• Sarah Michelle Gellar starred as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. (WB)
It feels like a land-grab with TV networks desperately gobbling up movies for small screen adaptations. Sarah Ward explains why they're suddenly so interested.
By
Sarah Ward

23 Nov 2016 - 2:50 PM  UPDATED 23 Nov 2016 - 2:50 PM

Less than a week after the trailer for T2: Trainspotting asked audiences to choose life all over again, and only months before the long-awaited sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 film starts reaching cinemas, author Irvine Welsh let slip that more Scottish drug- and crime-riddled antics could be on the horizon. Welsh has penned four books about Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie (Trainspotting, sequel Porno, prequel Skagboys and Begbie-focused spin-off The Blade Artist) to date, providing ample material for further screen adaptations. This time, however, he’s contemplating a shift to television.

Hearing that a beloved film is making its way to the small screen has become common of late, with TV versions of everything from Lethal Weapon to Ash vs. Evil Dead to The Exorcist currently airing, new seasons of Bates Motel, Fargo and The Girlfriend Experience on the way, and a broad array of efforts spanning The Departed, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Let the Right One In and Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events slated to join them. It’s definitely a great time to be a movie-loving TV viewer, or a fan of beloved films looking to spend more time in their distinctive worlds — but why are all of your favourite movies becoming television shows?

What’s coming?

As well as the aforementioned titles, in short: plenty. In addition to Welsh’s Trainspotting plans, the last month alone has seen small-screen versions of female-centric surfing movie Blue Crush, alien-zapping sci-fi Starship Troopers and ’80s amorous drama American Gigolo all announced in what has been a packed year for transporting flicks to television.

Other movies destined for a TV set near you include Sneakers, The Lost Boys, Varsity Blues, Heathers, She's Gotta Have ItSnatch, Get ShortyJack Ryan, Taken, Underworld, The Italian Job, Enemy of the State, Behind Enemy Lines, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Rainmaker, Jumper, The Purge, S.W.A.T., The Mist and Divergent.

And, closer to home, What We Do in the Shadows is getting a NZ TV spinoff that follows the police unit charged with responding to paranormal occurrences, while classic Australian films Wake in Fright and Picnic at Hanging Rock will live again in episodic form.

Why?                               

At a time when the majority of content reaching cinema screens trades on nostalgia and existing name recognition, it’s little wonder that television is following suit. If audiences will happily head to a theatre to see on-screen superhero universes crafted by Marvel and DC, lengthy franchises such as Fast & Furious, or long-waited next chapters of beloved properties, as seen with Jurassic World and Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens — as well as live-action and/or CGI-enhanced remakes of old favourites, spanning everything from The Jungle Book to Beauty and the Beast, and the usual list of sequels, prequels and remakes — then it’s a safe bet they’ll tune in for a dose of comfortable familiarity at home, too.

From a television network’s perspective, the reasoning is straightforward: viewers already have an attachment to titles such as From Dusk Till Dawn and 12 Monkeys (which have both made it to three seasons)  — or, at least an awareness of them. There’s also no mistaking that some of the films getting the TV treatment have already ostensibly been serialised in cinemas over multiple installments, priming audiences for more Jack Ryan, Taken or Underworld, regardless of the format.

It’s similarly impossible not to notice that many of the movies making their way to television are beloved favourites or cult classics — The Lost Boys and Heathers for example. If fandom and popularity can play a part in the resurrection of TV shows like Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls and Twin Peaks (and film continuations of Firefly and Veronica Mars), there’s no doubting that it also factors into the decision to bring the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Trainspotting to the small screen.

Plus, at a time when the phrase “golden age of television” is uttered all too often, and arguments continue to abound regarding the growing supremacy of TV over cinema, the small screen is simply continuing to do what it does best: offering viewers the luxury of more time with its content, characters and storylines, just with material they already recognise. With average movie running times increasing in tandem with growing franchises — even in character-focused, stand-alone efforts such as the road trip-based American Honey or critically acclaimed German comedy Toni Erdmann — it could be argued that film has been trying to do the same. Of course, television will always be able to provide audiences with more hours of watching Minnesota cops and criminals do battle, and therefore more time to become immersed in interconnected storylines and quirky protagonists, than one single movie can.

Is this a new trend?

Westworld, based on the Michael Crichton-written and -directed 1973 feature of the same name, is the must-see show of the moment; however it’s also the film’s second TV adaptation after short-lived 1980 series Beyond Westworld. Snatch will bring Guy Ritchie’s 2000-made second film to the small screen, with Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint and Gossip Girl’s Ed Wetswick among the cast, but Lock, Stock… got there first with a television offshoot of the filmmaker’s first movie.

Television has been taking inspiration from the cinema for decades: witness M*A*S*H, The Odd Couple, In the Heat of the Night, La Femme Nikita, Clerks, Stargate-SG1, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, for example. Name a film — particularly an American-made effort from the ‘70s onwards — and odds are high that it once boasted a TV version, even if it didn’t last very long or the world has promptly forgotten about it. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Karate Kid, Robocop, Spaceballs, Tron, Clueless, Harry and the Hendersons, The Net, Teen Wolf, Weird Science and 10 Things I Hate About You have all lived on in TV form, as did everything from Planet of the Apes to the Pink Panther.  Even Casablanca made the leap to the small screen, twice, in 1955 in 1983.

What works — and what doesn’t?

Think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sarah Michelle Gellar — not Kristy Swanson — comes to mind. Do the same with Friday Night Lights, and you’ll picture Kyle Chandler rather than Billy Bob Thornton. Both television spinoffs surpassed their cinematic origins to become the versions of record, largely by expanding upon a great idea and taking it in a different direction. The same can be said for the second TV adaptation of Parenthood, and might eventually prove the case for Fargo, as adored as the Oscar-winning film by the Coen brothers remains.

There’s no magic formula behind their success, other than a willingness to explore the potential of the underlying material. For Buffy, that involved scaling back the ditzy side of its heroine, ramping up the romance between a vamp-killing heroine and members of the undead, surrounding her with likeable supporting players, and honing in on the parallels between navigating the hellishness that can be high school and college, and fighting blood-sucking monsters and other demons. Friday Night Lights also benefited from heightening the commonalities between the action on the football field and life in the surrounding town — and, like Parenthood, from a broader range of characters.

With Fargo, series creator Noah Hawley decided not just to expand the storyline, but to expand the Fargo universe. In fact, as two seasons to date have demonstrated, choosing not to simply remake the movie of the same name has proven a stroke of genius. Instead, the anthology-style Fargo TV series follows a somewhat similar template, and is tangentially connected to the events of the film, but tells other tales set in the same area. It leans heavily on character and location, without stretching any of the resulting eccentricities too far, or the premise — and it’s little wonder that the time period-jumping take on The Lost Boys, focusing on a different decade per series, is slated to follow in its footsteps.

Alas, for every film-to-TV adaptation that puts a stake through the original movie, plenty of others are destined for the hellmouth where failed attempts go to die — or the frozen Minnesota tundra. Just recently, the proposed television adaptation of Cruel Intentions was passed over by one American network, leaving it struggling to make it to air. Here, it’s often the one-size-fits-all approach that flounders, assuming that something like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective will work in just the same way on TV, or that viewers want to see Ferris Bueller have another day off, or Baby and Johnny engage in repeated bouts of Dirty Dancing. And, some narratives aren’t that suited to the episodic treatment, or show their limitations when they’re repeated week after week, such as the tried-and-failed Minority Report and Rush Hour in the last twelve months.

French film La Femme Nikita was adapted into a 5 season series back in 1997. You can watch the original film now on SBS On Demand:

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