I don’t often watch movies back-to-back with the American remakes. However, I failed to see Insomnia in its original Norwegian incarnation, and since the US version was directed by Christopher Nolan (who had previously directed the excellent Memento), I decided to watch both versions in one week.
Both are good movies. If you hate subtitles, feel free to watch the remake; it’s a perfectly good adaptation, taking into account Hollywood’s sensibilities–which I shall now proceed to discuss, with the aid of copious spoilers, so you have been warned.
The first thing I noticed was that in the remake, the police officers all seemed to speak Hollywood copspeak, that curious pattern of gruff aphorisms and well-worn clichés that allows us to recognize when someone is supposed to be in US law enforcement. Maybe LA police officers really speak that way, but I’m pretty sure rural Alaskan law enforcement don’t. Fargo probably got closer to reality there.
The plot mostly progresses identically to the original movie, but the pressure on the detective protagonist is ramped up for the remake. Rather than just wanting to solve a case while sleep deprived, our American detective is facing investigation by LAPD Internal Affairs, particularly if his partner goes ahead with his plan to talk to them. Whereas in the original movie the detective shoots his partner because his partner wanders the wrong way by accident, in the remake it is made unambiguous that the detective made a definite mistake, and that he will be punished for it if it becomes known.
The subplot about the detective wanting to have sex with the woman at the hotel desk is cut, no doubt because any hint of forced sex would have pushed the rating above the mandatory “R”. It was therefore necessary for the writers to find some other way to hint that the detective is morally suspect in general, not just careless. The solution is to have the hotel clerk deliver a complaint about the noise the protagonist is making trying to block out the light from the window in his room. He asks her in, and then proceeds to treat this virtual stranger to a long confession about how he planted evidence back in LA. The scene then cuts to some time later, and the clerk is seen asleep, fully clothed, on top of the bed. It makes very little sense, and is probably the weakest scene in the entire movie.
Another small but revealing change is that in the original movie, the detective shoots a dog in order to obtain a bullet with convincing impact deformation. He substitutes this in the evidence locker, in order to hide his involvement in his partner’s death. In the remake, the detective conveniently finds a dead dog behind a building. A US audience doesn’t mind women being murdered and men being shot, but you can’t show a man shooting an innocent dog.
For a US audience, the bad guy’s evilness must also be made clearer. Rather than the murder perhaps being an accident (as in the original movie), the remake informs us that the perpetrator beat his victim to death over a ten minute period. The murderer is seen to be much more manipulative and calculating; in the US movie he plants the evidence to frame someone else for the killing, rather than the detective. The murderer also collects blackmail material with a tape recorder. Finally, at the climax of the movie he attacks a female police officer and attempts to persuade the protagonist to join him in disposing of her—just in case anyone in the audience had failed to take the hint that he was a monster.
The detective, of course, refuses. He’s tainted, but he’s not that corrupt. Nevertheless, by the logic of the Hollywood movie the tainted cop must die. He dutifully takes a gunshot and does so, while repenting and telling the young female cop never to let go of her belief in telling the truth. With our quota of sentimentality met, credits roll and we’re allowed to wonder whether the female cop will tell the truth or not.
The original movie is much more morally ambiguous at the end. The detective returns to his home city, but we discover as he is leaving that the female police officer knows he shot his partner. She says nobody needs to know, and we assume that she will continue to hide the truth and let him get away with it.
So as I said at the start: Both are good movies. The remake is probably as good as it could be, once you take into account the moral framework and simplifications that Hollywood requires.