was falsely accused of a hideous crime and sentenced to life in prison. One night I was taken from my cell to a place called Section One, the most covert antiterrorist group on the planet. Their ends are just but their means are ruthless. If I don't play by their rules, I die.
-- Opening voice-over to La Femme Nikita
One of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows ever to appear on basic cable, La Femme Nikita has an interesting textual pedigree. It is based on Luc Besson's 1990 French film of the same name, which was remade as a Hong Kong action movie titled Black Cat (dir. Stephen Shin, 1992), and then remade again in Hollywood as Point of No Return (dir. John Badham, 1993). The original film tells the story of a young street waif, Nikita (Anne Parillaud), who runs with a gang of thuggish drug addicts and kills a police officer in the course of a heist. She is caught and sentenced to die, but the authorities are so impressed with her ruthless savagery that they fake her death so that they may retrain her as a covert government assassin. Aided by her two mentors, Bob and Amande, she learns the finer points of espionage and etiquette. However, her transformation from gutter snipe to professional hit woman is not without its price, for once tamed and released back into society she falls in love, and the rest of the film deals with the strain of leading a double life, and the irresolvable conflict between duty and desire. Significantly, then, the Nikita narrative that has inspired so many remakes is itself a kind of remake about the process of remaking; it is a high-tech Pygmalion tale about a woman who is rescued from her lowly circumstances and made over into something "better."
Loosely defined as new versions of existing films, remakes appear to occupy a place in American consumer culture much like that of Barbie dolls or Beanie Babies; if it worked once, do it again. Why mess with a good thing? As Michael Brashinsky puts it, "the remake is the most explicit gesture of a culture that...cannot express itself through anything but a quote." Hollywood, long accused of prioritizing profits over artistry and imitation over innovation, would seem to epitomize such an attitude. Indeed, Molly Haskell has dubbed Hollywood's seemingly insatiable appetite for remaking other countries' films "the remake craze." Yet the remake is also a rich site for critical analysis precisely because its derivative status, its very secondariness and duplicity, forces a certain assessment of conventional notions of authorship, authenticity, and originality.
On the one hand, the existence of a remake only seems to confirm the fact that originality lies elsewhere -- in the other, prior text. On the other hand, the remake helps expose originality as a relative, not absolute, concept. The play of theme and variation is endemic to commercial storytelling, and notions of "original" and "copy" make sense only within particular frames of reference. While most people are familiar with the case of the classic film remade for an English-speaking audience, a new film can also borrow more loosely from an older one such that it is not officially acknowledged to be a remake at all -- as with Body Heat (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, US, 1981), based on Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, US, 1944), or Dressed to Kill (dir. Brian De Palma, US, 1980), based on Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1960). The concept of "remake" can also extend beyond the immediate cinematic context, since films remake popular television shows (The Brady Bunch, Mission: Impossible, South Park), television shows remake popular films (M*A*S*H, The Odd Couple, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and both films and television shows remake or adapt comic book stories (Superman, Batman, and the like). These various relations are complicated by the fact that many, if not most, so-called original films are adapted from plays, novels, or other literary source material -- themselves often based on prior sources. Moreover, generic conventions in literature, cinema, and television ensure that all narratives within a given genre can be considered in the broadest sense copies of one another insofar as genre texts recapitulate an established (though by no means static) set of thematic and iconographic codes.
In this essay, I use La Femme Nikita and its American remakes as a lens through which to theorize the textual and cultural politics of remaking. The Nikita narrative is an ideal vehicle through which to examine the complexities of the remake phenomenon, since it cuts across media and across cultures, since its central character is a woman who gets remade, and since, as I will argue, the original story in this case is itself already deeply enmeshed in a web of intertextual operations. My main focus will be the circuit of exchange between France and the US, not because the Hong Kong versions are any less interesting or less worthy of analysis (quite the contrary), but because France and the US stand in a particular historical relation to one another regarding the matter of original and copy. This relationship looms large in the condemnation of Hollywood remakes by certain French critics who see in Hollywood's appropriation of foreign films not only economic exploitation and cultural imperialism but confirmation of the United States's derivative cultural status. Thus Point of No Return (and the later TV series) is to La Femme Nikita what the US is to France and Western Europe -- a remake. Such a framing both reflects and reproduces distinctions between elite and popular culture that are consistent with stereotypes linking France with art and authenticity and the US with commodification and mass production. Indeed the high/low binary is embedded in the very definition of French versus American cinema. As Carolyn Durham observes, in both countries French films tend to be classified as art rather than entertainment, regardless of genre: "What matters is not the genre of the film but its national identity, so that any French film belongs, by definition, to high culture; since this domain is further constituted in direct and permanent opposition to Hollywood, commercial American cinema is simultaneously relegated to the sphere of 'low' or mass culture."
Yet the lines of cultural influence here are no aller-simple (one-way ticket), but are rather more complicated than the above cartography might suggest. That the US media are profit-driven and their products frequently banal is not in question. But the fact that US remakes of French films produce a hostile critical response in which the existence of the remake is framed as evidence of the "natural" cultural inferiority of the US speaks to more than the aesthetic qualities of the films themselves. It also speaks to anxieties about autonomy and cultural distinctiveness, and about the shrinking sphere of influence of the French language and culture in a postcolonial -- or, rather, differently colonial -- world. US movies currently account for nearly 60 percent of box office receipts in France, and the figure is 80 percent for Europe as a whole; by contrast, foreign-language films represent less than 1 percent of the US box office total. And then there is Euro Disney on the outskirts of Paris. In such a world, France might well be seen as America's colony and remake, rather than the other way around.
