Not to put a damper on all this talk about "The New Golden Age of Television," but despite the glories of ABC and HBO, it suddenly seems like TV has been seized by the same strain of “prequelitis” that plagues movie studios. Did you want to know how and why Norman Bates mummified his mummy? Here’s “Bates Motel” on A&E, which will spin this serial killer’s origin story for as long as the ratings demand. Did you need additional backstory to Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon,” which introduced readers to an imprisoned Hannibal Lecter as the FBI’s go-to serial killer expert? You’re in luck, because NBC’s “Hannibal” will spin at least two seasons out of the relationship between Lecter and Special Agent Will Graham.
With news that “Gangs of New York,” “Fargo” and “Zombieland” are racing to serialize, it seems that our small screen will simply be full of stories we’ve already seen on the big one. While this deluge of small screen adaptations is certainly new, we weary cinephiles must remember that television has been gleefully ripping off the movies for decades. Many movies have found themselves repurposed into episodic bites. Sometimes, the result was so popular and successful that it outstripped the movie in pop culture, but more often than not, these television adaptations were hastily canned and buried, never to be discussed again.
Here are the good, the bad and the downright weird attempts to repurpose the silver screen for the television set. (For reasons of space and sanity, we’ve limited the list to live-action adaptations. Also because the cartoon “sequels” of everything from “Back to the Future” to “Men in Black” were pretty darn awesome.)
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003), based on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992)
This is the rare example of a television show that completely, utterly and indisputably outstripped its cinematic predecessor. The movie was a modest hit, but it failed to make much of a dent in pop culture. When Joss Whedon was given the chance to resurrect it on WB, he jumped at the chance, and the result was a delicious mix of girl power, horror, and wit that ran for seven successful seasons. It remains beloved and inspirational to this day, and may be the only vampire show to have inspired a whole subset of academia.
“Alice” (1976-1986), based on “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974)
Martin Scorsese’s melancholy and hardbitten dramedy, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” doesn’t seem likely fodder for a television sitcom. But the television industry lives for the inexplicable, and so Scorsese’s film naturally inspired a sitcom called “Alice” that ran for nine seasons. While it lacked the pathos of Scorsese’s film, it could be surprisingly dark, never really shirking away from the stingy, greasy poverty that the waitresses of Mel’s Diner lived in. It could be argued it outstripped Scorsese’s film in pop culture knowledge, as more people remember Flo, her “Kiss my grits!” catchphrase, and her eventual spin-off than the finer points of the original “Alice.”
“McCloud” (1970-1977), based on “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968)
If you were to pick a Clint Eastwood cop flick to meander its way to the small screen, you probably would have expected it to be “Dirty Harry” or “The Rookie.” But it was “Coogan’s Bluff” that found itself repurposed into “McCloud.” The premise is the same – a cowboy cop finds himself in the alien streets of New York, busts heads, and seduces women – but McCloud stays in the big city, his good-natured ways, Western drawl, and cowboy hat at odds with the mean streets and cynicism of New York. It ran for 7 seasons, and found time for a John Denver appearance, which was sorely lacking in the original film.
“M*A*S*H” (1972-1983), based on “M*A*S*H*” (1970)
It’s rare that great movies spawn great television, but “M*A*S*H*” really did manage to equal its cinematic predecessor in terms of tone, characters, and social criticism. (In retrospect, it seems downright radical to have a show commenting on a war while America was embroiled in one.) It could be argued the show even outstripped the film in terms of cultural impact. If you were to ask who played “Hawkeye” Pierce, most people would answer Alan Alda, and not Donald Sutherland, while many probably assume that the movie was based on the show, and not vice versa. (Bonus: “M*A*S*H also inspired the successful “Trapper John M.D.” (1979-1986), which managed to transfer one of its characters to a postwar scenario, and remain thoughtful and interesting, instead of descending into campy humor.)
“The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-1985), based on “Moonrunners” (1975)
“Dukes” and “Buffy” share a similar origin story. (A sentence I never thought I’d write, and probably never will again.) Like Joss Whedon, writer/director Gy Waldron had the chance to develop a television series with WB, and opted to expand the moonshine-and-hot rods world of his film, “Moonrunners.” Substantial changes were made (the Duke boys were only former moonshine runners), but the schlocky, B-movie tone remained intact. “Dukes” was a huge hit, far more than the film ever was, and the Duke boys became permanent pop culture fixtures. Strangely, the cultural recycling process went full circle when “Dukes” was remade into a 2005 feature film.
