The Not So Small Screen

Something happened to television in the late nineties as far as Hollywood’s elite actors became concerned; it was no longer the place you went if your career was over.  As the likes of Martin Sheen, Kelsey Grammer and Kiefer Sutherland began things with their hit shows, earning rave reviews, awards and truly vast pay cheques, so more and more actors thought that the allure of a regular gig on a TV show perhaps wasn’t quite the death sentence it used to be.

In the fifteen years that followed after the West Wing hit the air, TV has experienced something of a golden age with better production values, better quality actors and better writing making TV must watch.  Hit TV shows like Oz, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and of course the recent smash hit of Game of Thrones have lead to an era when perhaps TV may have more pull than the silver screen, or at least a comparable pull.

The problem with any boom period in Hollywood and the media is that as demand increases, pressure to crank out new and better shows keeps increasing.  Hollywood is not exactly legendary for its willingness to try out new ideas and new things and this has lead to the silver screen being inundated with remakes, reboots, sequels and spin-offs.  So it has gone with TV shows too.  Hit shows spawn less successful, less interesting spin off shows or just limp on for seven increasingly poor seasons until the ending hits (and it turns out they all died in the pilot episode).

Another popular and often unsuccessful staple as been the TV show based on the movie.  Perhaps the first, fairly famous example of this is the “Planet of the Apes” TV show which aired in the 1970’s after the last movie had been and gone.  The series was generally pretty poor but was had a steady run on TV before being cancelled after one season by CBS.

Recently this theme has come back into fashion.  The first really major hit was “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” the hit TV show which was iconic in the 1990’s and helped to launch Joss Whedon’s career.  The show, which was considerably more popular than the rather goofy movie it is based on, was a massive hit and almost serves now as the blueprint of how to do a TV show based on a movie.

Following the success of Buffy there have been multiple other attempts including the interesting but flawed Hannibal, Dusk Till Dawn, Fargo, Terminator and the long running Stargate SG1 (plus myriad spin off shows).

Apart from the cynical money making approach, there are a few good creative reasons for exploring an existing storyline in a TV show format.  The longer runtime allows the writers, actors and creatives to delve deeper into the mythos of the show, fleshing out character back stories and interactions.

With a longer time on screen there’s also a lot longer to build up some truly deep and interesting characterisation. The depth of the writing in the Buffy Show, despite its often melodramatic tone, was surprisingly deep.  Witness the quality of the acting and writing the award winning episode “The Body”.

There’s also the potential for exploring a new approach and new angles on an existing storyline.  Stargate SG1 explained that the Ra villain in the movie was just one of many of these Go-Ald aliens.  Hannibal is something of a reboot of the Silence of the Lambs mythos but it’s been a fascinating and frustrating ride to see it explored from a new angle.

There is also the potential to overlap and dovetail with the original movie.  If the show isn’t a pure reboot like Dusk Till Dawn or Hannibal, then you can even have a few fanboy pleasing moments like in the so-so Agents of Shield which, to be fair, is more of a spin-off than a straight TV to movie adaptation.

To be a likely candidate for success, the original movie that is being adapted needs to have an interesting initial concept which needn’t be purely original.  There needs to be interesting characters to populate the screen with, though most TV shows tend to bring new characters to life in the TV show, witness the Texas Ranger character in the new Dusk Till Dawn TV show.

Of course there have been a lot of these shows already and a lot of them have been incredibly bad.  Freddy’s Nightmares based on the Nightmare on Elm Street Movies was a risible cash in.  And which exec thought that the Crow TV show or a Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels TV show would work?

There is a very important dividing line between being a new intellectual property in your own right with the TV show and showing due respect to the movie that spawned it.  If a show is too beholden then it risks being seen as a longer, slower and generally lower budget version of the movie that came before it.  On the other hand, divert too much and there was almost no point in tying yourself to the original movie that gave you the idea, as well as the name recognition and audience!

