When Movies Become Television Shows

When a heavily disguised Bart Simpson wows an audience with his considerable ballet skills in the sixth season Simpsons episodes Homer vs Patty & Selma, it prompts Nelson Muntz to eloquently declare that the performance ‘reminds me of the movie Fame, and the subsequent television series also called Fame.’

Being a movie and a television series isn’t an uncommon thing. Nowadays we have become used to having parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars franchise delivered to us through episodic television.

Audiences have come to expect a certain high standard from film to television spin-offs in recent years, and yet this cross-pollination between film and television isn’t exactly new, as Hollywood studios have frequently tried to mine more storytelling (i.e., make more money) from the properties they own by turning them into television series with a mixed success rate.

A large number of Hollywood studios own television divisions; Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox (when it existed that is), Disney, Paramount and Universal have also had their logos adorn the end credits of hit television series, and because of that link, it hasn’t been uncommon for those studios to try and extend the reach of a hit franchise (or a failing one) by turning it into episodic television.

While nowadays we have become accustomed to the high cinematic standards of the MCU and Star Wars being replicated in their television counterparts, it used to be that a big-screen production becoming a television series was synonymous with a cheap cash-in, and because of stricter rules regarding what could or could not be shown on television, something that would shave off the harsher edges of the originating piece of work.

Fame began life as a gritty Alan Parker-directed film, but its television equivalent was a more straightforward and network-friendly drama that the whole family could enjoy with little of the reality checks or grit that Parker brought so memorably to his 1980 film.

The pursuit of one’s creative and artistic dreams was not an easy one, and the film never shied away from that. The television series on the other hand was a more comforting concoction, but that isn’t to say that it wasn’t good. It was very popular, and ran for five seasons, even if Parker wasn’t exactly a fan.

On the opposite end of Fame was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sure, the television series was a ground-breaking classic, but where Fame started off life as a hit movie, Buffy’s beginnings were as anything but. Creator Joss Whedon was openly critical of Fran Rubel Kuzui’s directing work on the film and used the TV series to bring his story back into line with his own vision. Airing on The WB Network for five seasons before transferring over to UPN for its final two years, the series was a pop-cultural phenomenon, making Sarah Michelle Geller into an icon and even launching its own wickedly subversive spin-off with Angel at the peak of its popularity, itself running for five seasons.

Buffy is a prime example of a film-to-television adaptation working wondrous magic and being a remake/adaptation that was truly better than its big-screen equivalent. Given that it was inspired by horror movie cliches which it would subvert with love and affection, it was ironic that the character and Whedon’s work would end up working better on the small screen. The series was a groundbreaker in its approach to long-form storytelling, producing truly tremendous story arcs and self-contained episodes that experimented with the television form. Episodes such as Hush, Once More, With Feeling and Restless were masterpieces that delivered episodes either without dialogue, as musicals, or entirely as dream sequences that were boundary-pushing.

Admittedly, the series’ impact has been negated by allegations from cast members of both Buffy and Angel regarding the behaviour of the franchise’s creator, but there is no denying that when it comes to making a movie into a television series, Buffy is the prime example of what to do and how to do it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer might have been a cult curiosity as a movie, but as a television series, it became a phenomenon, garnering critical acclaim, an adoring fan base and spinning off into other television series, video games, comic books and tie-in novels.

To look up any list of movie-to-television adaptations on the internet is to be presented with television series that you may not even know existed; apparently, there was a live-action Bill and Ted series, unthinkable to comprehend given that Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter weren’t the stars.

Another way to get more financial mileage out of films was to turn them into a Saturday morning cartoon series; Bill and Ted did exactly that, as did Rambo (yes, star of many a 15 or 18 rated action film), and, even more bizarrely, Robocop.

Robocop may have looked like a kid’s cartoon character, but the films initially weren’t. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original was a graphically violent and wickedly brilliant work of satire that may have delivered great action and a cool looking lead character, but it also didn’t flinch from bodies being blown apart by bullets, villains being melted by toxic waste and boardroom meetings becoming literal bloodbaths.

Not only did the character become the subject of a Saturday morning cartoon but he also became the focus of a live-action television series that was produced with one eye on a younger audience. This wasn’t a new development; the third Robocop film stripped away all the gory violence and satire for a kid-friendly adventure and it was that tone that carried into the television series. In the UK, the series aired on Saturday afternoons on the ITV network.

Being a syndicated series meant that Robocop on television could never quite compete with the adult leanings of the original film, but when the franchise attempted another comeback on television with the mini-series Prime Directives, the results were even more disastrous despite the promise of its creative team going back to the tone of Paul Verhoeven’s film.

