Television Thursdays- Foreign Language Adaptations

EDIT: This was supposed to go up Thursday but got held up. Apologies for the delay.

As more and more people migrate around the world in search of jobs and opportunities, many different cultures come together and transform their surroundings. Globalization has hit every aspect of our lives…even television. For today’s “Television Thursdays” column, I thought I’d discuss popular TV shows and their international roots.

Sometimes when a television show is wildly successful, international distributors will show a dubbed version or air episodes with closed captioning in that country’s language. Other times, a country will want to create its own version of a foreign hit TV show. Although adaptation is more costly than reversion (the process of dubbing or subtitling a TV show), there are several reasons for this decision. The first reason and most important reason is that TV shows are often culture-specific, so certain elements of a foreign TV show just won’t translate to domestic audiences. Comedies are often subject to adaptation for this very reason as since humour is distinctively cultural. Adapted shows that are targeted towards their intended audience are more relatable, and thus tend to succeed better than their foreign counterpart. Another reason for adaptation is that the newly adapted show can be potential starring vehicles for major local talent who may carry more clout with audiences than the original stars. Let’s take a look and see some examples.


The US is notorious for transforming successful international TV shows into American adaptations. Traditionally, the main source for adaptation has been the United Kingdom which seems a bit bizarre as we both share the same language. However, our cultural differences are dramatic enough that some elements simply would not translate to American society. In recent years, Hollywood has become braver in looking further afield for fresh adaptation ideas.

Israel is one country that has recently gotten attention for being an adaptation gold mine. Hot new AMC show Homeland starring Claire Danes as a CIA agent is based off Israeli show Hatufim. Hatufim is about Israeli prisoners of war who return home after being held in Syria for 17 years. Homeland has a POW who returns to the US after being held in Iraq. Claire Dane’s character was introduced to the American version in order to question the soldier’s genuineness. Fox has taken Israeli sitcom Ramzor and transformed it into Traffic Light, a sitcom about three male friends in various relationship stages. In Ramzor, one of the characters has a domineering wife which is absent in the American version. The creators went on to say that this decision was deliberate, American audiences would never accept such an unbalanced relationship. HBO’s In Treatment, a drama about a therapist and his patients, is another adaptation of hit Israeli series Be Tipul. One Israeli storyline in Be Tipuli revolved around a woman visiting her therapist because she doesn’t have children. That storyline doesn’t resonate in the US so it was removed for In Treatment.

Another great source of foreign media adaptation is Latin American soap operas, which are known as telenovelas. Telenovelas differ from American soap operas in that they do not go on for years and years. These series have intense story lines that go on for 3 or 4 months and then the series finishes. Ugly Betty is a prime example. Originally Colombian soap opera Yo Soy Betty, La Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly), the show’s popularity has inspired adaptations around the world. Each culture morphs Betty into their own version of what ugly means. For example, China’s Betty has tan skin which is viewed as unattractive. Polish version BrzydUla means “ugly woman” with Ula being a nickname for Urzsula, the renamed main character who falls in love with her fashion house boss Marek. Indian version Jassi Jassi Koi Nahin is remarkable in that main character Jassi rejects her Prince Charming in the end in exchange for her self-esteem. For a more comprehensive comparision of the Ugly Betty international variations, find the list here. Ugly Betty is not the only telenovela hitting the adaptation scene. Interestingly, Argentina and China have teamed together to create Chinese language adaptations of Argentinian telenovelas such as Los exitosos Pells (The Successful Pells). As the United States’ Latino population grows exponentially, expect a larger number of telenovela adaptations to cross the border. One English-language telenovela I’ll be keeping an eye out for is the eyebrow-raising Colombian telenovela Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso (Without Breasts There is No Paradise) which has been stuck in development hell at NBC since 2007. My prediction is that US producers will draw inspiration from telenovela story lines, but use traditional American drama or comedy series structure when creating the English-language version.

