnis (The Perfect Secret) +

2019 – Russia – Громкая связь (Loud Connection) 

2019 – Poland – (Nie)znajomi (Strangers) 

2019 – Armenia – Անհայտ բաժանորդ (Unknown Subscriber) 

2020 – Vietnam – Tiệc trăng máu (Blood Moon Party) 

2021 – Romania – Complet Necunoscuti (Complete Strangers) 

2021 – Netherlands – Alles op tafel (Everything on the Table) 

2021 – Slovakia/ Czechia – Známi Neznámi (Known Unknown) 

2021 – Israel – זרים מושלמים Tarim Mushlamim (Perfect Strangers) 

2021 – Japan – おとなの事情 スマホをのぞいたら (Adult Circumstances: When you Look at Your Smartphone) 

2022 – Norway – Full dekning (Full Coverage) 

2022 – Egypt, Lebanon, UAE – أصحاب …ولا أعزّ As7ab Wala A3az (Secret Message) + 

2022 – Indonesia – Perfect Strangers +

2022 – Azerbaijan – Geri Dönənlər (The Returners) 

2023 – Iceland – Villibráð (Wild Game) 

2023 – Denmark – Hygge! (Fun) 

TBC – India – Khel Khel Me (In Fun) 

Note +: the ones we’ve watched so far

Other cross-cultural film adaptations

Remakes of films into other languages has always been common, but never with as many versions as this one. Recent examples of film remakes would be A Man Called Otto, a Hollywood adaptation of the Swedish A Man Called Ove, in which Tom Hanks delivers a fresh and presumably more accessible version of a charming character and story for Americans who, for some reason, aren’t able to appreciate a film if they had to read subtitles. CODA was another successful American remake of the immensely heartwarming 2014 French film La Famille Bélier. This Americanised remake won many awards and accolades, including the prized 2022 Oscar for Best Picture. It was about a non-deaf child with a unique singing talent finding her own way forward as the only non-hearing-impaired member of a closely knit family, although the translation also required a change in the social context; from a regional farming to a coastal fishing one in transferring it from France to the USA. 

Back in 2006, we saw a major American remake of the 2002 Hong Kong hit film Infernal Affairs, which originally featured popular actors Andy Lau and Tony Leung. The American-Hollywood adaptation of the film, which was retitled The Departed, was about the relationship between a mole in the police department and an undercover cop. It was directed by no less than Martin Scorsese and starred many A-list actors such as Leonardo di Caprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Walberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin. The remake went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The whole episode wouldn’t have been so offensive if the Academy hadn’t been so disrespectful and dismissive of the original creators of the film when they had presenters at the award ceremony incorrectly referring to it as a remake of a Korean film! 

Infernal Affairs poster (landscape)
The Departed poster (landscape)

Contemporary plot, universal social themes

The plot for Perfect Strangers is simple and straightforward. A quote from Gabriel García Márquez which was used in the promotion of the original Italian version of the film reads, ‘All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret’ and this forms a core premise which the piece exploits. 

Seven close friends gather for a dinner party on the evening of a total eclipse of the moon. Early in the meal, one of the friends, a relationship therapist named Eva, postulates that many couples would separate if they saw the messages on each other’s phones. A debate ensues over this proposition, but they eventually agree to play a game. They would each place their mobile phones on the table and would openly share their messages and calls with the rest of the group. 

The game seems harmless at first, with no one having anything to hide. Gradually, however, the calls and messages become more compromising and revealing. We learn that one of the married women is having an affair and the man who has been pretending to have an absent girlfriend is not whom he seems to be. As the calls continue, the web of secrets and lies becomes more and more entangled. Almost no one at the table is spared. By the end of the evening, the group’s friendships, marriages, and romances have been shattered. 

When the drama subsides, the guests behave as if nothing has happened, and they leave the apartment. And the relationships appear to remain exactly as they were at the start of the evening. The game, it seems, and all that it uncovered, never happened. 

