With the rise of on-demand services like Netflix and the ever-growing culture of “binge-watching”, the relationship between television and film is becoming increasingly blurred. Shows like House of Cards, which take place over a dozen or so hours, boast far more drama than can be stuffed into a two-hour feature. Still, there are some TV shows that simply cry out for the grandiose scale of the big screen, but attempts to turn successful series into blockbusters can very often go horribly wrong. With the release of Spooks: The Greater Good (itself based on a hit BBC series) this week, we took a look back over the annals of adaptation history, and came up with a few hints for anyone who’s looking to transfer something from the small screen to the big one.
1) Remember your origins
One of the biggest problems with making a movie out of a TV show is that you’re effectively speaking to two entirely different audiences – one that is already intimately familiar with the original material, and another that simply wants to watch an entertaining film. Favour the former, as happens with cult fare like Sex and the City or Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and you alienate newcomers. Lean towards the latter, and you risk losing the essence of what made the show and its characters so popular. Undoubtedly one of the best examples of how to strike a perfect balance between the two is Joss Whedon’s Serenity. Fans of Firefly adored the movie thanks to its witty screenplay and wonderful cast; it stayed true to the show’s original charm and served as a perfect coda to a series unfairly cancelled before its time. Meanwhile, the fact that Serenity was also a damn fine piece of science fiction in its own right earned Whedon a whole host of new fans (this writer included).
Still, remembering where you’ve come from is important…
2) Don’t treat the original as sacred
Let’s be honest with ourselves. With the possible exception of The West Wing‘s first four seasons, no TV show is perfect. So many shows are cancelled after a single season (or less) for the simple reason that they’re not very good, and even the best of shows occasionally has a dip. Even the most stalwart Trekkie has to admit there are a few pretty bad episodes of Star Trek out there, and there are numerous schools of thought on the question of when The Simpsons finally stopped being funny (for the record, it was the end of Season 12). Besides, films that seriously deviate from established territory often wind up doing something interesting and creative in the process. The original 21 Jump Street, for example, played its central premise about young-looking cops infiltrating high schools to investigate crime fairly seriously. But in the hands of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the series morphed into a hilarious send-up of both the original show’s silly setup and the very idea of rebooting old properties to try and make a hit.
3) You’re making a movie, not an extra-long TV show
One of the biggest rookie mistakes that a writer can make when adapting a TV show for cinema is to write what is essentially two or three episodes of said TV show welded together – or, worse, one episode stretched to 120 minutes. It’s a problem that most often occurs in animation, particularly if they’re originally aimed at younger audiences. Films like the 2011 live-action Smurfs movie or the infamous Garfield: The Movie only bring about 20 minutes of actual story, and rely on a succession of stupid gags to pad out the remaining running time. If you’ve been given the budget to make a feature, then make the most of it. Take South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Much of the appeal of their show comes from its decidedly low-budget nature, but that didn’t stop them from pulling out all the stops for South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. They turned the movie into a full-fledged musical, packed with some amazing showtunes – one of which, ‘Blame Canada‘, was even nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards.
4) Know when to stop
All good things must come to an end – often, they’re taken away from us far too soon – and television shows are no exception. But a film can often give fans a sense of closure; one last hurrah before the heroes either finally breathe their last or ride off into the sunset forever (see the aforementioned Serenity above). But fame does strange things to us all, and when a moderately successful TV show becomes a huge hit film, studios can often pressure stars and filmmakers alike to make the same brand of lightning strike twice; often with disastrous results. The Inbetweeners Movie, for example, set the record for the most successful comedy film in the UK, earning over £13 million in its opening weekend. Sadly, that kind of success meant a sequel was all but inevitable, and while the imaginatively titled The Inbetweeners 2 went bigger on the knob jokes and bodily fluids, it ultimately didn’t add up to all that much.
5) Don’t let Michael Bay get involved
Need we say more here? From racist Autobots to creepy ninja turtles who won’t stop hitting on April O’Neill, it’s painfully obvious by now that handing any property over to Mr. Bay can only lead to disaster.