Durham reminds us that for both countries, film is at the heart of national consciousness. Both countries have also tended to serve each other as definitional "others," providing contrasting contexts in which Frenchness and Americanness can be better differentiated and understood. Gallic attitudes toward America, Durham suggests, help the French comprehend how they think and feel about themselves. At the same time, the concept of the "other" is relational as well as oppositional. As with all binary constructions, self and other are mutually constitutive, not mutually exclusive concepts; the other is part of the self, and the very experience of self depends on the existence of the other. This insight not only helps contextualize Franco-American cultural relations, but it is fundamental to theorizing the relationship between La Femme Nikita and its American remakes, as well as the self/other dynamics underlying the Pygmalion legend on which Nikita is based.
It has been said that the remake is a sign of our times, a distinctly postmodern phenomenon. Indeed, the qualities assumed to characterize the postmodern text -- depthlessness, fragmentation, self-referentiality, a weakening of historicity, an imitation of past modes and styles, and a blurring of distinctions between reality (original) and simulation (copy) -- are embedded and embodied in the very concept of the remake. Yet if the practice of remaking is postmodern, the tales that get retold are not necessarily so. Despite its glossy aesthetic and high-tech trappings, Nikita would seem to prove this point well, for the compulsion to "improve" the woman, to mold her into something other than she was, is a compulsion as ancient as they come. From Ovid's Metamorphoses to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew to Garry Marshall's Pretty Woman (US, 1990), the project of remaking the woman "cut to the measure of desire" is a myth to which Western art, literature and cinema have been drawn for quite some time.
Theorizing the Remake
....Like genre films, remakes are presumably attractive partly because they translate a favored narrative into new terms, a new cinematic language, a new era, a new social and political context...
Remakes are also concerned with the issue of originality. Like adaptations, they are rereadings that both secure the status of some prior text as originative while at the same time challenging the fixity of its meaning. They thus intensify basic critical tensions pitting artistic or authorial vision against mediation and revision. The distinction between vision and revision, reading and rereading, is not always obvious or neatly separable....
The remake is a species of intertextual interpretation that involves structural repetition of a peculiar sort, one that can be explored fruitfully using the metaphor of translation. While remakes are not translations per se, at least not in the conventional literary sense, US adaptations of foreign films certainly raise many of the same concerns about fidelity, authenticity, and appropriation as do literary translations of foreign texts. Some scholars even treat the remake as a special instance of translation....As with remaking, to translate something is to enact a paradox: one must tell the same story in different terms. What does it mean, then, to render a faithful or accurate translation?
....Translation involves more than the mechanical reproduction of meaning or the innocent transfer of information from one language to another. Questions of power are at stake, and...it is for this reason that some scholars see translation playing a significant role in the struggle between rival ideologies both within and across national cultures. In the most negative case, "translation is a way one culture appropriates and/or naturalizes what properly belongs to another...." This is an important insight, although certainly not the only way to theorize the nature and function of translation, presuming as it does that the appropriation of cultural texts is inevitably unidirectional and top down, with more powerful national cultures targeting weaker ones. As such, it is of limited utility to explaining the Hong Kong remake of La Femme Nikita or even Hong Kong cinema in general. Hong Kong cinema is highly imitative and unabashedly opportunistic in its appropriation of any film that has had international commercial success, especially Hollywood blockbusters.For Aufderheide, this brazen imitation ironically permits a certain cultural autonomy over the reworked material: "Like genre work generally, imitation emphasizes treatment, style, and selection rather than originality of raw material, and it positively values entrepreneurial opportunism...." This is certainly an apt characterization of Black Cat, the Hong Kong remake of Nikita, and even more so of the sequel Black Cat II, which plays up the intertextual references of the original film to the point of parody.
The notion that translation is a mechanism by which one culture improperly appropriates what properly belongs to another does, however, perfectly describe the position taken by French critics Michel Serceau and Daniel Protopopoff, whose series of essays on contemporary American remakes of French films appears in a special issue of the French-language journal CinemAction devoted exclusively to the film remake. They note that French films rarely play in the US; instead Hollywood executives typically buy the rights to these films and remake them for a domestic market at a substantial profit. However, Serceau and Protopopoff appear less concerned by economic exploitation than by what they believe to be the inherent failure of American remakes to respect the aesthetic and moral content of the original films.Their critique draws largely on Andre Bazin, who calls for a remake that would "start over at the source, and follow a natural course in a new historical and social space." The remake must allow for changes motivated by cultural and historical differences between it and the original text, while not denying the basic integrity of the original source.
However, as we have seen with regard to literary translation, this matter of difference between remake and original poses a dilemma, for concepts such as "basic integrity" -- like "in the same spirit" and "genetic code" -- are not easily defined, nor is it clear which changes might preserve it and which might violate it.
....A Daily Variety report characterizes Hollywood remakes more generally in much the same way, noting that "studios overlook key cultural differences in their rush for a quick translation" and that even when the original director is hired for the new film, "you lose the magic the second time around." This was certainly the verdict for Point of No Return, described in the press as a slavish imitation and unabashed rip-off, and it was also the initial verdict for the Nikita TV series before the show garnered something of a cult following among the crucial thirtysomething demographic. Such critiques foreground the paradox mentioned above, criticizing remakes for being different from (inferior to) the originals on which they are based, yet simultaneously accusing them of not being different enough.
To explain the aesthetic gap between copy and source considered characteristic of American remakes, Serceau and Protopopoff position Hollywood as an industry driven by crass materialism and tailored to the production of mass culture, in contrast to French cinema, which carries on the "higher" tradition of classical art and literature. How else to account for the fact that Hollywood is looking to Europe for source material with greater frequency than ever before?