What lends it to so many adaptations?

From a production standpoint, the film revolves around the events of a single, linear, continuous event, taking place in one location. It is highly script and plot dependent, relying on the good ensemble acting delivery of a small cast of actors in a play-like, theatrical staged setting. It doesn’t require a prohibitive budget and is relatively easy to produce, which may be a key factor in why it has been taken up by film producers in so many countries. 

For a film like Perfect Strangers to work, it really must connect with its audiences who must care about the characters at the table into whose lives they are voyeurs. With such a good engaging script we were able to sustain our interest in the proceedings despite having seen the show three times, albeit in a different cultural setting and language. The universality of the story, especially in our contemporary context, is such that no matter where you are in the world, we can all relate to a drama-filled dinner. We have all used our phones as a private space, and many would have experienced the horror of having that being unexpectedly exposed. 

And the film’s social themes—involving tense, secret or even what may be considered illicit inter-personal and sexual relationships—are universal, even if these themes may be viewed differently in different cultural contexts. After watching the Arabic version As7ab Wala A3az (which was jointly produced by entities from Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates), we read that there was some debate and controversy arising from audiences. They were mostly objecting to the nature in which sexual taboos and illicit relationships were dealt with, which are not usually portrayed as openly and positively in other locally made films. For an Arabic film it bravely advocates for inclusion, openness, and acceptance in a way that Arabic films rarely would dare to. Despite the controversy, it pushed the boundaries and may well pave the way for and encourage other Arab filmmakers to follow suit, which will eventually have a great social impact, along with any backlash. 

For film producers, generating a remake using local and familiar recognisable actors who would connect better with local audiences may be worth the effort, if the economics are right and anticipated local box office returns are guaranteed.

No English remakes so far

When looking through the list of Perfect Strangers remakes, we notice such a diverse range of languages with one notable omission: English. Given the history of English-language remakes, one would expect there to be one for the most remade film of all time. But surprisingly there’s no British, Australian, or American remake of Perfect Strangers, though there is an English dub of the French Nothing to Hide, despite the potential for strong and iconic ensemble casts revelling in this ‘bomb under the table’ drama. 

But that’s not for a lack of trying. In 2017, an announcement was made in Variety that the Weinstein Company had acquired the rights to produce an English version, with Issa Rae of Insecure set to write and star in film. The studio subsequently went under and as such the film was put on hold. By 2019, the film was announced as still going ahead, with Spyglass Media Group and Eagle Pictures taking on the project with Issa Rae still to be involved, however, that’s all gone very quiet since. 

So, has the absence of an English version with recognisable international stars (which would be easier to dub in a local language for their local audiences) contributed to so many countries deciding to proceed with their own local adaptation instead?

Do we really need multiple versions if subtitles work well enough?

While it is heartening to see so many cultures embracing and re-creating what is clearly a universally appealing film, we wonder if it really needs a remake if subtitles could bridge the gap. Many non-English countries have a long-standing practice of dubbing English films into their own language. I personally tend to prefer watching a non-English film in its original language while reading subtitles. There are several reasons for this. One would be preserving the emotional authenticity of the original acting, knowing well that dubbing can often be unsatisfactory in capturing the dramatic fidelity of the original acting and the nuances of the original language. 

There has been a steady trend for more and more non-English films crossing it into the dominant and mainstream American sphere of films. Since 1997, when Roberto Benigni’s Italian opus Life is Beautiful secured a prized spot as an Oscar nominee for Best Picture in a field usually reserved for English films, we have been seeing more and more non-English films crossing over and infiltrating the realm of Hollywood elitism. In 2018, Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a slow burn retrospective of a year in the life of a Middle-class family in the Mexican suburb of Roma in the 1970s, achieved the same recognition by being selected as a Best Picture nominee for an Oscar. 

