If any recent Icelandic film seemed unlikely to attract interest in a remake, it would have be Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson's 2011 debut feature "Either Way" ("Á annan veg"), a comedy about two men working on Icelandic highways in the middle of nowhere, painting lines on the road and hammering in posts. Although critically acclaimed and well received in various film festivals worldwide, "Either Way" was only released in two Icelandic theaters and didn't receive much public attention or fanfare.
But to the surprise of many, it somehow became the second Icelandic feature to be remade in the U.S. when it was announced that director David Gordon Green had secretly filmed a remake starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. The result, "Prince Avalanche," premiered at Sundance and opens in limited release this week.
The screenplay for "Either Way" was written with a low budget in mind, after Iceland's banking crisis forced the government to decrease its funding to the Icelandic Film Centre. As a result, the film only has four speaking parts and is shot exclusively outdoors. "Prince Avalanche" seems to have also been made with a crisis in mind. David Gordon Green's shift from the world of indie dramas to the mainstream studio comedies -- although sporadically effective -- hit two major roadblocks with the back to back critical and commercial failures of "Your Highness" and "The Sitter." It's hard not to view "Prince Avalanche" as both a direct attempt to regain Green's critical standing and to meld the two modes he has so far operated in.
One of the surprising aspects of "Prince Avalanche," given the strong creative vision Green has exhibited, stems from its faithfulness to the original screenplay. Scenes unfold in exactly the same order in both films and the bulk of the conversations are direct translations of the same lines in Icelandic. This immense fidelity could render the movie's existence completely pointless. However, in addition to bringing a different aesthetic approach to the material, Green adds a level of specificity to a screenplay that was previously ambiguous with regard to its time and place.
While "Either Way" is set sometime in the 1980s somewhere in the Icelandic countryside, "Prince Avalanche" explicitly takes place in 1988, in a specific area of Texas that has been ravaged by a forest fire. This removes the story from the theatricality of the original film, making the mysterious and seemingly supernatural aspects that crop up near the end all the more incongruous.
If the central metaphor in the original film was roadwork as limbo -- with the empty, desolate environments of Iceland providing a setting for the characters to work out their issues -- the central metaphor in "Prince Avalanche" is the how the ruins of the forest fire echo the scarred nature of the characters. The films tell the same story, of two men suffering from opposing philosophies of masculinity (both of which are ruining their relationships), but use their settings to enhance the material in different ways.
Green's use of the location is also extremely effective, and one of the greatest joys of the film is its sense of exploration within the landscape ruined by the forest fire. The film's best sequence follows Rudd's character as he spends time by himself over the weekend and meets a mysterious woman in the remnants of her house. It's one of the few scenes where Green completely breaks free from the original screenplay, resulting in both a beautiful and moving sequence that adds deeper resonance to one of the original film's least developed elements.
There are other moments and sequences where Green adds and expands upon material in the original film, all of which are among the best the film has to offer. In fact, the original ingredients of "Prince Avalanche" are so strong that it's a shame to see Green's vision tethered to the original.
"Prince Avalanche" is in many ways a success. It features two of the best performances from Rudd and Hirsch's careers, beautiful cinematography by Green regular Tim Orr and a moving soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky and Dave Wingo. It's also clearly effective in rehabilitating Green’s somewhat tarnished reputation as a filmmaker, as he landed a directing prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February and some of his best reviews since "All the Real Girls."
But there's something tragic about the fact that it takes a remake -- perhaps the ultimate embodiment of unoriginality -- to achieve that. Even as films employ different styles, they draw the same conclusions. They both have the same set-ups and punchlines as well as the same structure and story. Unlike other Nordic films remade in the U.S. (such as "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," remade as "Contraband" and starring Mark Wahlberg), "Either Way" wasn’t chosen to be remade on the basis of its popularity or its commercial prospects and Oscar wins -- but rather as a blueprint for another filmmaker to work from. In the case of "Prince of Avalanche," that blueprint has reaffirmed Green's craftsmanship, if not his originality.