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The Tunnel vs The Bridge: The ethics of TV remakes

by Julia Tulloh , August 27, 20142 Comments

The Tunnel TV review

A body is found in the Eurotunnel, neatly laid across the border between France and England. When police attempt to move the body, it splits in two with the top half in France and lower half in England, and DNA tests soon discover that each half belongs to a different victim. French and British police team up to find the murderer, who soon anonymously proclaims that he’s a ‘truth terrorist’, and proceeds to murder or threaten people in service of his political ideals. All this occurs in the opening few episodes of French/UK crime drama The Tunnel, the first season of which just finished airing in Australia.

If you don’t normally watch European detective shows, this storyline could fall anywhere on the scale from unremarkable to mildly interesting. If you do normally watch Euro crime, then The Tunnel probably sounds both riveting and suspiciously familiar. And that’s because it’s both. The Tunnel is a French/British remake of Danish/Swedish TV series The Bridge, which began in 2011 and opened with the discovery of a body laid across the Sweden/Denmark border in the middle of the Øresund Bridge. Two body halves, two victims, two detectives, a truth terrorist and loads of dead people.

The similarities don’t stop there. Both female detectives are young, blonde, and extremely asocial; both male detectives are charming, middle-aged philanderers (thankfully, though, there’s no romance between the detectives). There’s Daniel the journalist in The Bridge, who becomes Danny in The Tunnel; the French police bosses in both series have long, shaggy brown hair. Even much of the dialogue is the same, and the first episode of The Tunnel seems to mirror The Bridge almost shot for shot, though the series’ plots diverge a little as they progress.

As with all remakes, some fans have debated how well or badly the new show adheres to the original, whether or not it should have adhered to the original, and whether The Tunnel should have been made at all. Debates around the ethics of adaptation are not new, but in online TV review culture, such discussions are often still roughly divided into two camps: those who argue against adaptations on principle, desiring to protect the so-called authenticity and integrity of the original, and those who believe that adapting anything is fine because adaptations are not copies of the original, but rather points of departure, and hence always new.

What is often missing from these debates is discussion around who profits from remakes. TV series are remade all the time (think Kath & Kim, The Office and Shameless in the US) and in most cases, the writers and/or producers of the original are involved in the production of the remake. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant produced the US remake of The Office, for example – a venture that turned out to be extremely lucrative, since the US version ran for nine seasons. Their original British version only ran for two. Jane Featherstone, producer of The Tunnel and adaptor of The Bridge, has just reproduced her previous British crime drama Broadchurch for US audiences, under the new name Gracepoint. Furthermore, the original Scandinavian producers of The Bridge had already franchised their series to the US well before The Tunnel was conceived, in an American/Mexican version also called The Bridge, about a body found on the border between El Paso and Juarez.

We can’t talk about ‘originality’ without acknowledging that producers often willingly sell and adapt their own work. Nor can we necessarily speak of remakes as bastardisations of original works, since the same people are often involved in creating both the new and old series. From a production perspective, it makes a lot of sense to remake a series like The Bridge. Its premise – a body found on a border – is a rich starting point for exploring themes around international relations and homicide policy. Simply choose your political context of choice, add star power that will attract the desired audience (The Tunnel stars Stephen Dillane, better known as Stannis Baratheon, and Clémence Poésy, who you may know as Fleur Delacour), and you’ve got a series almost guaranteed to attract attention.

The politics in The Tunnel, and the testy banter between the French and British detectives, made more sense to me than the Danish/Swedish tension in The Bridge, since I’m more familiar with the relationship between England and France. This doesn’t mean that The Bridge wasn’t interesting:on the contrary, the series was fascinating precisely because it demonstrated the differences and similarities between Scandinavian culture and the West. Its producers were savvy enough to change context and content for different audiences. They might be doing it for the money, but its hard to argue when this results in the creation of another excellent crime show.

Julia Tulloh is a writer in Melbourne, and is working on a PhD in American literature. She tweets at @jtul and blogs at juliatulloh.com.

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  • Scarlett Harris

    The premise of The Tunnel/The Bridge is interesting primarily because that shit could never happen in Australia. A body found on either side of a state line would be as exotic as it could get.

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