Saturday, 6 April 2013

ARGUMENTELLY: movie-to-TV adaptations

Saturday, 6 April 2013
Dirty Dancing: but which one's dirtier?
Apologies for the fortnight's delay, but I did say this Argumentelly would only be semi-recurring.

If you recall, the last instalment asked 'Are television adverts good or bad?'

Rob D Webster argued for their greatness and 27.2% of you agreed with him. I argued the opposite and the majority 72.7% sided with me. So I won! I will crack open a bottle of champagne this afternoon.

This week, there's a new topic up for discussion. 'Are movies adapted into television shows a good idea?' First up, making the case that they're most definitely NOT, is prolific freelance writer Daniel Bettridge:

Life moves pretty fast; if you don't stop and look around
once in awhile, you could miss the shitty TV adaptations
Adaptation: Lamentation
by Daniel Bettridge

Amongst this year's mid-season debuts on the trans-Atlantic idiot box are Hannibal and Bates Motel; two series about crazed killers that originally started life on the silver screen.

Bates Motel is a particularly curious beast. Like a cross between Psycho and Saved By the Bell: The College Years, or perhaps a Twin Peaks reboot shorn of oddball humour and with a healthy dose of incestuous innuendo thrown in for good measure. Basically what I'm saying is that it has almost nothing to do with the Hitchcock classic on which it’s based. Hannibal is at least a slightly more passable piece of programming, but both belong to that curious sub-genre of shows that originally started life in cinemas.

I say curious, what I really mean of course is terrible. To put it bluntly TV shows based on movies are a bad idea. No doubt Dan will dig up an example or two to excuse the practise of copying and pasting big screen premises for use on the small screen. But the truth is that the odd Buffy or Friday Night Lights-shaped hit doesn't excuse the avalanche of awfulness that comes from this particularly lazy brand of broadcast.

Lets look at the evidence. Blade: The Series, 10 Things I Hate About You, Jumanji, Casablanca. CASABLANCA?! How many of you actually read that list and thought: 'now that was a good series'? I have 400 odd words here to tell you why TV series based on movies are a bad idea but to be honest I only need two: Ferris Bueller–a one season wonder that marked a collective low for all of humanity.

The biggest problem of course is that they're two completely different mediums and so what worked on the big screen won't necessarily translate to it's smaller counterpart. For a start there's the scale. A trip to the cinema is something special, a night out. TV on the other hand is something that's typically enjoyed in your pants, a flickering piece of the furniture that's just as likely to spew out a Lorraine Kelly expose on jeggings as it is a piece of quality entertainment. As a result everything looks smaller, cheaper and altogether less satisfying. It's the entertainment equivalent of comparing the cardboard Big Mac you've just ordered with the mouth-watering pictures you see on the adverts.

Competition for eyeballs is fierce on the idiot box, so it's perhaps no surprise to see execs plumping for familiar properties to grab our attention. But the problem is that if a show started life on the silver screen, then we're always left with something to equate it to. Even if Mads Mikkelsen is successful as Dr Lecter for example, we'll always compare him to Anthony Hopkins' courteous cannibal; likewise poor Freddie Highmore will never be able to step out of the knife-wielding shadow of Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates.

You see no matter how high the concept, TV shows live or die on how easy it is for audiences to relate to their characters, something that's infinitely harder to achieve when you've already watched someone else's iconic interpretation of them. As a result they're best left alone. After all why go back over old ground when you can blaze a new trail of your own?

Into every generation a brilliant television
adaptation of a terrible movie is born
Adaptation: Celebration
by Dan Owen

What's wrong with reusing a good film idea for television? If it worked as a movie, this doesn't guarantee you can squeeze five years of entertainment out of the same idea; but it largely depends on what the concept is, and how well it's executed.

My learn'd colleague Daniel picked out Bates Motel and Hannibal as recent examples of movie-to-TV adaptations that come burdened with problems, but both technically started life as novels. Sure, both are now more popular because of the movies that followed, but I don't see why a TV adaptation should be automatically off-limits for TV screenwriters. Considering how marvellous Bryan Fuller's Hannibalpilot was (better than the franchise's three latest movies), I'm actually excited to see more from 'The Silence of the Lambs: The TV Show'. This is because the core idea has legs, given the crime drama procedural format.

Admittedly, there are some travesties that should never have become television shows. I'm particularly drawn to 1989's Coming to America (with In Living Color's Tommy Davidson replacing Eddie Murphy), or maybe 1988's Dirty Dancing. These failed because the concepts had finite appeal and the TV shows didn't have the star-power of people like Patrick Swayze involved.

But there have been many great, or at least very interesting, adaptations of movies on TV. Alien Nation's ensuing TV series became more popular than the original 1988 movie; The Young Indiana Jones prequel series wasn't too shoddy (despite even the absence of Harrison Ford in the famous hat); 1994's Stargate was transformed into a long-running Syfy hit (even inspiring two spin-offs); American football drama Friday Night Lights is a big favourite of many US cable subscribers (who even remembers the Billy Bob Thornton movie that came first?); and, perhaps most particularly, let us not forget the pop-culture phenomenon Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It started life as a trashy 1992 movie, but without TV giving Joss Whedon a chance who knows where his career would have gone.

In summation: the trick is to adapt a movie that has a concept robust enough to tell many different stories that didn't rely on a particular Hollywood star or big-budget special effects. Coming to America's TV show didn't tick many boxes, but Buffy most certainly did. She can slay a variety of monsters for years before it starts getting boring, and the chintzy special effects were probably better than the film's.

Maybe only 'bad movies with good ideas' should be given a shot at television greatness, but then you have to wonder why a risk-adverse TV executive would attach their name to an unsuccessful film. It's a tricky thing to get right for commissioners, but movie-to-TV adaptations will never go away. They just need to stay smart and discerning.

What Do YOU Think?

You've read the opposing arguments above, but which do you agree with? Cast your vote below and perhaps leave a comment with your own thoughts. This week's Argumentelly winner will be decided next Friday.

Disclaimer: opinions expressed do not always reflect the true thoughts of respective authors, but can exist to inspire debate in readers. Did you have a debating society at school, where you were asked to advocate the death penalty or stealing chocolate from toddlers? It's like that.