....Interestingly, the association of France and Europe generally with high art and the US with low culture gets reproduced most clearly in the discussion and promotion of La Femme Nikita, the TV series. A self-described devotee of Besson's film, the series's original producer and executive consultant Joel Surnow has repeatedly stated in interviews that the series is modeled explicitly after the French original and not the US remake -- in fact, he admits never having seen Point of No Return. By definition the American version lacked the particular sensibility he was looking to reproduce, one that could only come from a non-American source. As Surnow put it, "Once we started [the series], I made it a point not to [see Point of No Return]. When I was casting the role, I found that American actresses didn't capture the right spirit. There's a real European quality to this, and the slight Australian accent [of Nikita star Peta Wilson] gives her sort of an exotic, international quality that I think the show needs." Media critics likewise distanced the show from the American remake, never failing to name the French film as the progenitor text. Thus Tim Goodman from the Bergen Record quips: "The show is based on the 1991 film of the same name, not the American version, thankfully. It has a lot of style going for it, which is something you don't see on network television."
Not surprisingly, the general sentiment...that the remake phenomenon is a colonizing practice that confirms the artistic inferiority of Hollywood cinema is the rule rather than the exception among film critics in both France and the US. The US release of Point of No Return only three years after Nikita debuted in France would only seem to prove the point. Although a small portion of the reviews published in the American press had faint praise for the film, considering it "naughtily entertaining," "crass but effective," and "a worthwhile if redundant experience," most were less charitable, characterizing the film as "middling commercial piffle," and "a coarse, dumb-brained American remake... inanely false." Washington Post critic Desson Howe spoke for the majority when he concluded: "Hollywood has long since passed its own point of no return stealing from the Gauls....[D]irector John Badham wouldn't know a believable moment if it hit [him]....[T]here have been deeper human relationships in TV commercials."
Rather than discount Point of No Return because it is a "bad" translation unable to reproduce the magic of the original or because it appropriates for US commercial gain what properly belongs to France, it seems more productive to ask how this particular appropriation can challenge and advance our theorizing about the remake phenomenon and about the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs. A key issue unexplored by Serceau and Protopopoff is the potential degree of compatibility or affinity between the texts and cultures in question; the possibility that, in the circuit of exchange between original and remake, there are cultural affinities at work as well as differences. If we consider this possibility, we might then ask why Nikita was targeted for reproduction in the first place. Box-office success played a role, of course. Nikita was the second-highest-grossing film in France in 1990 and garnered nine Cesar nominations. But as Hollywood executives knew all too well, what succeeds abroad may fail at home -- is likely to fail, in fact, if one accepts the arguments about French cultural distinctiveness and artistic superiority. Why else, then, did Hollywood choose Nikita?
In Reading Lacan, Jane Gallop applies a psychoanalytic framework to the concept of translation, and her insights are relevant here. Gallop argues that "any translator, any person who devotes great time and effort to conveying someone else's words, is already operating with a strong identification, already wishing to operate as a double." Put more simply, a translator may be drawn to a work because it mirrors himself in some way....If this is true, it is not surprising that Hollywood chose to remake Nikita, which film critics agreed was highly Americanized from its inception. Nikita was an attractive, relatively safe commercial bet because, despite its being French, it spoke in a language that Hollywood could understand, providing Hollywood with a flattering image of itself....
Origin Stories: "American Influences
When is French film not really French?....When it's La Femme Nikita.
-- Caryo James, "Word from Nikita: Hold the Subtitles," New York Times (5 Mar. 1991)
Europe is trying to make movies like Hollywood, heaven help us all. Style over substance, technology over artistry, box office over everything.
-- Bill Hagen, "France's Nikita Falls Flat, American Style," San Diego Union-Tribune (12 April 1991)
Evidence of Nikita's Americanization exists on multiple levels, and US media critics were quick to point out such influences, calling it "an ultraviolent mutation of the James Bond genre," "a Frenchified version of that notorious American genre, the political paranoia picture," "Diva meets Terminator," "A Clockwork Orange meets Charlie's Angels," "an overwrought combination of Drugstore Cowboy and Mission Impossible," and "James Bond crossed with a Euro-disco production of Pygmalion." A critic appraising the US television series similarly remarked that while none of the various remakes compared favorably to the original, "lack of originality" was hardly a credible critique since even the original was not all that original; the crooked heroic element is reminiscent of Hitchcock, the gunplay is straight out of James Bond, and "the strong woman holding her own in a hyperbolic, comic-book universe is visibly the goddaughter of Barbarella."
It is important to note that critics were not merely pointing out random intertextual references but specifically highlighting the "Americanness" of the original film. This theme emerged even more forcefully in reviews of Point of No Return, largely because it struck critics as odd to remake a French film that was perceived to be so thoroughly Americanized to begin with. As one critic put it somewhat snidely, "the point of Point of No Return is, there is no point in remaking American films those French movies made as salutes to American cinema." For some, the already American qualities of the original then helps explain why, of all the foreign films to have been remade in Hollywood recently, Nikita was the least altered in the process. "If Point of No Return rates as the nearest thing yet to a carbon copy, that's probably because it started out as the nearest thing to a made-in-France Hollywood movie when it emerged as la Femme Nikita two years ago."