“In the Heat of the Night” (1988-1995), based on “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)
A crime thriller laced with a seething current of racial tension hardly seems the stuff of a television series. The decision to update the story of Virgil Tibbs, and recast him as a former citizen of Sparta, Mississippi was at odds with the original’s theme. Yet the show works – even if it became more of a showcase for Caroll O’Connor than Howard Rollins – and was fairly fearless in its depiction of hot-button issues and grisly crime. It ran for eight successful seasons, and while “Heat” never came close to shoving the original film from its cultural standing, it remains a nifty, intriguing little sequel that worked on its own merits.
“Parenthood” (2010 to present), based on “Parenthood” (1989)
The sprawling and tender “Parenthood” actually seems like a solid basis for a television series. Yet the first attempt, in 1990, was a critical and commercial flop and was quickly canned. It took Jason Katims of “Friday Night Lights” to rework the essence of the film – the constant dramas of being a parent and child – into a funny, sentimental, and honest story of a multi-generational family. It regularly reduces audiences to tears. Will it outstrip the original film in pop culture canon, or simply stand as a terrific example of adapting a story to the 21st century? Time will tell.
“Peyton Place” (1964-1969), based on “Peyton Place” (1957)
The lurid, rambling drama of “Peyton Place” was the ideal candidate for a nighttime soap opera, and it translated into a huge hit for ABC. It’s easy to understand why – sex sells! The Betty Drapers of the day just couldn’t get enough of the trashy shenanigans of this New England mill town. While it’s not as iconic as some of the other series on this list, it was certainly a cultural touchstone for its day, and a landmark for how television began approaching sex.
“The Odd Couple” (1970-1975), based on “The Odd Couple” (1968)
The title has become so synonymous with clashing roommates that it’s hard to remember it all sprang out of the brain of Neil Simon, and that it was an Oscar-nominated comedy long before it was a laugh-tracked sitcom. Nevertheless, it’s the show that persists in pop culture memory, despite the ludicrous guest-star lows it spun to, and it’s Tony Randall that has gone down as the epitome of Felix Ungar. Perhaps Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were simply too much of the “Odd Couple” in real life to let one movie stick to their reputations the way it did to Randall and Klugman.
ON PAGE 2: OUR PICKS FOR THE WORST TV SHOWS BASED ON MOVIES.
“Ferris” (1990), based on “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)
Why is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” an iconic ‘80s romp? Because it tapped into the teenager we all wanted to be, and the day we all dreamed of having. And the whole reason it’s fun is that it’s meant to be a one-shot, not an ongoing serial. These simple facts escaped the creators of “Ferris,” as did the titular character, who was reimagined into a shrill, annoying nerd who was despised by the school. It mercifully lasted only one season.
“Casablanca” (1983), based on “Casablanca” (1942)
Every decade or so, Hollywood tries to make more “Casablanca.” Despite that every cash-in has failed (an official sequel novel, “As Time Goes By,” a 1956 television show, Broadway musicals), someone is always brazen enough to try again. The 1983 show may be the most awkward and face-palming attempt of them all, as it tried to combine the romance of “Casablanca” with the action and excitement of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You can practically hear the dollar signs clanging with that combination, but the show was panned, and quickly cancelled after only five episodes.
“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1968-1970), based on “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”(1947)
The romantic drama, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is a perfect piece of heartache, about lonely people and the cruelty of a universe that set them too far apart to be together. It ends as it should, with Mrs. Muir and Captain Gregg leaving together in an otherworldly mist. Oddly, someone thought this melancholy romance would be a terrific sitcom, where Captain Gregg engages in all kinds of paranormal hijinks, suffers indignities like PTA meetings, and encounters the ghosts of former crewmembers. There’s also an episode where the Muir children find an escaped Aqualand seal, and keep it in the bathtub. It only lasted two seasons, and probably only survived that long due to the best episodes lifting subplots from the film.
