The return Fargo on SBS got us thinking: What other Coen Bros films – and their iconic characters – might translate to the small screen?
28 Apr 2014 - 12:17 PM  UPDATED 23 Mar 2017 - 4:57 PM

Fargo is back on SBS ONE at 9.30pm Wednesdays.

In case you missed it the first time around, Joel and Ethan Coen’s acclaimed and blackly comic vision of icy malfeasance and matter-of-fact retribution in rural Minnesota has been reborn as a drama that uses the setting and character outlines of the original movie as the basis for a new homage.

The idiosyncratic siblings have the obligatory executive producer credit but they have no creative involvement; as their remarkable career has made amply clear, they are meant to create cinema. But that doesn’t mean that their richly eclectic catalog of movies, which commenced 30 years ago with Blood Simple, might not hold further inspiration for the small screen.

The new Fargo, which stars Billy Bob Thornton, Bob Odenkirk (pictured) and Martin Freeman, got us thinking: other types of television adaptations, however unlikely, might be in order?


Raising Arizona (1987)

Watch original movie review and interviews with Joel and Ethan Coen 

The Movie: Deadpan, antic comedy about a misfit childless couple (Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter) who kidnap one of five baby quintuplets out of love and promptly fall into mayhem.

The Show: A riotous back blocks sitcom about the misadventures of Hi and Ed McDunnough, the partially reformed criminal and the policewoman attempting to raise a new baby while trying to make their contradictory backgrounds mesh and avoiding his former friends from jail, the Snoats brothers, who are a bad influence. In true sitcom fashion, wild and outlandish events transpire in each and every half hour, only to start from scratch with a clean slate in the next episode.

Lost in Translation: Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb), the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse charged with recovering the absent Arizona offspring.

Nicolas Cage in the Coen brothers' 1987 cult comedy 'Raising Arizona'


Miller's Crossing (1990)

Watch original movie review

The Movie: Audaciously grim, graceful invocation of classic hardboiled crime fiction as a gangster (Gabriel Byrne) negotiates a Prohibition-era crime war.

The Show: More of the same in the form of an interlocking crime drama. The original Miller’s Crossing could easily be a pilot episode in this era of high quality period drama series, with the similarly themed Boardwalk Empire already a cable success. With his cool demeanour and cutting assessments, anti-hero protagonist Tom Reagan would have to stay one move ahead of powerful crime bosses, sardonic gangster’s molls, hulking standover men, dutifully corrupt police, and untrustworthy fixers.

Lost in Translation: Not a great deal, although the modern cable drama does tend to feature more sex than the Coens usually allow.

Gabriel Byrne stars in the Coen brothers' Irish mafia saga Miller's Crossing (1990), showing 8:30PM, Saturday 4th May on SBS Viceland


Barton Fink (1991)

Watch original movie review and interviews with John Turturro and Judy Davis (at Cannes 1991)

The Movie: An idealistic 1930s New York playwright (John Turturro) accepts a Hollywood contract, only to find himself unable to work and seemingly living in a dreamscape beyond his control.

The Show: An otherworldly journey through 1930s Hollywood, where a screenwriter meets a different Los Angeles personage each week and becomes mixed up in their life, all the time failing to actually write anything but somehow staying under lucrative studio contract. The format changes to match the guest: an adventure with a carousing matinee idol, a noir-like romance with a femme fatale, and a madcap lost weekend with a dysfunctional comedy troupe.

Lost in Translation: Charlie Meadows, a.k.a. serial killer “Madman” Mundt, might harsh the mood somewhat.



The Big Lebowski (1998)

Watch original movie review and interviews with Joel and Ethan Coen

The Movie: Unemployed Los Angeles slacker and bowling aficionado Jeff Lebowski, a.k.a. “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges), becomes embroiled in multiple conspiracies after a case of mistaken identity.

The Show: Discursive, observational comedy set at a bowling alley, where each week The Dude and his teammates, hothead Walter Sobchak and the unassuming Donny Kerabatsos, play a different team and debate matters moral and material with their opponents while attempting to bowl the perfect game. Hear The Dude explain how to make the perfect White Russian, while Walter offers his thoughts on Jewish theology. Each episode ends with Walter yelling, “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”

Lost in Translation: Probably wouldn’t be a place for errant detached toes, and there’s no need to do anything silly like bringing back Tara Reid.


