How an Italian film of 2016 has already notched up 18 different remakes – and there are likely more on the way as well.
Here’s a question: which film do you think you’ve seen the most iterations of? I’m talking about the same story, officially remade multiple times.
For example, perhaps you’re familiar with all four Hollywood productions of A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976 and 2018), or perhaps you’re a big Jane Austen fan, owning the three feature film adaptations of Pride & Prejudice as well as some of the many TV miniseries to boot. Well over the last week or so I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole of Perfect Strangers, officially the most remade movie of all time according to the Guinness World Records.
Originally released in Italy, Perfect Strangers (Perfetti Sconosciuti in Italian) has been remade an astonishing 18 – eighteen! – times in as many different counties. Even more surprising is the fact that it only came out in 2016. That’s right, 18 remakes in less than five years, with more on the way. And these are real movies, theatrically released, not cheap straight-to-DVD fair or amateur films. In fact, they’re rather profitable.
So how does this happen, how does a seemingly ordinary Italian drama take world cinema by storm? Is it just a question of profitability, or is there something uniquely universal about the story? Well, let’s start at the beginning to try and find out.
The first iteration of Perfect Strangers was written and directed by Paolo Genovese and released in Italy on 11th February 2016. It’s a pretty straightforward adult drama about a group of seven middle-aged friends (three couples, plus one) who get together for a wine-filled dinner on the night of a lunar eclipse. They agree to play a party game where each person places their phone on the table and during the course of the evening has to make public every text, call, and message they receive, no matter how personal.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say the game ends in disaster for this particularly adulterous and deceitful group of friends. Still, there’s a slight twist to the ending that I won’t give away here.
Overall it’s a remarkably compelling film, given that it takes place almost entirely in one, relatively banal dining room, and consists of people sitting down and bantering in increasingly combative ways. The script feels like something written for the stage, structurally resembling play adaptations like The Boys In The Band and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf in the way it manages to stretch out the social tension of the scenario, and build to a series of reveals that feel like they’re adding to each other as opposed to just happening sequentially.
Genovese’s camerawork is simple and clear, nothing to write home about, but his script is a sharp and crafty look at the inevitable duplicitousness in modern, technologically augmented relationships.
For a film with such small scope Perfetti Sconosciuti did surprisingly well on release, debuting at number one in the Italian box office. It got good critical reviews, bagged a couple of festival awards, and took home best film at the David de Donatellos (Italian Oscars). To date it has grossed over $30 million US, multiple times its estimated budget.
It was still playing in theatres in fact, when production commenced on the first remake, by Greek director Thodoris Atheridis. Released in December 2016 just ten months after the original, this version made less of an impact and is a lot harder to track down. It was close to a year before another remake arrived, this time from Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia, in November 2017.
Perfectos Desconocidos (I’m sure you can figure out the translation by now) is almost word for word the same film as the original. The camerawork is flashier and the music differs in places but otherwise it’s spookily similar to Genovese’s film. The most interesting aspects of watching this version are the slight cultural differences, the food and the design of the main apartment for example. It’s also altogether livelier. Some of this is the more dynamic camera and some is due to a heightened sauciness in the performances. I’d say the film overall is less believable but I was more convinced of the sexual infidelity of the group.
As well as having an almost identical plot and runtime, Perfectos Desconocidos also replicated the box office success of the Italian original, becoming the second highest-grossing Spanish language film in Spain in 2017, and making $31 million overall on an estimated $4 million budget. This financial lightning striking twice led to the Perfect Strangers idea getting treated like The Office TV show 15 years ago, with dozens of countries now interested in producing their own versions.
2018 was the year things really took off, with remakes releasing in Turkey, France, Mexico, China, Hungry and South Korea. The basic story of Perfect Strangers allows for a short, simple and cheap production, and can be relocated almost anywhere in the world just by changing background details. It makes it easy for countries to recreate a proven, successful idea for domestic audiences that often have to put up with dubbed American blockbusters crowding out local movie theatres. It helps that the film’s themes seem to be universally applicable as well.
Director Lee Jae-kyoo seamlessly transposed the concept across cultures for the South Korean remake, titled Intimate Strangers. This version is still about as enjoyable as the original, proving the film can work outside of a European setting despite differences in social norms. Once again the style, production design and cultural references are localised (there’s a lot of talk of military service in this one) but it’s surprising just how malleable the conceit is. It seems every country has its fair share of middle class couples who lead secret lives, and whose various relationships hang by the thread of a misplaced text.
Most of the remakes follow this trend of sticking very close to the original script while changing some of the window dressing. The overall tone changes slightly with different directors as well, but compared to other frequently remade stories there’s a lot of uniformity in the Perfect Strangers cannon. Think of how different the four A Star Is Born films are, or the various adaptations of Robin Hood. Usually with a remake part of the appeal is seeing a filmmaker put a new spin on a familiar tale, but with Perfect Strangers merely changing the language and location is enough.
Lee Jae-kyoo’s version grossed nearly $40 million US, almost eight times its budget, indicating that this premise still has legs, as long as you can find new countries to show it to. Since then there have been versions made in Russia, Armenia, Poland, Germany, Vietnam, Japan, Slovakia and Israel, with more on the way.
Ultimately I think the original film’s down-the-middle approach was what helped it find a wider international audience. The premise has just enough controversy without really offending anyone, just enough cutting edge while still leaving on a positive note, just enough twists and turns without being too clever for its own good. The themes are broad enough to resonate with most contemporary audiences, from almost any background; I mean who can really resist looking through other people’s phones? It’s a story that’s easy to make, easy to localise, and the original creators seem to have no problem liberally giving out the rights to different studios. Add all that together plus a bit of chance and you get the most remade movie of all time, one many of us haven’t heard of.
Most versions of Perfect Strangers are a bit hard to get your hands on if you live in the UK or US, but I’d recommend checking a couple out if you get the chance, just to see what all the international fuss is about. And if you can’t find one have a little patience, odds are a local remake will be hitting your shores before too long….
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