....[T]he claim of Americanization is strikingly consistent across reviews and is significant given assumptions about French cultural "difference." Further legitimating the claim is the fact that Luc Besson, who directed Nikita and was slated to direct Point of No Return before John Badham replaced him at the last minute, is widely considered the most Hollywood of French filmmakers. Described as France's equivalent of Steven Spielberg, Besson has the reputation of creating ultrastylish, big-budget action films that "combine France's fetish for style with Hollywood's lust for excess." Besson has also been at the forefront of the move to make "French" films in English using Hollywood celebrities, a trend Besson initiated in 1988 with The Big Blue and continued with The Professional [Leon] (1994), The Fifth Element [Le cinquieme element] (1997), and, somewhat ironicially given its subject matter, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc [Jeanne d'Arc] (1999). This last film was widely promoted as a French achievement, but its cast included Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, and Faye Dunaway, and because the original was shot in English, French audiences had to watch a dubbed version. Not surprisingly, despite having a strong fan base in Paris, Besson has long been accused by the French cultural establishment -- in particular his fellow filmmakers -- of unabashedly emulating American commercial cinema.
But what does it mean, in the case of Nikita, to say that Besson is emulating American commercial cinema? Since Nikita is essentially an adaptation of the Pygmalion myth, which is not American in origin, it seems safe to say that critics are responding less to the content of the myth than to how it is being retold. Nikita was heralded as "the end of French cinema as we know it," and seen by some as "the ultimate Hollywood audition for its director." Glib references to Charlie's Angels aside, what is the textual evidence to support this claim?....Having outlined the critical reception of Nikita, I now take a closer look at the film itself.
As we have seen, critics made much of the James Bond connection, a connection that, of all the different versions, the Hong Konh sequel plays upon most heavily.But Nikita had other, more sustained intertextual references. One is the recent emergence of strong women action narratives such as the Alien trilogy and the Terminator films. Like Sergeant Ripley and Sarah Conner, Nikita is a tough woman who packs a gun and knows how to use it -- a lean, mean fighting machine who moves easily within the traditionally masculine sphere of covert military industrial operations. A central feature of all three characters is their hard-body androgeny, which both minimizes the surface cues of gender differences and subverts their presumed naturalness. Although these films do ultimately reassert traditional assumptions of gender-specificity -- Ripley and Connor are driven to heroism by "maternal instinct," while Nikita's femininity is reestablished through her "taming" and, ultimately, her rejection of violence -- they do so only after the geroine in each case has considerably troubled its binary construction. In Nikita, even the physical space of the heroine's transformation from outlaw to government assassin carries an androgynous valence, for the underground complex that serves as her training ground is both the womblike site of Nikita's metaphorical gestation and rebirth as well as the phallic site of her induction to power. To complete the birthing trope, our heroine is finally expelled from the womb after successfully completing her first assassination assignment in an upscale restaurant -- fittingly, on her birthday: she dives down a long, narrow garbage cute leading from the kitchen to the street, propelled along by a giant fireball of explosives, then emerges from the dumpster below covered with an "afterbirth" of food, blood, and muck.
Nikita thus places a strong woman action character at the center of a (post)modern Pygmalion tale. Playing the role of George Bernard Shaw's Henry Higgins are Nikita's two "midwives": spy master Bob is in charge of her physical and intellectual training while the sophisticated Amande schools her in the feminine graces of deportment and beauty. In the TV series, Nikita is trained by fellow operative (and future lover) Michael, along with the agency's chief strategist, Madeline. Sounding much like Henry Higgins admonishing Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion (1914) to walk, talk, and act like a regular lady, Madeline tells Nikita in the pilot episode, "You can shoot, you can fight, but there is no weapon as powerful as your femininity." Overseeing the whole process is Operations, the steely eyed, white-haired patriarch of Section One; together he and Madeline function as the disciplinary parents of all the Section One operatives. This splitting of the Higgins role into multiple characters serves much the same purpose as Nikita's physical androgyny. It emphasizes her task of embodying seemingly incompatible masculine and feminine qualities: aggressiveness, ruthlessness, and strength, alongside patience, grace, and beauty.
In the staging of these relations, Nikita employs two different but related aesthetics: a dense, brooding iconography Constance Penley has termed "tech noir," in which machines and technology provide the texture and substance of the narrative...and a glossy visual style known in France as "la cinema du look," or what Janet Bergstrom calls the "advertising aesthetic" associated with certain television ads and music videos....[A]nother important Nikita prototype is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (US, 1982), which Besson quotes in key ways. Most obviously, there is the similar iconography of the cavernous, subterranean compound with its high-tech computers and an elaborate surveillance system where the heroine is remade, remolded, and reprogrammed in the image of her makers, given a new identity and a new past -- a fate similar to that of the replicants in Blade Runner. Further, just as the most supposedly human of the replicants (Rachel) is implanted with the memories of her inventor's niece, Nikita is implanted, so to speak, with the memories of "Uncle Bob" during a key scene when Bob pays Nikita and her live-in boyfriend a surprise visit. These memories function as any other. They are constructed representations that serve as proof of her identity. Photographs bear a similar burden in each film. Rachel shows Deckard a picture of herself as a little girl to prove she is human; in Besson's film, Bob shows Nikita photographs of her own funeral to prove precisely the opposite point: that she has no humanity, no official existence, and is therefore easily "retired" should she step out of line. All of the subsequent Nikita texts reproduce these scenes with remarkable consistency.
....[I]t is Nikita's inability to be a replicant/machine -- specifically, a killing machine -- that emerges as the central tension of all three film versions, and even more so of the later TV series. Like Deckard, Nikita is a highly unwilling government assassin whose job causes her considerable psychic conflict. Like the replicants, she is "more human than human," in fact too human for her own good, her remaking, in a sense, too successful. While the rebellious Nikita of the film's opening scene kills without conscience, the very qualities that eventually "civilize" her and allow her reintegration into society as a government operative have made her vulnerable to human feeling and emotion -- particularly love. Thus the opposition between masculine and feminine mentioned above gets developed and transposed into a more fundamental conflict between human and machine, between emotion, passion, and compassion on the one hand, and the subordination of these qualities to a cold, technocratic ideal on the other.
