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TV Movies…

It surfaces every now again. Talk of a Sopranos movie. It’s the same deal-io with the oft-requested Veronica Mars movie or a sequel to Serenity. It seems that the big screen has become the desired home for any number of TV shows – whether they ended before their time (as Firefly did) or as planned (per the Sopranos). I’m a little surprised, though, that everyone seems to think this is a good idea.

Seeing red...

Seeing red...

Okay, I’ll concede that there haven’t been too many movies that pick up directly after the television show left off. Get Smart, Starsky and Hutch and Bewitched, terrible as they are, were ‘reimaginings’ of the show. They featured new actors in the same situations and essentially played like a study guide to the show in question. A really bad study guide. Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, while by no means as bad as most critics would have you believe, was a similar scenario – there was no way to tell that the movie was based on the show, because, aside from a borrowed plot line and the same names, it bore no resemblance to the spirit of the original show (I’m not talking about pastel or music or anything so obvious, it just didn’t feel like the show it was set to emulate).

Sure, fans cry, those movies sucked because they were nothing like our television show. And the fans are right. But they ignore a fundamental truth about the Hollywood machine: movies need to draw as wide an audience as possible to make the most amount of money. Serenity taught film studios that audiences won’t flock to see a movie continuing the story of a television show, simply because more by following those threads it locks out the vast majority of cinema-goers. If you haven’t seen Firefly, why would you want to see Serenity? Unless it was a cheap study guide substitute? In which case you’re left with the same light imitations as the examples I’ve mentioned above. And nobody wants that, right?

There are rare cases where it does work. Mostly for episodic television shows that have sunk their claws into the cultural zeitgeist. For example the Star Trek franchise or The Simpsons Movie. These films are but extensions of the episodic mayhem that floods the screen. There’s no over-arching plot threads that must be resolved from the television show. They exist independently of the show. If either they or the show ceased to exist, nobody would feel like the story was incomplete. I’d suggest that In The Loop, a spin-off from the TV show In the Thick of It, might qualify as a similar type of film adaptation, but I think the jury is out. In any case, it takes a radically different concept from the television show that happens to involve the lead character. It would be like having Tony Soprano ending up cast away on a desert island. The movie might be a great desert island movie, but I somehow doubt it’ll solve the hankering you have for more Sopranos. Although, it would prove that Tony is still alive, unless the island is representative of something…

Let's all go the movies...

Let's all go the movies...

I have no problem with cross-medium pollination. I think that stories that worked in one medium generally can be transposed to another. It won’t always work well (see Watchmen, for example), but there’s no reason not to try. I just don’t see any precedent for the successful adaptation of a heavily arc-driven cult television show to the big screen. The reason that people want to see these movies isn’t the traditional reason that people want to see movies: they don’t necessarily want something bigger, louder and more epic. They want closure and resolution. Film is arguably not really the medium for the resolution of a serial (indeed, with films taking years to produce, film is rarely the medium for any sort of true serial). While it might please the fanbase, regular moviegoers won’t pay to see the resolution to a story they haven’t seen the beginning or even middle of. That’s what happened with Serenity. I think that a more fluid medium than the rigid constraints of film might work better if you want ‘the continuing serial adventures of X’. Joss Whedon has managed to (fairly successfully) wrap up Buffy and Angel in comic book form, for example.

Okay, if you don’t want closure for your franchise of choice, what do you want? If you want to introduce the mainstream to your product, try selling them the television show itself. Sure, it’s tough for genre works like Veronica Mars or even Battlestar Galactica to gain acceptance, but if people won’t watch it when its pumped into their homes for free, then what makes you believe they’ll pay for the privilege. Movies don’t bring an sense of ‘class’ that the smaller screen does not. I think The Wire and The Sopranos are as highly regarded as, say, The Godfather or The Wizard of Oz. Maybe one day they’ll be as widely watched, but I don’t think it’s the size of the screen that makes the difference. I think that mainstream audiences don’t watch prestige drama because they simply don’t have the time.

Which brings us back to the original argument. The only way to get more people to watch that sort of drama is to shorten the amount of time it takes to watch it. That doesn’t mean giving them a conclusion to a story that began on the small screen, that means condensing the material down – as the very first examples I offered attempted to. The problem is that part of the reason we love those sort of dramas is because they are so sprawling and thorough and panoramic. To shorten or condense them would mean losing that. Even if the adaptation was good, if not fantastic – and I’m thinking of State of Play here – the original would likely still be better or stronger.

So, I don’t understand all this screaming for film adaptations of cult franchises. I think there are other media better suited to allowing them to continue and survive – Kyle Maclachlan is reportedly adapting Twin Peaks for the web – in the modern age. It’s worth bearing in mind what failure means for a film adaptation. The studios will lock that property away, tagged with banner ‘failure’ and it might ruin a perfectly good viewing experience for the audience.

And I know which of those I’d consider to be worst.

4 Responses

  1. Though I’m more of a cynic than an optimist, I can’t stop hoping for a “Veronica Mars” movie. I was a huge fan of the show, and I’m sure it was the (precious few) fans who kept the show on for that third season. But the show and the character deserve a proper sendoff, so I’m still wishing against wish that the fans can rally for that.

    • Ah yes, but how do you offer a faithful resolution to all the plot threads without alienating the average movie-goer? I think that the studios will be too worried about that question to actually give the fans what they want – even assuming the movie goes ahead at all.

  2. […] don’t want to think when they consume entertainment. Also check out the m0vie blog’s post about making movies from TV […]

  3. I think it almost never works to take a tv series and make a movie out of it. The only example I can think of, off the top of my head would be the Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me.

    The reverse situation can work though i.e. a tv series follow up to a movie. This Is England and it’s accompanying TV series This Is England ’86 being a case in point. You also mentioned Buffy, which is another example of a film being given a better run on tv. Or M.A.S.H. I’m sure there are dozens of examples.

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