O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Watch original movie review

The Movie: Eccentric adventure comedy with extensive soundtrack as a trio of escaped convicts (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro) journey across 1930s Mississippi to retrieve buried loot and an errant wife.

The Show: A documentary series with dramatised sequences that recreates the life and times of the unknown roots musicians whose songs, be they bluegrass or traditional spirituals, blues or country, came to form the forgotten foundation of American popular music. Host T-Bone Burnett puts the works in context, and recreates each song with a cast of contemporary guest musicians as the finale.

Lost in Translation: Take your pick, as that is one strange movie, although the three sirens do spring to mind.



Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Watch original movie review and interviews with Catherine Zeta Jones and George Clooney

The Movie: A screwball romance about a fearsome Los Angeles divorce attorney, Miles Massey (George Clooney), who becomes romantically entangled with a client’s cunning former wife, Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The Show: A glossy reality series about the misadventures of Los Angeles divorce lawyers, who go to ludicrous lengths to get their wealthy clients to sign pre-nuptial agreements before they wed or to uncover incriminating evidence to present in court after they separate. The lawyers meet, in completely contrived circumstances, to discuss their respective cases and boast about billable hours, while the supporting players include a salacious private eye with excellent surveillance skills.

Lost in Translation: There’s probably no place for asthmatic hitman, Wheezy Joe.


No Country For Old Men (2007)

Watch original review

The Movie: A tense, spiritual-toned thriller set in 1980s West Texas, where a satchel of drug money entangles a defiant hunter (John Brolin), an ageing local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), and a ghostly assassin (Javier Bardem).

The Show: A sweeping period crime drama set on either side of the U.S.-Mexican border in 1980 as the drug trade first starts to establish itself in Mexico and reaches across the arid landscape towards an America that is dealing with the decline of community traditions in the post-Vietnam war era. Crime pays, especially on television, with the interplay of various factions, cartels and hardy loners guaranteed to attract an audience.

Lost in Translation: The haircut worn by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh – that and the compressed air bolt gun were enough to inspire nightmares.



Burn After Reading (2008)

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The Movie: Contemporary black comedy set in Washington D.C. where a cross-section of characters – including a disillusioned CIA employee (John Malkovich), a philandering Treasury agent (George Clooney), and a pair of idiotic gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) – are dangerously oblivious to all but their own desires.

The Show: A comedy series set in a gym where each week a pair of personal trainers come up with a new fail get rich quick scheme that invariably turns out to have an embarrassing or even risky flaw, leaving them worse off than they ever were. A cross-section of clients who work for the U.S. government allows for scams involving federal contracts as the inept duo attempt to secure logistics contracts in Afghanistan and find themselves responsible for communications at Guantanamo Bay.

Lost in Translation: There’s probably no need for anyone to die from a frenzied hatchet attack.


True Grit (2010)

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The Movie: Frontier western about a determined teenage girl (Hailee Steinfeld) sworn on revenge for the man (Josh Brolin) who killed her father, who engages a one-eyed U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges) and a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) to cross into Indian Territory and apprehend him.

The Show: A western set on the edge of civilisation’s march in the wake of the American Civil War, where the line between lawmen and criminals, agents of progress and the corrupt, is sometimes too fine to be recognised. The core of the story is the ongoing relationship between an orphaned girl and the roughhouse U.S. Marshal who takes her into his care; she civilizes him, he gives her reassuring love. (Yes, I miss Deadwood, too).

Lost in Translation: You can hold off on the main character having an arm amputated due to gangrene from a rattlesnake bite.


Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Read original movie review and watch interviews with Joel and Ethan Coen, and the cast of Inside Llewyn Davis

The Movie: An existential comedy about a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) in the early 1960s Greenwich Village scene who struggles to support himself, make sense of his career, and stop the partner (Carey Mulligan) of his friend he secretly got pregnant from swearing at him. Also features a cat that may be the personification of his artistic soul.

The Show: This isn’t easy. It could be a music-based drama about the handful of pioneers and devotees who took folk music from coffeehouses and basement clubs into the music charts around the world. Or it could be a weekly competition where an acknowledged reprobate has to take care of a friend’s cat while being homeless. Either one is better than adapting The Ladykillers

Lost in Translation: Nothing – everything fits, just in an unknown order. That’s very Coen brothers.


Watch Fargo commences on SBS ONE at 9.30pm Wednesdays.


From the archives
Interview with Joel and Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi at Cannes 1996