This is not to celebrate Blade Runner or any other American film as the origin story of La Femme Nikita, but to reiterate that "la paternite du remake est difficile a assumer," and that all creations involve re-creations, and all presentations re-presentations....
The final element of Nikita's lineage I want to consider here is film noir -- approrpiately enough, an American genre named by the French, and an equally important influence on Blade Runner. The femme fatale of classic noir films is invariably the hero's double or alter-ego at the same time she is his "other." Like the replicants, she serves as the screen through which the male protagonist both sees himself and projects his deepest anxieties. He is simultaneously attracted to and repelled by her, forced to realize through her the terms of his own imperfect subjectivity. But Nikita is not a mere replication of classic noir films, because the Nikita character is the (male) protagonist as well as the (female) other. She is both hero, caught in a dangerous web of mystery and intrigue over which she has little control, and femme fatale, a mysterious woman with multiple and changing identities (signified by her three different names: Nikita/Marie/Josephine in the French film, Maggie/Claudia/Nina in the American one). Thus the films stand in a complicated relationship both to the noir tradition and to the oedipal tale that noir films enact -- an origin story if there ever was one -- because they ask the heroine to assume a masculinized and feminized relation to the phallus simultaneously. Many scholars have interpreted noir films as remakes of Oedipus Rex, a myth of destiny in which the son learns to know and accept his place under the Law....[T]he oedipal complex described by Freud articulates how men come to align themselves with patriarchal power by identifying with the obligations of heterosexual masculinity while femininity signifies little more than lack and impotence. The Nikita narratives reconceptualize the classic oedipal tale around the figure of a woman/daughter, asking what happens when a woman tries to assume the phallus for herself.
In the original film and its US remake, the bottom line is that things fall apart, just as they did for Oedipus. Our protagonist struggles for power in a gendered social space, subject to constant surveillance and male control. Like the oedipal son, she can gain access to cultural authority only through structures of male kinship. Although she tests the law of the patriarch (symbolized by the state) and attempts to circumvent its power, she must renounce her transgressive desires and identify with the masculine regime in order to assume her place as heir. At the same time, as a woman, without a language or discourse of her own, as the vehicle through which patriarchal violence literally reproduces itself, she can never be the rightful heir to cultural authority no matter how hard she tries. In some ways the TV series makes this point more forcefully than any of the films because its serial structure allows a repeated staging of the confrontation between Nikita and the Law while at the same time delaying indefinitely any final resolution. She wins strategic battles, but the larger war goes on.
The impossibility of our protagonist's situation is signified by the "perverted" family relations in which she becomes enmeshed, as is often the case in classic noir. As Sylvia Harvey notes, many noir films of the 1940s are structured around the destruction or absence of romantic love and familial stability. In the beginning of the original film, Nikita's "family" is a gang of criminal drug addicts. She is sentenced to die for committing a kind of patricide: she kills a police officer, not only a father figure and representative of the law but a man who looks remarkably like her future mentor, Bob. As it turns out, Bob proves to be the surrogate father to a family of thugs not so different from the one she left behind. When Nikita arrives at her first assignment in the basement of a hotel, each of her fellow operatives bears a striking resemblance to a parallel member of her old gang. And although Nikita's first impulse after her release from the training center is to choose a mate and start nesting, her attempts to build a normal life are continually thwarted by the abnormal intrusion of the father and state into the home, an intrusion figured in decidedly sexual terms: inevitably, the phone call from Bob announcing her next assignment interrupts an embrace or moment of postcoital tenderness. Moreover, in true oedipal fashion, the father-daughter relationship between Nikita and Bob is fraught with sexual tension. Although they kiss only once, he is clearly in love with her, and her childlike demeanor throughout the film suggests a certain innocence and impetuousness that he gradually corrupts. His incestuous desire is underscored midway through the film when "Uncle Bob" meets Nikita's fiance and the two men are immediately positioned as sexual rivals.
As in classic noir, there is no happily ever after ending or romantic Hollywood resolution. Rather, the protagonist solves the dilemma of being female in a patriarchal society by initiating a "divorce" from Bob and running away, disengaging from the system altogether. In the French version, the final scene shows Bob confronting the boyfriend about Nikita's disappearance after her third and final assignment. We never see Nikita again; she is simply gone, and we are left with the two men seated opposite one another, staring blankly out the window at their own reflections, as if to suggest that the woman they knew (or thought they knew) is little more than a projection of themselves. The ending is thus ambiguous: we do not know what happens to Nikita. The US ending is less so -- perhaps a comment on the presumed inability of Americans to tolerate uncertainty in their action films. In Point of No Return, Maggie (Bridget Fonda) tries to bargain with Bob: a final mission in return for her freedom. She nearly dies when the mission backfires, and after a confrontation between Bob and the boyfriend the next morning regarding her whereabouts, we cut to a shot of Maggie herself walking down the street through heavy fog, her face bloodied and bruised. Bob sees her as he is getting into his car. He gazes after her a long while, his expression inscrutable. He picks up his car phone. The tension mounts; will he report her to his superiors? Instead, his love hor her prevails, and he declares Maggie dead, killed in a car crash. With this one simple phrase, the film grants him the power to "free" her, to return her to the dead -- the very place he "saved" her from in the beginning. As Maggie continues to walk, heri mage dissolves into a close-up of her face, which is gradually revealed to be a photograph that we have seen before: it was taken by her photographer-boyfriend and hangs above the fireplace in their apartment. As the credits roll, the camera tracks forward until only her eyes are visible in the frame.