“The Farmer’s Daughter” (1963-1966), based on “The Farmer’s Daughter” (1947)
If you’re looking for a depressing example of the decline of female-oriented storylines, look no further than “The Farmer’s Daughter.” The original 1947 film is a story about a young Swedish-American, Katie Holstrom, who becomes the maid to a U.S. Congressman and his politically powerful mother. She ends up becoming a political candidate in a congressional election, triumphs over misunderstandings, and is elected to office. She gets the guy, too. When repurposed for a tv show, Katie merely becomes the hausfrau to a widowed Congressman, cares for his kids, and helps him to love again. Her big triumph? Finally getting him to marry her, and allow her to adopt the children. Terrific.
“Uncle Buck” (1990) based on “Uncle Buck” (1989)
You can see why a network would want to create an ongoing laugh-fest about “Uncle Buck.” He was a wacky uncle and a terrible baby-sitter! Concepts like that were the lifeblood of ‘80s and ‘90s sitcoms. Inexplicably, the show chose to kick off on the darkest tone possible: The death of parents Bob and Cindy in a car accident, which lead to alcoholic Buck being named guardian. What a riot!
“Working Girl” (1990), based on “Working Girl” (1988)
It’s inexplicable why so many television networks attempt to rework films that bring their characters to a satisfying conclusion. “Working Girl” has a terrific arc – Tess McGill remakes herself, triumphs, and gets her own office – and when the credits roll, we know McGill is going to be just fine. But NBC believed we hadn’t seen enough McGill, and the result is a show that simultaneously remakes the film while acting as a sequel to it. The worst part? There’s no Jack Trainer to pack Tess’ lunchbox, rendering it all utterly pointless. It only lasted one season, but its star – a fresh-faced lass named Sandra Bullock – emerged unscathed.
ON PAGE 3, OUR PICKS FOR THE WEIRDEST TV SHOWS BASED ON MOVIES
“Mr. Belvedere” (1985-1990), based on “Sitting Pretty” (1948)
When you think of Mr. Belvedere, only one image comes to mind, and that’s Christopher Hewitt in his tweed, cardigan, and tie. He was a posh and sophisticated butler, and his struggle to adapt to the crass, nouveau riche ways of the Owens household was a source of delight for six seasons. Few “Belvedere” fans realized the butler-out-of-water story was actually adapted from “Sitting Pretty,” and ends exactly the way we hoped “Mr. Belvedere” would: With the butler publishing a sordid, suburban tell all. Oddly, the Belvedere character was so popular that he received two spin-off films, “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College” and “Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell,” where he goes on strange, non-butlerian adventures.
“The Client” (1995-1996), based on “The Client” (1994)
[caption id="attachment_368854" align="alignnone" width="615"] It is surprisingly difficult to find images / clips from this show.[/caption]
When picking a film to adapt into bite-sized and episodic chunks, you should aim to pick a movie that doesn’t advertise its sole purpose in the title. “The Client” is a one-shot story, and ends when the titular client – young Mark Sway – is safe from ambitious lawyers and murdering gangsters. While JoBeth Williams did a solid and terrific Susan Sarandon impression, the show had no steam, and lasted only one season.
“Shaft” (1973-1974), based on “Shaft” (1971)
What? You mean the private dick getting all the chicks couldn’t be believably toned down for a weekly series? Shocking! Actually, it’s a shame “Shaft” didn’t succeed past a single season, because there had yet to be an hour long crime drama starring an African-American. “Shaft” seemed to be the answer, and Richard Roundtree even reprised his iconic role, but audiences weren’t having it. Many accused him of selling out the character, and the show was quickly dropped.
And yeah, the clip above is from the movie. Let us know if you find a link to the opening credits from the show!
“Toxic Crusaders” (1991) based on “The Toxic Avenger” (1984)
I can’t resist breaking the “animation excluded” rule for this one, simply because it’s astonishing how anyone could scrabble around the B-movie genre, and land on “The Toxic Avenger” as the ideal candidate for an environmentally conscious kid’s cartoon. Only 13 episodes were ever produced, presumably because someone at Fox finally realized how much rape and bloodshed existed in the original Troma “Avenger” films, and canned it before impressionable kids could locate and rent the original. (“Look Mom! They made a movie out of my favorite cartoon!”)