When Television Goes to the Movies

Sometimes I find myself in a weird battle internally. You see, I love movies, but I also adore television. Sometimes I find myself pondering if I watch too much of one over the other and for some reason anxiety kickstarts in the pit of my stomach. I suppose one shouldn’t pit the two against each other. They are both great mediums capable of wonderful things, each having advantages that play into their strengths.

Sure, for a long time movies had bigger budgets to play with, but television had long-form storytelling. Then again, movies have been starting to gravitate towards that type of storytelling in recent years, while television has become more cinematic and expensive to produce.

Both mediums can have deep influences on the other; what is the Marvel Cinematic Universe but the world’s biggest television series, made up of mythology busting instalments such as The Avengers films, but also making time for stand-alone wonders such as both volumes of the Guardians of the Galaxy?

On the other hand, HBO’s Game of Thrones became an ongoing blockbuster event comparable to the biggest movie franchises you could name, and it too has multiple spin-offs in development. Its R-rated violence, sexuality and blood lust perhaps make it that rare thing nowadays, but which was commonplace in the 1980s; a blockbuster genre event geared towards an adult audience.

The funny thing is, for all the supposed differences between the big and smaller screens and the way some television producers/directors may want to claim their work of television is an ‘eight-hour movie’ or whatever the equivalent episode count is, the relationship between both mediums has always been closer than one might believe.

As far back as the 1960s, some television shows tried to make the move to the silver screen, while on the other hand, movie studios that owned television networks or had their own television studio offshoots would try to make money from their properties by turning movies into an ongoing television series.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. took the tact of combining two-part episodes and giving them theatrical releases internationally to further its success off the back of the Spymania craze in the 1960s brought about by the James Bond series, putting it into the same company as Our Man Flint and the Matt Helm movies, all part of a long chain of escapist, espionage fuelled adventures.

Television series making the transfer to the silver screen became a common thing, and not in the sneaky way of trying to pass of multi-part episodes as a movie. Immediately after the success of its first season, Batman starring Adam West and Burt Ward delivered a big-screen version, upping the action, villain count and gadgetry and being a whole lot of fun too.

To be a television series and to turn oneself into a film was seen as a means of showing off just how successful and popular in the pop-cultural sphere you were, but because of production schedules and the like, the movie version of a television series sometimes faced the problem of premiering just when it was starting to dip in popularity or, if it was lucky, becoming symbolic of the moment it was hitting its peak. Batman was a huge success for its first season, but it struggled to match that initial success that led to a feature film and its second and third seasons weren’t as critically or commercially successful.

Flash forward to the 90s, and 1998’s big-budgeted The X-Files: Fight the Future was the height of X-Files mania, coming off the back of its fifth season which saw the series hit its highest-ever ratings, but which would see the franchise use the film to launch a sixth season that would eventually see the series suffer a dip in its viewing numbers.

That movie represented an early attempt at doing a cross-media piece of live-action storytelling, perhaps beating Kevin Feige and Marvel by a good ten years. The movie itself was filmed during the hiatus between seasons four and five, but the events of the film were set to pick up the story threads from the end of the fifth season and set up the next stage of the story into season six.

It’s a brilliantly entertaining film and represents a superlative attempt at making the adventures of Mulder and Scully into a genuine blockbuster cinematic event. It’s brilliantly directed by Rob Bowman, features superb set-pieces and sees regular composer Mark Snow take the musical language of the television series away from his atmospheric synth scores to a grandiose orchestral one that gives the narrative genuine pomp and scale.

The box office wasn’t spectacular, but it was decent enough to start conversations regarding a second film. Maybe placing the film squarely within the realm of the series’ ongoing mythology meant that in the end, the series was perhaps a bigger draw for hardcore fans of the series despite Chris Carter claiming in much of the film’s publicity that non-fans would be able to keep up.

Following the end of the television series in 2002, another attempt was made to turn The X-Files into a cinematic brand with the right idea of attempting a stand-alone story. Released into cinemas during the summer of 2008, just one week after The Dark Knight premiered, the film was greeted with lukewarm reviews and less than stellar box office. The next iteration of the franchise was a television revival in 2016 and 2018.

Of course, when it came to being a cult television series trying to make the move to the silver screen, the prime example was, and perhaps always has been, Star Trek. Running for three seasons in the 1960s and which became more popular after its cancellation through reruns in the following decade, Gene Roddenberry and Paramount’s original idea was to return to the small screen with what was dubbed Star Trek: Phase II, before the massive success of Star Wars led the studio, and pretty much everyone in Hollywood, to try and replicate the success of George Lucas’ space opera with their own science fiction scripts and properties.