This gets at the heart of so much of the problems that less successful television series based on feature films face; they can never quite compete and often the bad ones don’t try to do anything imaginative or new with the material except to sanitize it. Robocop: The Series aired in the mid-nineties, and it was the middle of a golden period for science fiction on television. Despite following on from a film series that was launched off the back of one of the very best films of the 1980s, the television series that stemmed from it appeared distinctly lacklustre compared to so much genre television amongst which it was airing.

This was the era that was ricocheting from the ground-breaking impact of Twin Peaks, and the subsequent premieres of The X-Files, Babylon 5 and the increasing roster of Star Trek series, including the acclaimed and forever popular Deep Space Nine which would find a new storytelling language for the franchise by featuring sustained story arcs, complex themes and narratives, not to mention self-contained masterpieces such as The Visitor, arguably one of the all-time greatest pieces of television ever produced.

All one has to do is compare the Robocop television series to Buffy; the latter took the failings of the feature film, turned them into strengths and slotted itself nicely into the changing face of the medium brought about by what David Lynch and Mark Frost had done and what Chris Carter and J. Michael Straczynski were running with when it came to their own iconic masterworks.

Not only did Buffy become a massive hit, but it gave its network, The WB, an identity of its own for well-made teen-centred television and with it led to the creation of other iconic series such as Dawson’s Creek, which brought Scream creator Kevin Williamson to television, and Gilmore Girls.

Unfortunately, Buffy, and to a certain extent Fame, were rarities at the time. Frequently it was the likes of Robocop: The Series, Ferris Bueller and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures that ended up on television screens; weird, badly made offshoots of incredibly popular and sometimes iconic films with few, if any, of the creative team that made the films so good in the first place.

Robocop: The Series shaved away all the edges of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film and rebooted the character and the universe of OCP, Old Detroit and Delta City into a kid-friendly action series that aired on Saturday afternoons in the UK.

In the case of Robocop, Orion Pictures was dying out and they were eager to make as much money as they could on their biggest franchise by selling the television rights to a Canadian studio.

Today, it would be hard to imagine the likes of Marvel or Lucasfilm putting out into the ether some sort of cheaply made attempt to mine more money without high-quality control. (Unless it’s 1978 and we’re talking about The Star Wars Holiday Special.) The MCU television series on Disney+ feel very much a part of the universe they are spinning off from, and in the case of WandaVision, are trying to at least experiment a little with their formulas.

We have clearly moved a million miles away from when the only new Robocop material to be found was, if you lived in the UK, on a Saturday afternoon just before Baywatch and Gladiators, with a few Looney Tunes cartoons to fill up the schedule.

Even sacred texts that you would think might be untouchable for further exploitation by studios can happen. There were not one but two attempts at making Casablanca into a television series, one of which was produced in the 1980s starring a post-Starsky and Hutch David Soul as Rick. Five episodes were produced, but only three aired before NBC cancelled the series. The remaining two instalments were eventually broadcast four months later, and the series was never renewed.

Even The Exorcist became a television series, but this was by 2016 and it arrived just when the art of turning movies into television series was being taken more seriously.

Instead of producing something cheaply for syndication, The Exorcist aired on the Fox Network, starred Geena Davis and featured episodes directed by the likes of Rupert Wyatt and Ti West. It may have been cancelled after two seasons, but it was met with surprisingly positive reviews.

Arriving as it did in 2016 just when television was starting to embrace streaming and more sustained long-form narratives and shorter season orders, it meant that when it came to spinning off movie properties into television shows, studios and the creative team behind them were more inclined to take them seriously and work to make something more welcoming to an audience who might discover it further down the road on Netflix.

Two of the biggest television series on the air at the time of writing began life as feature films and became television series that are better than anyone could have ever expected. Fargo is set in the same universe as The Coen Brothers’ acclaimed film from 1995, but instead of simply replicating it, showrunner Noah Hawley turned into an expansive and complex anthology series that is amongst the best series on television today, and which boasts a rotating cast of big-name actors such as Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Chris Rock.

One of the most unexpected success stories of recent years has been, amazingly, Cobra Kai. A continuation of The Karate Kid films from the 1980s (so far it has avoided 1993’s The Next Karate Kid but at this rate, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Hilary Swank showed up), the series has brought back pretty much every cast member, including Ralph Macchio and William Zabka. The series is simultaneously sweet and knowing, managing to know exactly the franchise it’s set within, taking it seriously enough while having a knowing wink in its eye.

It’s a delicate balancing act, but it works wonders, and the series has become one of the biggest things on television. Premiering as part of YouTube’s attempts at launching its own streaming service, once YouTube Red folded the series found a home in Netflix where its popularity has only grown. Season four has just recently premiered and a fifth is on the way.