Taking the idea of the movie turned into a TV show was the influence of this article and a bit of time spent, just idly sketching ideas on a notepad, gave birth to these movies that could spawn a successful TV show:

  • Aliens: the seminal 1986 classic remains one of the all-time great action movies and was critically and commercially successful.  As the sequels and spin offs have sucked the marrow out of the bone, perhaps the small screen would be the best home for this property? Imagine a show that is set in the violent, corporate world of the 1980’s movie where colonial marines, corporate execs and wild-cat colonists co-exist with the lethal xenomorphs.  Of course it’d be critically important to limit the aliens screen time for budget reasons but also to keep them terrifying, enigmatic and lethal.  The show would need a healthy budget, sci-fi tends to suffer in TV especially when hampered with a low budget but as a gritty HBO style show, Aliens could be a major hit.
  • Zulu:  the 1960’s classic movie was shot with dual sensibilities of being a boys own adventure but also a paen to the price of colonialism.  Michael Caine and Stanley Baker both gave tour-de-force performances and the Men of Harlech scene retains the power to give an audience chills.  A TV show based on this concept would be almost a best of both worlds; featuring colonial conflict and war for one section of the audience and then the period drama of the likes of Downton for another audience.  Another generation of young British stars could look spiffing in Red (or Khaki) and there’s an absolute goldmine of historical conflict to mine.
  • 28 Days Late:  The classic 2002 horror / sci-fi movie brought the cool back to zombies and also showed mainstream audiences and producers that digital was the way to go.  The look and feel of the movie is so far ahead of its time that it beggars belief that the movie is over twelve years old.  A TV show would be set in the first 27 days, following the collapse of Britain to the rage virus, the efforts to contain and fight it and then the evacuation leading to the chaos and breakdown of the movie.  Imagine the dark, gritty and British version of the walking dead?  It could even dovetail with events in the movie.  The likes of Cillian Murphy, Naomi Harris and Brendan Gleason could all be persuaded to reprise their roles.
  • Dune:  Frank Herbert’s masterpiece of sci-fi has been adapted more than once, both times with only limited success.  The stylish but meaningless David Lynch movie was followed by the criminally low budget TV movies which just looked cheap.  Imagine someone giving the Game of Thrones treatment to Dune as a TV series?  The myriad plots and counter-plots of the book could be brought to life.  Thanks to the mixed-bag of prequel novels there’s a heck of a lot of depth that a good TV show could work with
  • Any Given Sunday:  Oliver Stone’s sports movie is utterly full of cliché but remains a highly enjoyable movie.  Made when Stone’s coke habit was under control, this movie was a testosterone fuelled advert / insult to the NFL.  Imagine it as a show where each season of the show reflects one season of life with the Miami Sharks.  The episodes could potentially centre around a game, though needn’t feature a game.  The nature of TV casting would be easier to deal with too with actors leaving could be explained as retiring or just trading out to another team.  The NFL hasn’t been this hot for a long time in the US market and Oliver Stone hasn’t generally done much with the TV medium.
  • Se7en:  David Fincher’s real breakout movie remains, for me, the best serial killer movie ever made.  It’s rain soaked, neo-noir reinvented the genre and features near-career best performances all round.  A TV show based on this classic would be perhaps a police procedural where each season revolves around a new case, to avoid the monster of the week feel of X-Files or Hannibal, where the Mills and Sommerset characters, assisted by a larger cast of cops, look for clues and try to solve a macabre case in the unnamed rain-soaked city.  Deeper themes of corruption and the back story of the two iconic cops could also be added.

There are still hundreds of original and interesting ideas that haven’t been explored, or explored enough, that this is the only way that TV producers need to go. Book adaptation, foreign shows like The Killing and the occasional straight up new idea still hit the screen.  Indeed for the future of interesting television it’s necessary that a mix of these are brought to the screen.  With video on demand becoming the mainstay of most people’s television habits, the ideas of watching a particular station at a particular time are becoming increasingly redundant and the audience grows in it’s sophistication of its tastes whilst losing more patience for shows that are not up to snuff.

The Silver Screen will always have its natural advantages, its inherent glamour and sexiness, its ability to shock and pander and of course a larger budget.  But the small screen, which is now of course no longer that small and rendered into glorious HD, has an increasing role to play and perhaps the two mediums are becoming more and more alike. Perhaps the days where the two mediums intertwine and future properties may require us to watch the movie and the series, a full on multi-media assault?  And why would they stop there?