Star Trek: The Original Series benefitted greatly from the move to the silver screen. The production values were infinitely higher, and in retaining the original cast of the series the films were able to replicate the magical chemistry to a wonderful degree, following the characters into their middle-aged years in adventures that flitted naturally between light and dark, not to mention stories that were just as concerned with death and ageing as they were with the impressive ILM special effects, even managing to squeeze in a glorious time travel-centred fourth film that brought the crew into the present day to joyous comedic effect.

The film series nearly stumbled out of the gate, however, with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is a loftier and braver film than it’s given credit for. Sure, it’s slow and ponderous, but instead of trying to follow Lucas’ example, Roddenberry was seemingly looking towards Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first Star Trek film is gloriously cinematic, with magnificent special effects courtesy of Douglas Trumbull and a majestic music score from Jerry Goldsmith.

The cast is on point, and it’s a big-screen version of a television series that genuinely is breaking away from its small-screen origins with a considerable widescreen scope, but the script is the weak link and from Star Trek II onwards, Roddenberry was replaced with producer Harve Bennett who brought the budgets down but still managed to make the franchise into a cinematic event with less emphasis on philosophical themes and more on character and plot. The addition of Nicholas Meyer to several of the films, particularly as a director on the second and sixth instalment and co-writer on the fourth, also saw the franchise returns to its swashbuckling roots, with full-hearted intelligence to the storytelling, gentle humour and superb themes, particularly in the post-Cold War flavourings of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan cannot be underestimated. On top of being one of the very best science fiction films of the 80s, it charted a path for Star Trek to become a multi-media property, delivering further sequels and gaining the first of many spin-offs by the end of the decade with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and with it a new iconic crew to pass the cinematic baton to when the original cast decided to call it a day in the early-90s.

The fact that the gatekeepers behind Star Trek and The X-Files were looking to make their creations storytelling vehicles across two separate mediums (not to mention the high number of tie-in novels, comic books and video games that went alongside them) was an early indication of just how closely linked the two mediums would become in later years.

Even Twin Peaks, which itself was an early indication of how blurred film and television would become in bringing master surrealist David Lynch and his brand of horror to our living rooms, would try to keep itself going as a big-screen entity following its sudden cancellation in 1991. Prequel film Fire Walk with Me may very well be regarded as one of Lynch’s best films nowadays, but in 1992 it was seen as having killed off Twin Peaks for good and it wouldn’t be until 2017 when the story would be revived, this time back on the small screen thanks to Showtime who gave Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost eighteen episodes and complete creative freedom to deliver some of the most surreal and daring television ever produced.

Despite being a television series, it didn’t stop many film critics from proclaiming it the best film of 2017, even though, and this cannot be emphasised enough, it was a television series and NOT a film. It is perhaps another level of the film world looking down on television but happy enough to claim it as their own when it suits their goals, dismissing it as a viable and powerful medium in the process.

With the launch of Disney+, cinema and television are more connected than ever. Disney owned properties such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars are to be found on either the big screen or via highly publicised television series that set up story elements that will not only reverberate into other television series but also into the films themselves.

Ironically, it is in television that Star Wars appears to be thriving. The recent sequel trilogy was met with divisive responses from fans (although The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were met with critical acclaim, especially the latter) while Rogue One and Solo had to endure difficult productions that involved going through heavy reshoots or even having to replace directors. The Mandalorian and the forthcoming The Book of Boba Fett have, cast trouble aside in the former, been relatively smooth, while the recently announced big-screen production Rogue Squadron, which was set to be directed by Patty Jenkins, has been delayed.

Hollywood is getting to grips with the blurring of the lines between cinema and television and perhaps those who work predominantly on the big screen still look at the smaller screen in somewhat snobbish ways even though some of the greatest works of screen fiction are to be found on television. Early HBO classics such as Oz, The Sopranos and Sex and the City (the last two ending up on the big screen after their runs ended) are seen as the ‘year zero’ for a golden age of television in the way Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider and The Godfather are for the New Hollywood movement in the late 60s and early 70s, and yet frequently movie directors and actors who make something for television will use the old reasoning that they don’t believe they’re making a television series but a long version of a movie.

In a repeat of bringing Star Trek and The X-Files to our multiplexes, the Warner Bros. owned HBO would produce big-screen versions of Sex and the City, Entourage and The Sopranos. All three properties would take differing approaches, with Sex and the City and Entourage functioning as continuations through feature films that were met with very mixed reactions; the ‘consumer porn’ angle of the former and the toxic masculinity of the latter came in for a well-earned bashing from critics, although the two Sex and the City films were box office hits regardless. Funnily enough, the next iteration of its story will see it return to television.