However despite the growing acceptance of foreign language adaptations, Britain remains the US’ biggest source of adaptation inspiration. Maybe it’s the constant rain that forces British writers to stay in and write more than their tanned California counterparts. Or perhaps publicly-funded TV giant BBC encourages their writers to take more risks than the advertisement-dependent American studios. Whatever the reason, the list of British-born adaptations is astounding. The Office is one sitcom that has responded well to worldwide adaptation. The British sitcom stars Ricky Gervais in a wry commentary about office life. This mockumentary sitcom soon spread all over the world, with the most recent adaptation happening in China. The US version starred Steve Carell as awkward boss Michael Scott who “runs” the paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This intriguing article delves into why The Office succeeds best overseas in adaptation rather than in its original format. Namely, each country wants to see themselves reflected in the characters and the situations. If we were to watch a single episode of The Office from different countries, we would garner a greater understanding of each country’s attitudes and values towards work life. It’s fascinating to see the  different choices that producers make for their individual countries. Writers and producers would do well to look to British television to forecast future series ripe for adaptation. Next British sitcom up for introduction in America is MTV’s version of The In-Betweeners which should air in 2012. My money is on the mega hit Downton Abbey and spooky series Bedlam following suit.

It is not only comedies and dramas that get the adaptation treatment. Many of America’s best known reality shows originated elsewhere. England is the birthplace of many reality shows such as American Idol (Pop Idol), Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link, and Deal or No Deal. Worldwide phenomenon Big Brother originated in the Netherlands and Survivor was initially a Swedish show.  It’s not just the Europeans who come up with reality shows. Japan is legendary for their slapstick game shows, which the US appropriated in I Survived A Japanese Game Show.


Lest you think the United States is the only country who adapts foreign media to suit American audiences, let’s take a look at some examples of US shows that have been adapted abroad. Some of the changes that international creators implement reflect local tastes and ideologies.

In Argentina, popular American TV show Desperate Housewives was transformed into telenovela Manzares. Manzares, which translates to Apple Orchard Way, is set 40 miles from Buenos Aires. The Argentinian Wisteria Lane is designed exactly like the American version but populated with local stars. Although Manzares may look the same as its American counterpart, viewers will notice several major character differences. Susan Mayers is renamed Susanna Martini. Because red signifies danger in Argentina, sexpot Edie is now a redhead while Brie is blonde. As popular telenovelas move into American and other foreign markets, perhaps adaptations of North American favorites will soon crowd the Latin American market.

On the other side of the world, China took on a new version of the Disney hit TV movie High School Musical. Entitled High School Musical: China, the storyline remains similar to its US counterpart but that’s about it. The characters are all played by Chinese actors and the music has been entirely rewritten with the exception of hit song “We’re all in this together”. One major decision the producers made was to move the characters from high school to their first year of university because Chinese high school students work too hard to be singing and dancing. Another major difference is that the lead male actor is now a poet instead of a basketball star because that is apparently more culturally attractive. Producers must make choices that not only reflect Chinese culture, but also pass China’s notoriously strict media laws. Since there is more money to be made in China than anywhere else these days, there will be a growing influx of foreign adaptations in the Chinese television market. Perhaps soon we shall see some Chinese or other Asian dramas make their way to American adaptation.

Classic children’s show Sesame Street has also been transformed as it makes its way around the world. Producers in different countries create different puppets that reflect local people and wildlife. The show also emphasizes different cultural values in each place while still trying to teach children basic literacy and numeracy. To read a fascinating 1979 article about the Arab version Iftah Ya Simsim (Open Sesame) and the decisions made during the adaptation process, click here. In more recent times, global editions of Sesame Street have pioneered children’s education on social issues such as the South African HIV-positive puppet Kami in a country where 1 in 9 people have the virus. Even the American series reflected changing social attitudes when it made popular character Cookie Monster go on a diet in an effort to teach kids healthy eating habits.


Globalization in the media is a trend that will not be going away any time soon. Smart studios and production companies will capitalize on this trend and align themselves with foreign media productions. Europe and Latin America are active sources for US adaptation but Asia and the Middle East are strangely absent from the American adaptation scene. If I were a studio, I’d be looking at Asian or Middle Eastern dramas like these Turkish series for my next big adaptation project. Asia is becoming increasingly important for US TV series looking to export adaptations abroad and the market will only grow in the next few years.

When adapting a series from one culture to another, it’s best not to be too faithful because so many important elements get lost in translation. And by translation, I don’t mean language. Many many hit British series die on the trans-Atlantic voyage. Why is that? Because the new creators fail to discover the heart of the original series and then factor in cultural differences. The core of The Office series is that work is hell and everyone is crazy. If the adapters had literally picked up entire situations from its predecessor, those situations would lose meaning as they are not relevant to the new country. The most important aspect of a foreign language adaptation is that the writer maintains cultural authenticity while staying true to the soul of the original story. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to tell the same story: the story of the human condition.


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