Aller et Retour
Although Maggie is set free by her creator at the end of the film, the final image described above nevertheless retains a certain semantic ambiguity. On the one hand, as a mere copy or trace of Maggie's former self, the photograph may suggest that copies are indeed poor substitutes for their originals. On the other hand, the image reminds us that even Maggie's absence is marked by a presence....In this sense, the photograph -- itself a particular kind of remake or translation -- constitutes the afterlife and memory of the original woman, thereby prolonging her power and influence.
This alludes to another sort of thinking about remakes and translations.... Translation reveals the unifyinf force that underlies all languages and makes each the necessary complement or supplement of the others: in so doing, it "catches fire on the eternal life of the works and perpetual renewal of language." In other words, translations both express the concept of "pure language" by enabling communication across linguistic barriers and constitute the "afterlife" of original texts....The key point here is that the concept of adaptation or translation depends less on fidelity to the original than on the fertility of the original to inspire or stimulate continued cultural production....
These insights are perhaps less germane to situations in which the original and remake are practically contemporaneous (as in Nikita and Point of No Return, but they do provide a fruitful framework for understanding the place and function of the television series. If the remake "catches fire on the eternal life" of the original film, thereby prolonging its power and influence, in a far more direct fashion, the Nikita TV series carries on this function, making possible the afterlife of the original text in a different medium as well as a different culture. And interestingly, despite the supposedly low status of American television, the series has been deemed far more successful than either the US or Hong Kong film remakes in reproducing the glossy, high-tech aesthetic critics so prized about the original film. Ironically, the most mass of mass mediums seems to realize most fully Bazin's vision of the adaptation as captuing, not the letter of the original, which can be emulated in mechanical fashion (as in Point of No Return), but the spirit of the original -- its tones, values, and rhythms....
That a television series could, to recall the words of Serceau and Protopopoff, "start over at the source and follow a natural course in a new historical and social space," is notable given the failure of Hollywood films, generally speaking, to do the same. It is also notable given the reputation of the licensing network in this case. Best known as the home of the World Wrestling Federation...and for airing cheesy made-for-TV movies, pro tennis and golf, and reruns of Baywatch, the USA Network is hardly the most likely candidate to host the successful television remake of a stylish French thriller. And yet it has done just that. A noirish hybrid of soap opera, science fiction, and action drama, the series has won over critics and audiences alike with its unpredictable plot developments, twists and turns of fate, elaborate deceptions and betrayals, and high-tech, futuristic sets. The show's success may even have surprised its producers, for when the series debuted in January 1997, critics were less than enthusiastic: "all style, no substance, a typical TV compromise," "more amusing than entertaining," "an exercise in hopped-up mayhem....Xena gone Eurotrash." Audiences seemed to disagree, however, and the show, which was slated for cancellation after four seasons, has been renewed for a probationary fifth. There is even talk of remaking USA's Nikita into a full-length made-for-TV movies, using the cast of the so-called original series!
As Weiss observes in her essay on the 1970s TV show M*A*S*H, a television series itself can be viewed as a kind of ongoing remake. Also based on a popular film, M*A*S*H was constantly revising itself, and as it became a hit with audiences, the producers gained more creative freedom from both the network and the audience. La Femme Nikita seemed to follow a similar trajectory. Like M*A*S*H, which retained but "toned down" certain elements from the original film for living room reception (most notably the operating room gore and the irreverence toward authority), Nikita on TV differs from Nikita on film in ways that speak both to the possibilities and constraints of the new medium. It, too, was toned down for the small screen; in fact, USA executives rejected the original pilot script in which Nikita played a drug-addicted cop-killer given a second chance by becoming a government assassin, as in the French and American films. Instead, the revised pilot made no reference to drugs, Nikita was wrongfully accused as the killer (she accidentally stumbles upon the back alley knifing of a policeman and is left holding the murder weapon), and she is not really an assassin -- she is part of a "covert, antiterrorist organization." If she kills, it is either out of self-defense or because the target is evil and deserves it. According to producers, her guiltlessness makes her more of an underdog and, hence, more accessible to audiences, since people can understand being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but not intentionally killing a cop while high on drugs.
The fact that TV's Nikita is innocent of the crime that landed her in Section One also heightens the basic narrative tension -- her ambivalence at being a trained killer, and her constant struggle to reconcile her personal morals with her professional duty. As she tells Michael after her first assignment, "You don't want a person, you want a machine....I never killed anyone before I came into Section. I know you don't believe it, but it's true....I can't change who I am." While the pilot tells the story of the film up to the point where Nikita "graduates" and assumes her new life as a secret operative, subsequent episodes remake this basic tension over and over in different guises, radiating out to encompass a wide variety of circumstances and other characters. Everyone has his or her own personal demon to slay, and in their own way all of the operatives chafe under the burden of serving Section One. "I keep my feelings separate," Michael says to Nikita during one of the many conversations in which she expresses impatience with his emotional reserve. "That's how I live. Split in two. I never let anyone see the other half." (In the third season we learn that Michael does in fact lead a double life of sorts -- he has a wife and son "on the outside," part of a deep-cover mission to capture the wife's father, a renowned terrorist.) Even parental authority figures Madeline and Operations occasionally struggle to toe the line. Indeed, the relationship between the older couple mirrors that of Nikita and Michael in that it is fraught with a sexual attraction that can never be freely expressed lest the emotional fallout compromise their professional goals. "Let's not open things up again," Madeline warns Operations after he makes a particularly forward sexual advance. "We're both much too busy."
