Reimagining a foreign film for American audiences is hard; reimagining one with a devoted following among unforgiving cineastes is even harder.
Screenwriter Mark Protosevich was given that very task five years ago by Will Smith and Steven Spielberg, the original actor and director combination attached to the American adaptation of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, which was released on Wednesday. Protosevich and Smith had worked together on I Am Legend, and one day, while working in his office in Provincetown, Mass., Protosevich got a call from Smith asking him to take on this nascent project. He crammed. “Even though I was incredibly familiar with the original film and loved the original film, I hadn’t read the source material,” Protosevich said. (Oldboy, which was released in 2003 and won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, was based on a manga.)
The South Korean Oldboy has become a modern classic not only because of Park’s ornate, violent visual style, but because of its insane ending. Did Spielberg, he of E.T., want to go to that crazy place?
Yes, says Protosevich. “Even in those initial meetings, Steven didn’t want to compromise on the source material,” he said. “The original is very provocative and unsettling, and the twist in the ending is not your normal twist. But he wanted to go for it.”
If you are reading this story, you probably know that in the end, Spielberg did not have to cross that bridge: Spike Lee directed this new Oldboy, and Josh Brolin took Smith’s place. A year after that initial conversation with Smith, and after completing a detailed treatment of his vision for the movie, Protosevich got another phone call: This one was from an executive at DreamWorks, Spielberg’s company, telling him that the movie had fallen apart because Spielberg had pulled out of the project (and therefore, so had Smith).
“You have many soul-crushing days as a screenwriter,” Protosevich said, remembering it with a grimace at BuzzFeed’s office in Los Angeles. “That was a bad one. I was devastated.”
But the producers — Roy Lee, Nathan Kahane, and Doug Davison — wouldn’t give up on Oldboy, and eventually the movie (a more indie version of it) got a new life.
And having become so passionate about it, Protosevich was happy to report that the “initial treatment that I wrote, even when it was Will Smith and Steven Spielberg, is not that different from the final film.”
People who have seen both films will notice that the adaptation has significant differences from the original. Protosevich discussed those changes and omissions in full. My explications and his answers are below — and they are all spoilers, so be warned!
In the original version, the lead character, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), discovers that his tormentor, Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yu), hates him and had kidnapped and imprisoned him because while in school, Dae-su gossiped about Woo-jin and his sister’s sexual relationship (not realizing that they were brother and sister). She committed suicide out of shame. The new movie adds a layer: Joe (Brolin), a fratty bully in high school, sees a schoolmate having sex with an older man, not realizing the man is the girl’s father. He tells everyone, and the girl has to leave school. Joe’s tormentor, Adrian (Sharlto Copley), is her brother, and was also in an incestuous relationship with their father. The father, afraid the family’s secret is about to be exposed, shoots them all and kills himself. Adrian survives, and grows up hating Joe, waiting to exact his revenge.
Protosevich: You hear often about these tragic shootings of a father or uncle or brother or stepfather coming into a house and killing their families. Killing their loved ones and then killing themselves. What drives someone to that point? What horrific circumstances push someone to make that decision? I’m intrigued by those stories. Making it such a violent destruction of his family would propel the villain even more in terms of trying to exact revenge upon the man he holds responsible for what he sees as the tragedy in his family life.
And why the incestuous father/brother/sister change?
Protosevich: I liked the idea of maintaining a parent-child relationship between the villain and Joe. I wanted that echo of a parent with their child. And unfortunately in our society, parental sexual abuse might resonate more with the audience. Those are issues that are important to me in terms of articulating and investigating them.
The famous twist of Oldboy, of course, is that the lead character, having been inexplicably held captive for years and then equally inexplicably released, ends up in a sexual relationship with his daughter, who had been tiny when he disappeared. The new version has preserved that horror. Protosevich did insert a reality crime show that Joe watches while captive that focuses on his daughter (he is wanted for her mother’s murder). So both he and the movie’s audience thinks it knows what she looks like. It turns out that Adrian produced this show with an actress playing the daughter.
Protosevich: Because there’s the TV in his room, I started to really think about the idea of, Well, all the information he’s getting about the outside world is coming from this TV. So what if the villain manipulated the information coming in to get him to think certain things? That’s where the origin of the false daughter came in. When the movie was announced, fans of the original were thinking we would wimp out on the ending — will they go for the incest reveal? In my mind, it was a way to play with people who had seen the original film: Is this his daughter?
Marie, Joe’s daughter and love interest, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is a much more assertive character than Mi-do, the daughter character (Hye-jeong Kang) in the 2003 original.
Protosevich: There are certain aspects of the original that are stylized even in the characterizations. She’s a type. I love the actress who plays her, she’s adorable and charming. But I like strong, yet vulnerable, compassionate female characters. I wanted her to be a different type of woman in our version.
The very end of Park’s Oldboy has always caused consternation and confusion. Dae-su asks a hypnotist on Woo-jin’s payroll (who also caused him to fall in love quickly with Mi-do) to erase his memory of having had sex with his child. She consents. Dae-su and Mi-do meet again, and Mi-do, who is in the dark about the incest, hugs him. We see Dae-su smile over her shoulder, looking like a madman. Did the hypnosis not work? Or did it work, and he is simply broken? It’s an endless debate. But the new version gets rid of hypnosis-as-plot-device entirely!
Protosevich: The original film is very stylized in a visual sense. But it’s also very stylized in some of its storytelling. And I didn’t think that some of those stylized elements would work for a Western or American audience. And one of those things is the hypnosis. I think it requires a huge suspension of disbelief. And if you start doing any research into hypnosis, what they’re trying to do is next to impossible. The only way to achieve it would have been through extensive brainwashing. And do we even need it? Is there a way to get them to build a relationship without relying on saying at the end, Oh, you were hypnotized to make this happen? I love and admire the original film, and would never speak against it. But I do think there are certain things that in my mind weren’t going to play. The hypnosis maybe being at the top of the list.
But the adaptation does end on a smile, though in a different context. Joe has bestowed Marie with diamonds from Adrian, along with a letter telling her to go out in the world and meet someone else. He then checks himself back in to the hotel prison, where he feels he belongs. But he’s able to see her travels through a toy he bought her — and has finally been able to give her — on the night of his first disappearance.
Protosevich: If I had just learned that this woman I had fallen in love with and made love to was my daughter, I’m not going to try to figure out a way to stay with her. That’s just me! But that’s a lot of other people too; let’s hope it’s most. So what I wanted was for him to make a sacrifice that would benefit her. But also he really feels he needs to be punished. This is more of a Western cultural thing, too — I think if you’ve reached some sort of, for lack of a better word, enlightened state, and you realize you’ve done something wrong, you deserve some type of punishment. Joe — he makes the decision, I need to be punished for this.
And that smile?
Protosevich: I talked about this with the producers, I talked about it with Spike. In a way, he is at peace at the end of the film. He has done something good in the wreckage of all this by isolating himself from her. I wonder what Josh was thinking at that moment. But I had these conversations with Josh: And at the end, he needs to feel he’s done something good.
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