Telling it for Telly

| By Brad Brookes

Adaptation has been a mainstay of film and television since its inception. Early audiences eagerly flocked to see how their favourite novel or stage play had been immortalised on screen. With the choice of narrative platforms increasing dramatically over the last few decades, so has the opportunity to reinvent stories to play in another medium.

Narratives from novels, comics, theatre, radio, TV, films and games have all had attempts made to adapt them cross-platform. What seemed a once simple recipe for success has now become a much more nuanced process. With content consumption, and the experience of it, being so varied to each medium, classics from one category aren’t always sure-fire hits in another (I’m looking at you Street Fighter II).

As always in popular media, there is an ebb and flow to what audiences desire at various times. Arguably, our current era is one of spectacular TV adaptations of blockbuster movies. With so many of them garnering positive critical response, the question is what are they now doing right, when it’s been done wrong so many times before?

Up until recently, taking a film and remaking it for TV often resulted in a cheap and somewhat laboured retelling of a much better-produced, funded and well-received project. If Woolworths still existed, the bargain DVD bucket would be overflowing with TV box-set stink-fests such as Clueless, Lock-Stock, The Crow and Dirty Dancing.

Although there have been some classic hits like M*A*S*H and Buffy, the shows went on to eclipse their movie counterparts so much so that some viewers were even unaware there was a movie, to begin with. It seemed for a long time that this type of overshadowing of the original was the real golden egg formula to make a successful TV show based on a movie. Although there are other historical exceptions to note, the flops massively outweigh the success stories. Audiences traditionally haven’t warmed to seeing ‘made for TV’ versions of their favourite characters doing less epic things in less interesting places.

Of course, there are a lot of examples of productions that went in the opposite direction, going from TV to film. Again there have been notable successes with blockbuster brands like Star Trek and Mission Impossible to name a few. However, the overall hit rate, quality of the production and longevity of franchise is very much mired by scores of one-hit wonders or kitsch, curio romps. In the 2000s there were gaggles of 80s and 90s classic TV shows made into big-budget movies, such as The A-Team, Miami Vice and The X-files, which are all met with mixed reviews. Before long, the burgeoning remake market quickly hit its critical mass and audience appetite waned. In fact, in the first scene of Charlie’s Angels (2000), LL Cool J (who is actually Drew Barrymore in disguise) disparagingly remarks “Not another movie from an old TV show” when a fictitious film version of TJ Hooker appears on television. Not only were they somewhat lampooning their own source material but also predicting the sector’s short-lived success, all before the opening credits of their own franchise had even rolled.



Evidently there is a thread of fandom and blind loyalty running through this analysis. It should go without saying, if you’re going to re-render a cult or classic tale, then beware the wrath of the angry armies of steadfast devotees to the original. The scrutiny alone can be enough to sink a project before a single frame has even been seen. Studios along with their writers and producers have taken heed of this ‘Batfleck effect’ and have seemingly uncovered the secret ingredients to adaptational success. Boringly, a lot of it appears to be about to money.

Looking at the top-rated movie-inspired TV series today - Fargo, Watchmen, Snowpiercer, The Mandalorian and Westworld, all have something in common - their king’s ransom of a budget. Whether you look at the breathtaking locations, phenomenal special effects or raft of Oscar winners boasted in the cast, these shows were expensive. All this supports the idea that a TV rendering of a blockbuster movie needs a budget to match.

Although the same might apply to classics adapted from other mediums like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, novels and comic books require a fair amount of reader participation to complete the world they are experiencing. This gives programme makers a level of licence that can be used to their own benefit. However, adapting something from a fully crafted environment that’s served to audiences in a movie requires a more sympathetic style of world-building. This is where the secondary ingredient comes in. Interestingly, it’s respect.

When the success of a show rests on the warmth of audience reception and the crowd is undoubtedly going to be tough, the original source material needs to be treated with kid gloves. This consideration doesn’t always manifest itself in the same way. It could come in the form of easter-eggs, transcripted dialogue, astute casting, subtle story crossovers or even simply picking up the show where the movie left off. It’s this tributary nature that gives a brand the dignity its fans demand and allows audiences a chance to continue experiencing the worlds they already know and love.

An example of this is in the Fargo TV series where the character of Stavros discovers almost $1million in a suitcase buried in the snow, marked by a red ice scraper. The bag and scraper originally featured in the Fargo movie and were buried by Steve Buscemi’s ‘Carl’ before he was thrown headfirst into a wood chipper and forever immortalised in movie history.

Another instance is from Westworld in the form of Ed Harris’ character. ‘The man in black’ is based on Yul Bryner’s deadly, gun-slinging android from the original 1973 movie. The modern-day rendering of the character sees him incarnated as one of the park’s apparent creators rather than a malfunctioning killer cyborg. The undeniable comparison between the two adds an extra layer of mystery to the show and tantalises audiences into questioning whether all is what it seems with Harris’ role. Furthermore, as the series progresses, this nugget becomes a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy (but I won’t spoil it for you).

With numerous big-budget shows from the Marvel and Star Wars franchises slated for 2021/22 release, the uptake for blockbuster TV doesn’t show any signs of letting up. The real test for the market will undoubtedly be Amazon’s Lord of the Rings. It takes a brave heart to adapt from a saga nominated for 37 Academy Awards, dubbed ‘The movies that could never be made’. With a much-touted $1billion production commitment, they certainly seem to be putting their money where their mouth is. Whether they will deftly tread the fine line between fan service and narrative progression will ultimately be left up to an undoubtedly scrupulous audience. Let’s hope they know that ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’.


(Image copyright: HBO, FX Productions, TNT)


Brad Brookes is a screenwriter and award-winning copywriter based out of the UK. You can follow his latest work at bradbrookes.co.uk.