One of the most unexpected success stories in recent years, Cobra Kai took The Karate Kid franchise and turned it into television gold, managing to be both knowingly humorous and yet sincere at the same time.

While the success ratio of movies adapted or spun-off into television series is better and the quality control higher than it previously had been, that isn’t to say there isn’t still some questionable results. Damien, an attempt at turning The Omen franchise into a television series, barely got out of the starting gates, while Lethal Weapon felt more like the type of series you might have gotten in the nineties that was trying to replicate the success and magic from a movie franchise on the small screen.

It may have had slick production values, but it lacked the bite of Shane Black’s original script for the first movie or the spectacular direction of Richard Donner, although in killing off Briggs upon lead actor Claybe Crawford’s exit, it managed to do something that ended up being vetoed from Shane Black’s original screenplay for Lethal Weapon 2. In the long run, it’s more likely to be remembered for the high profile firing of Crawford than anything else.

There were even attempts at continuing the Terminator franchise as a television series. The Sarah Connor Chronicles is all but forgotten now but surprisingly it was a better continuation than the majority of the post-T2 sequels and Lena Headey made for a better Sarah Connor than Emelia Clarke did in Genisys, capturing the haunted air of Linda Hamilton’s performance brilliantly and yet making the character her own. Unlike Robocop, the Terminator television series didn’t shy away from the mythology or tone of the films it was following on from, even it didn’t quite have the record-breaking budget of Cameron’s sequel. What it did have was a melancholy foreboding air that made it feel like a natural follow-up to Terminator 2: Judgment Day and a great turn from Summer Glau as Cameron, the main Terminator of the series and named after the franchise’s very own creator.

It was looking like it had the potential to be a commercial success too, but the Writers’ Strike of 2008 cut short its first season just when it was gaining momentum and when the second season debuted a year later it did so with most of the audience not returning and ended up being cancelled on a cliff-hanger that was never resolved.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles had no involvement from James Cameron, but it did at least feel like it was part of Cameron’s world, but what could be seen as a big reason the current slate of television spin-offs from films are much more successful nowadays is that they have direct involvement from those involved in the movies they are spinning off from. Kevin Feige oversees the Disney+ Marvel shows, thus suggesting why the likes of Agents of SHIELD and Netflix’s Marvel productions struggled in the long term, despite the promising beginnings that came with the first seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage.

If one looks at the more successful likes of the best Star Trek films, The X-Files, Twin Peaks or Sex and the City when they made the trip to the silver screen, they did so with many of the key creatives also involved. The same cannot always be said of when movies are turned into television series. Robocop: The Series may have begun with a pilot episode adapted from an unused sequel script written by the first film’s Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, but that was the extent of their involvement, and it wasn’t directed by Paul Verhoeven.

On the opposite end of that scale, when The WB went ahead with Buffy as a television series, it did so with the story’s original creator who got to put his own vision on screen as opposed to having it reinterpreted by someone else.

And then sometimes you can get something truly magical, like Friday Night Lights, which still retained the film’s director Peter Berg as executive producer, but which got to be filtered through the vision of showrunner Jason Katims and which ended up becoming one of the greatest television series of all time. Similarly, Bryan Fuller brought Hannibal to our television screens and turned it into one of the most astonishing pieces of on-screen horror in years, and to think that it aired in the US on NBC of all networks.

With more television than ever before available for viewing and going into production, something like Robocop: The Series or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures just doesn’t cut it anymore. If you’re bringing Hannibal Lecter to the screen, then we want it through the eyes of a true televisionary such as Bryan Fuller, and if you’re going to do Friday Night Lights, then we want it to be done as artful and beautiful as what Katims did for most of its five seasons (we’ll just forget about the murder subplot in season two, shall we?).

What it also reiterates is just how closely linked film and television are, and always have been despite the perceived differences. Going as far back as the 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock could be found delivering the greatest cinematic suspense movies, or he was in our homes drolly introducing devilishly constructed tales for his television series. Forty years later, David Lynch was coming off the back of Blue Velvet and he would deliver the most frightening imagery ever put to film and have it broadcast on ABC television at 9pm, in a mystery that would deliver the most disturbing plot twist in television history.

When The Silence of the Lambs first premiered in 1991 and its sequel followed suit a decade later, it might have been unthinkable to imagine its iconic cannibalistic character would one day be the lead in an NBC television series, one that would deliver incredibly dark imagery to a mainstream audience, but it happened.

The two mediums are, and always have been, so closely linked, always and forever capable of shocking us, amazing us, and delivering masterpieces at the same time.

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that television shows lead to great movies and now movies can lead to great television series.

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