The arrival of The Sopranos in prequel form on the big screen really shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise. Creator David Chase has sometimes given off the air of someone who would rather have been doing movies than television, talking about how much he wanted to be Scorsese or Coppola and not quite seeing that he became the television equivalent, breaking down the doors that allowed television to become the powerhouse that it would from 1999 onwards in a manner that was similar to the effects that The Godfather and Mean Streets had on cinema in the early 70s.

The Many Saints of Newark is a fantastic piece of work, a brilliant companion piece to The Sopranos that works magnificently as a backstory to the series it stemmed from and the type of mature character and plot-driven film that Hollywood has jettisoned in favour of increasingly entangled bombastic blockbusters that are either sequels or part of a shared universe (and yes, I realise that I am using that as a criticism to prop up a film that is part of a franchise itself).

As is always the case whenever some television properties make their way to the big screen, the film was beaten over the head by some of its more vocal critics as being nothing more but an extended television episode, a weirdly backwards criticism to level at a movie based on a television series that was praised for being…well…more cinematic than most feature films. It was a common complaint directed at both X-Files movies (which have a genuine cinematic look to them, even if the script for the second film has its issues) and the later Star Trek films starring The Next Generation crew.

The sectioning off of film and television is frequently an American/Hollywood attitude. Go to the UK or Europe, and the relationship between film and television blurs further and always has done. Acting talent from the UK would frequently cross over from film and television work in a manner that for a long time you would never see in the US where you were either a film actor or a television actor, with the latter being used and seen as a dismissive label. For UK audiences it wasn’t uncommon to see Judi Dench giving orders to James Bond on the big screen and putting in Academy Award-winning performances in well-made period dramas, and then sitting down to watch her share brilliant chemistry with Geoffrey Palmer on the BBC’s As Time Goes By on a Sunday night.

UK television series have frequently transferred from successful television runs to playing in the nation’s cinemas, whether it be hit dramas such as The Sweeney or Callan, or, most (in)famously of all, television sitcoms. Not for nothing is Holiday on The Buses ranked as one of the worst British films of all time, even though it was enough of a box office hit to lead to talk of a, thankfully, unmade fourth film.

The art of taking British sitcoms and trying to make them into cinematic works isn’t even something that died out in the 70s, it still happens today as seen by the success of two films based on The Inbetweeners, the recent Absolutely Fabulous, The Office spin-off David Brent: Life on the Road and (shudder) Ms Brown’s Boys D’Movie.

On the front of recent television dramas, Spooks became Spooks: The Greater Good, and on a more successful keel, 2019’s Downton Abbey was such a huge hit a sequel is on the way.

While some British series have been remade, disastrously in the case of The Avengers (the Diana Rigg/Patrick McNee series, not the Marvel one), it’s not uncommon for more recent television hits to try to make that move with most of the cast and creators still intact.

While the Spooks movie may not have been the greatest film ever made, for fans of the series it ended up being a wonderful coda of sorts to the story of its lead character Harry Pearce (Peter Firth). It also managed to do something that 24 struggled with. The hit American series, which shared a lot of cosmetic similarities to Spooks (espionage, terrorism theme, split-screen sequences, a high body count), tried in vain to produce a cinematic version but could never get out of the pits of development hell despite the efforts of 20th Century Fox and various writers and directors and eventually made do with a 2014 revival and 2017 spin-off.

Away from the UK and US, the lines become even blurrier again in the case of the adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a massive international success, even getting a David Fincher-directed US remake two years later, but in its native Sweden, it was also released as a television mini-series not long after its theatrical release, with each instalment of the trilogy split into two parts that ran for ninety minutes each, and which even won awards at television ceremonies.

If one goes back to the 1970s, this was also something that Hollywood did when it came to the first two Godfather films which were edited into chronological order, putting the De Niro sequences from Part II first, and aired as a television series in a version that has seldom been since the 90s.

I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying that visual storytelling mediums are just that and maybe it’s best not to get one’s underwear in a twist as to which is better than the other. Both are wonderful and have offered some truly iconic, era-defining work during their existences, but for all the looking down on the medium from some quarters, both the big and small screens have frequently been found holding hands.

More intriguing is when the big screen comes to the small. Film and television studios are all about trying to make the most of their IP and the recent premieres of Hawkeye, Loki and the forthcoming The Suicide Squad Spin-off Peacemaker are not the first time that big-screen properties have tried to make a home on our televisions.

Anyone for some Robocop: The Series?

TO BE CONTINUED…

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