The television series thus has the luxury of repeatedly dramatizing and developing the fundamental conflict between human and machine, duty and desire, that the films must illustrate with greater economy. At times the conflict is illustrated quite literally, as when Nikita is cloned and plays good and evil versions of herself, when she wonders aloud, tears standing in her eyes, "Am I human? I fear that I'll forget what it's like to be human," or when she is in fact brainwashed to become an emotionless robot, only to be deprogrammed again by Michael (a plot development that appears to be lifted directly from the Hong Kong remake). Regardless of circumstances, it is Nikita's function on the series to signify humanity in a world grown increasingly inhumane. As she tells an unsympathetic Madeline in the first-season finale just before attempting an escape from Section One, "I don't know if I can do this anymore....[W]here you see targets and security risks I see flesh and blood, someone's son, someone's friend....I can't live like this. I can't take it." (The ending of this episode is much like the ending of the original film; Nikita fakes her own death and flees the country, hoping to elude Section One forever.) Freedom, or the lack thereof, is the underlying theme: to be free is to act of one's own accord and make one's own choices, including the choice to follow one's heart. To be free is also to know, clearly and absolutely, right from wrong, and Nikita's moral uprightness becomes all the more pressing because of the moral ambiguity of her environment. The actions of Section One operatives often appear little different from those of the terrorists they oppose, making the line between "us" and "them" difficult to draw.
At the same time, Nikita's compassion and moral purity do not prevent her from kicking butt at least once or twice an episode -- a penchant she shares with strong woman counterparts Xena the Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite the blatant consumerism embedded in the show (as one critic put it, "Nikita is dressed and redressed so often, she should have a runway"), despite the vacuousness of its "antiterrorist" politics (the show operates in political nowheresville and has been likened to Mission: Impossible for the Melrose set), and despite the fact that the protagonist, again like Xena and Buffy, is a beautiful, svelte, white woman, the show is compelling in no small measure because Nikita is strong, aggressive, and independent at the same time she is caring and compassionate. Given our culture's conflation of femininity with passivity, La Femme Nikita thus far has the potential to empower female viewers in ways that male viewers have been privileged to take for granted....
Moreover, because Nikita's home life is sterile and lonely compaured to that of her film counterparts, and because her relationship with Michael is presented as off-limits, its consummation continually interrupted, thwarted, and delayed, Nikita the TV character is more amenable to a queer reading than Nikita the film character. Less obviously coded as lesbian or potentially lesbian than Xena, Nikita is nevertheless not a typical femme fatale, either on- or off-camera. Over six feet tall with a lean, muscular frame and a husky voice, Peta Wilson -- or "Pete" as she is nicknamed -- played championship basketball in high school and is reputed to be an outstanding athlete. She was apparently so tomboyish as a child that her mother, in an odd instance of life foreshadowing art, sent her to modeling school to "feminize" her.
Conclusion: Pygmalion Projects
As David Wills observes in his essay on the Hollywood remake of Breathless, "There can never be a faithful remake, and not just because Hollywood demands compromises or because things get lost in translation or mistakes occur, but because there can never be a simple original uncomplicated by the structure of the remake, by the effects of such self-division." Significantly, La Femme Nikita already embodied a theory of the remake long before the Black Cat films or Point of No Return appeared on the scene. As a tech-noir adaptation of the Pygmalion myth in which a woman is subjected to a dramatic make-over, the Nikita narrative stands as a synedoche for the relation between the original film and its copies -- the latter being remakes about a remaking. Moreover, just as the story line within each text explores the power of one person or entity (Bob, Operations/Madeline, the state) to remake the other (Nikita, Maggie) in its own image, the metanarrative told by certain French critics about the relationship between Hollywood remakes and their French originals is likewise about the power of one country (the US) to remake the other (France) in its own image....
....The television version of the Nikita narrative is an extreme illustration, undermining any semblance of either narrative or cultural purity: as a US television show filmed in Canada, starring an Australian woman..., using more Canadian than American talent, and based on an American-influenced French film that was remade twice, first in Hong Kong and then in the US, the show is a veritable postmodern pastiche of international referents. To top it off, the series was dubbed into French for the European market and reportedly has a cult following in France!
Of course, the principle beneficiary of the postmodern text, like the principle beneficiary of Hollywood remakes, is a US-based media conglomerate. Thus, film and television remakes are unlike literary translations in that the greater reach and profitability of electronic media pave the way for greater potential cultural and economic exploitation. But while the most obvious reason to remake a film is financial, this is not the end of the story, for in order to turn a profit the remaker must also believe that the particular narrative is still compelling and thus worth retelling. In this sense, "similar stories are not so much retold for a new period, but [rather] the new period allows another step in what is otherwise an internal evolution of the story." In other words, the source film can be seen as an individual expression of a myth to be retold, rather than as coterminous with the myth itself. Ultimately, such conceptions of the remake emphasize the fertility of the original text rather than the fidelity of the remake, and posit both as participating in a larger cultural enterprise whose value is outside their specific relationship altogether....
