Given Hollywood's penchant for adaptation, why have so few films been adapted from the rich dramatic territory of the television mini-series? 
By
David Hull

29 May 2009 - 3:14 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Kevin MacDonald's star-studded political thriller State of Play is that rare beast: a movie adapted from a television drama. Think about it. While the small screen has proved a fertile feeder medium for action flicks, science fiction adventures and comedy romps, seldom have filmmakers received the green light to take out-and-out dramas produced for the idiot box and condense them for cinema audiences. Moreover, it's been even rarer for the furrow of the dramatic TV mini-series to be ploughed for big-screen purposes.

State of Play
, which follows a team of journalists investigating the mysterious death of a political researcher, began life as a six-parter on British television. The Paul Abbott-penned production, featuring a heavyweight cast led by John Simm, Bill Nighy, Kelly McDonald, David Morrissey and James McAvoy, was a big hit on the BBC when it aired in 2003 (Nighy's portrayal of the droll newspaper editor Cameron Foster ultimately snared him a BAFTA for Best Actor).

Abbott (who can also boast Cracker and Shameless amongst his credits) went on to sell the rights to Universal Pictures with the proviso that he would serve as an executive producer on the feature. It is rumoured that Brad Pitt enticed director MacDonald (Touching the Void, Last King of Scotland) to take the reins of the project, however the actor himself eventually quit his role as hot-shot journalist Cal McAffrey, to be replaced with another A-lister, Russell Crowe (incidentally, another late line-up change was Ben Affleck – in for Ed Norton). Recreating State of Play was a brave undertaking, especially in light of a previous spectacularly ill-fated attempt to adapt a British drama featuring writer Abbott's work for US viewers.

Cracker, created by Jimmy McGovern (with Abbott responsible for three episodes), had been a knock-out success on British television (and internationally) when it aired across three series from 1993, propelling Robbie Coltrane to stardom via his much-loved role as the abrasive a criminal psychologist Fitz. The US network ABC bought the rights to the show, re-made it and premiered it in 1997. Such was its lack of performance, the US Cracker was hauled off the air after just 10 weeks, leaving five episodes unused.

In the case of State of Play, gun screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Dolores Claiborne, the Bourne trilogy, Michael Clayton) was brought in to spread his magic dust on the existing script, but the film still stays very true to its origins – right down to all the main characters' names (even though Helen Mirren plays the Bill Nighy role, she retains his character's Christian name). Despite the plot relocation from London to Washington DC, a condensation from six to two hours and minor revisions such as changing the profession of the bad guys and some modernising of journalists' tools of trade, the BBC series is immediately recognisable in the Hollywood version.

The team behind State of Play may well have had confidence they could hardly go wrong with such a rollicking good milieu of intertwining stories as the source material, but creating a film to match the scope and depth of the BBC series was always going to present a challenge (Affleck, who plays the key role of politician Stephen Collins, has admitted that he daren't watch the lauded mini-series, lest he would he doubt his ability to do justice to the role). Perhaps it's this fear of not living up to audience expectations, which lies at the heart of why so few drama/thrillers have been repurposed.

One successful example of a hard-hitting film that originated in a mini-series is Steven Soderbergh's drug-themed Traffic (2000), which also has its roots on the UK small screen, namely in the Channel 4 production Traffik. Another notable one occurred when David Lynch followed up his cult 1990 TV series Twin Peaks with a darker film version in 1992.

Action series, in particular, have long provided a steady source of inspiration for scriptwriters and directors not bound to an original concept (examples include The Fugitive, Miami Vice, The Avengers, Charlie's Angels, Mission: Impossible, Starsky & Hutch and The Untouchables). The science fiction genre, too, has an established tradition of ramping up from small to big screen (the Star Trek franchise, The X Files, Lost in Space and Flash Gordon, for instance). As well, TV comedies and sitcoms have made for much multiplex fodder (Bewitched, the Monty Python films, The Beverly Hillbillies, Dukes of Hazzard, The Brady Bunch, The Addams Family).

Acknowledging also that these examples were all adapted from long-running TV shows, as opposed to punchier mini-series, it does seem as though filmmakers (and financiers) view non-drama genres as less of an adaptation risk.