The 2019 Korean drama Parasite by Bong Joon Ho, who had a string of Hollywood collaborations prior to this cross-genre yet universally relevant expose on social class, subsequently surprised pundits when it won the Academy’s top Best Picture prize.

This may suggest that more English-speaking members of the Hollywood industry (though not necessarily its general audiences) are now willing to venture into the world of “foreign language” films and to recognise their merit alongside their own American output. Where a concession to this was previously only made in the form of Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognising of ‘foreign’ films (now re-categorised as ‘Best International Feature Film’) nominated by other countries to compete for a separate International top prize.

In 2020, Lee Isaac Chung’s quietly moving Minari was recognised with several awards, including a nomination for Oscar’s Best Picture and other directing, acting, writing and scoring categories. The film was centred on an American Korean immigrant family moving to an Arkansas farm in search of its own American dream. It was delivered mostly in the Korean language and despite being made in America with American funding, was controversially only deemed eligible by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category (which it won) rather than in the open Best Motion Picture (Drama) category, on account of more than 50% of the film’s dialogue wasn’t in English. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, then ‘corrected’ for what was considered antiquated rules by allowing it to be a contender for an Oscar in the Best Picture category. It was, after all, a ubiquitous immigrant American story about the American dream, albeit authentically done in multiple languages that reflected the reality of American life.

To have an idea of the makeup of the overall worldwide film industry, Wikipedia provides a value (based on 2019 statistics) of an annual theatrical box office of US$42.2 billion. The top three continents/regions by box office gross were Asia-Pacific with US$17.8 billion, the USA and Canada with US$11.4 billion, and Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa with US$10.3 billion. As of 2019, the largest markets by box office revenue per country were, in decreasing order, the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, France, and India. And in terms of the number of film productions in 2019, the countries with the largest number of film productions were India (Bollywood), Nigeria (Nollywood), and then United States (Hollywood). The significant centres of film production in Europe are Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. 

So, Hollywood, as much as it may indeed represent the oldest and largest film industry by any country in the world, isn’t necessarily the only or best one.  

Cross-cultural subject matter

Another emerging trend observed is more films having subject matter that is cross-cultural with the use of multiple languages and locations. We’re not, of course, referring to the shallow exoticism or escapism of a Bollywood film shooting a particular scene in, say, Paris or Prague, or a 007 Bond film action sequence set in some exotic foreign location like Marrakech featuring character archetypes based on racial and cultural stereotypes who only speak pidgin. There has been a significant emergence of films featuring stories and fully fleshed-out characters from multiple cultural backgrounds and nationalities, reflecting the reality our increasingly globalised world would have produced. 

Following the unprecedented success of Parasite, we are now seeing a proliferation of Korean American films and TV series being produced. Celine Song’s Past Lives is one of the more recent shining examples. It is set in South Korea, Canada and New York in The United States, and features dialogue in Korean and English. The main protagonists in this film are two close friends who were separated at the age of twelve who eventually reconnect, and then agonise over their romantic feelings for each other and whether they even stood a chance of a meaningful life together, given the massive geographic and socio-cultural barriers that got in the way. Beautifully written, acted and directed, the universality of its themes meant that it didn’t require one to be fully conversant in both the Korean and English language to appreciate the palpable tension and richness of human emotion being conveyed on screen. You only had to be able and willing to read the subtitles to be totally drawn into their unique yet universally relevant worlds.

Past Lives poster (landscape)

In conclusion, there may be a whole raft of reasons as to why Perfect Strangers has been remade so many times while other non-English films haven’t. It could be the lack of an English-language version, the play-like simplicity of the production, or the strength of the concept that translates so well into different cultures, the preference and economic draw of having local actors relate and appeal more to local audiences rather than dubbing an existing film, or perhaps all the above.

So, instead of waiting for the Hollywood remake that may never come, you may wish to give the original Italian version of Perfect Strangers—which spawned such a global phenomenon—or even one of the many other alternative language versions, a fair shot!