....The so-called original source of the Pygmalion myth is said to be an episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses, an epic poem written circa A.D. 1. Pygmalion is a Greek sculptor living in Cyprus who refuses association with the women on the island. For female companionship he creates an ivory statue more perfect and beautiful than any real human being. So perfect is the statue that Pygmalion falls in love with it; he brings it gifts and adorns it with jewels and fine clothes. During Cyprus's grand festival for Venus, he prays to the goddess for a wife "just like the statue," and when he returns home he finds that the stone flesh grows increasingly warm and yielding under his touch. The statue is thus transformed into a woman, named Galatea, whom Pygmalion marries. George Bernard Shaw drew upon this myth when writing Pygmalion, first performed on the English stage in 1914. According to literary scholars, the story of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins carries on where the myth leaves off, exploring the question of what will be Galatea's relation to her creator after the transformation has taken place. In doing so it stages a kind of reversal of the myth, for whereas Pygmalion turns a statue into a human being, Henry Higgins turns Eliza into a living doll (consider Mrs. Higgins's famous line to Henry and Colonel Pickering: "You certainly are a pair of babies, playing with your live doll!") Eliza, like Nikita, is a project, an experiment. Higgins's reply to his mother makes this clear: "You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being." Besson himself may well have identified with this compulsion, for he reportedly created the Nikita character explicitly for his wife at the time, Anne Parillaud, to boost her flagging career. As he told the Los Angeles Times, he wanted to "elevate [Parillaud] above the mindless starlet roles she had so far inhabited, and reveal, at long last, what she could do."
As Shaw scholars point out, Pygmalion was remade multiple times....The "original" play was adapted to film on three different occasions during the 1930s -- once each in Germany, Holland, and England -- and was then remade as a Broadway musical, titled My Fair Lady, in the 1950s. This production finally morphed into George Cukor's 1964 Hollywood film of the same title, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. All versions feature a clash of wills between Eliza and Higgins, and detail the indignities she suffers in the course of her transformation from working-class vulgarity to middle-class gentility. (Like Nikita, Eliza continually struggles to assert her humanity, since she feels the civilizing process to be decidedly inhumane -- "I got my feelings same as anyone else," she repeatedly admonishes Higgins.) All versions also dramatize the irreversibility of Eliza's altered state. Although Eliza is trapped by social convention rather than more overtly coercive forces, once changed there is no going back....
Yet, as with Nikita, Eliza wins a certain freedom in the end, for ultimately she betters her instruction by becoming a more complete human being than her creator. As Eric Bentley observes..."Eliza turns the tables on Higgins for she, finally, is the vital one, and he is the prisoner of the 'system,' particularly of his profession." The Nikita films suggest a similar reversal, as does the fourth season finale of Nikita on television, in which it appears that Nikita has at last gotten the better of Madeline and Operations. In this episode we learn that during her temporary escape from Section One three years ago, Nikita was recruited by Oversight, Section One's parent organization, and has been working undercover for Oversight ever since. She reentered Section One in order to conduct a lengthy performance evaluation of the staff, all the while pretending to assume her old role as a midlevel operative. Her evaluation concludes that Operations and Madeline are "incompatible," and one of them must be "canceled" -- the mirror image of an earlier scenario in which the older couple decide that because Michael and Nikita are too compatible, one of them must be canceled. The decision about who lives and who dies is made when Madeline takes her own life, yet things do not end happily for Operations either. Nikita denies him his expected promotion to Oversight, telling him he must remain in Section for another seven years. The reason: She says he lacks the god judgment that comes with having compassion for other human beings. Thus, even as she is revealed to be part of the very system that she has purportedly struggled against (indeed, Nikita eventually replaces Operations as leader of Section One), she remains the arbiter of human feeling, compassion, and morality.
It is significant that in writing Pygmalion, Shaw left open the question of what Eliza should do once Higgins is finished with her. Nigel Alexander writes, "The problem of the relation between the sexes and of how people are to live together in society are not 'solved' in the play any more than they are ever 'solved' in society itself. The question is always 'what must we do to retain our independence and self-respect, and yet still treat each other with humanity and charity?'" This speaks to the same negotiation between individual and society, self and other, foregrounded in Blade Runner and Nikita. Clearly, Eliza and Higgins have different ideas about how the delicate balancing act between self and other is to be accomplished, and yet Eliza, like Nikita, is by no means a passive parts in the negotiation. If the Pygmalion impulse is to remake the woman into something other than she was, it also prompts a complicated chain of accommodation and resistance to this desire.
To repeat an earlier point, even in its most debased version, the remake is a meditation on the continuing cultural relevance of a particular narrative. La Femme Nikita and Point of No Return both suggest that the options for women in a phallic regime are limited. They suggest that women's bodies, like men's, can be drafted and used for the reproduction of state violence. In order to gain cultural authority, women, like men, must identify with the Law of the Father and at the same time accept their own subjugation to that law. Like men, women are subjected to, as well as subjects of, discourses of surveillance and social control. Unlike men, however...women are not the primary authors of these discourses, thus their perception of themselves as free agents is doubly fraught with contradiction -- and becomes a rich site for cinematic invesitgation into the bounds and limits of patriarchal power.
Thus, just as classic film noir may express white male anxieties about a postwar economy and working women's newfound independence and power, contemporary action-noir narratives such as Nikita may reflect collective fears and desires about the nature of self and identity, the fate of phallic women under patriarchal rule, and the intrusion of state authority into one's personal life, especially the so-called private sphere of family and home. The various Nikita texts also explore the dilemmas of remaining human in an increasingly dehumanized technocratic world and, most important, of the struggle not to be made over in the image of an/other. As long as these themes remain compelling, as long as they have cultural resonance, they will be taken up and retold on new terrain. Yet the landscape of the remake-as-translation is no aller-simple, not only because the concepts of authorship and originality are themselves complex cultural constructs, but also because the relationship between subject and object, self and other, original and copy is never simply a mirroring. It is also -- quite literally in the case of the Pygmalion myth -- a projection.
Laura Grindstaff is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis.
For the complete text, with extensive notes, contact
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