On May 17, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer will become a TNT television series starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs. It’s not the first property to jump from the big screen to the small one (it was technically a French graphic novel first), and it certainly won’t be the last. For decades now, television producers have been going to the movies and asking themselves if they could make what they’re watching work in an episodic format. Who needs writers to come up with ideas when the movies can do it for you?
The resulting series have been all over the map critically, from projects that were canceled early to ones that ran for years, nearly obliterating the original film from viewers’ minds. It got us thinking about the variety of approaches that creative voices have taken when they try to sing a cinematic song on TV. The jury is still out on whether or not the futuristic vision of Snowpiercer will translate into a multi-season hit, but here are the eight approaches that have worked in the past with an example from the top tier of the film-to-TV canon for each.
When Noah Hawley entered the world of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1995 masterpiece, he knew a literal approach wouldn’t work (and not just because it had already been attempted in 2003 with Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson in a failed TV pilot). He decided to use the atmosphere and language of the Coen-verse to tell his own stories, and the result became an award-winning critical darling. The best singers don’t just cover a song, they make it their own, reworking it in a way that redefines it. Fargo wouldn’t exist without the work of the Coen brothers, but no one would argue that it’s a direct interpretation of their creativity either. As much as Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal stands alongside both the Thomas Harris books and films, these shows use their cinematic sources as inspirations instead of a template waiting to be copied.
Sometimes the best way to adapt a cinematic property is to go back to the beginning. On paper, a young adult version of Norman Bates in contemporary times sounded like a horrible idea; it could have ended up just another teen drama like Gossip Girl, but with a little more murder. But the creators of Bates Motel deftly balanced nods to the Robert Bloch book and influential Alfred Hitchcock film throughout, culminating in a stellar final season that really tied it all together in unexpectedly moving ways. By going the prequel route, the creators had the freedom to tell a new story, even if it ultimately led to a familiar set of stairs.
It may have a cult following now, but writer Joss Whedon notoriously disliked the way his 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer was altered from his original intention. And so he convinced a fledgling network called The WB to give him a second shot at the character in weekly form, and the rest is TV history. It’s funny to watch the film now and see echoes of it in the series, which is darker, denser and more nuanced in ways that Whedon wasn’t allowed to be on the big screen. It’s a case in which the film probably should have been a TV series from the very beginning.
Twenty-three years after Army of Darkness, no one expected to return to the world of Ash and the Deadites, but along came Starz’s gloriously gory Ash vs. Evil Dead, which carries in every frame an air of “can you believe we’re doing this?” Much like the Netflix reboot of Wet Hot American Summer, this show recognizes the fact that most people involved never thought they’d get the chance to make it, and so they’re going to have as much fun as possible while they can. And that fun can be infectious. Not everything needs to be “Prestige TV;” sometimes fans of a film just want to rekindle that fun sensibility that made movies like Evil Dead 2 and Wet Hot into cult hits in the first place.
One wonders how many people trying to decipher the current season of Westworld have any idea it’s even based on a movie. While some adaptations exist to call back to their cinematic fan bases (see previous entry), others barely acknowledge the existence of the original property. The back story of a show like Teen Wolf doesn’t depend on knowing the Michael J. Fox original, and you don’t need to have seen the 1973 Yul Brynner film (or its truly dire 1976 sequel, Futureworld) to be invested in the saga of Dolores Abernathy and the Man in Black. And that’s just the way HBO likes it.
Sometimes the best shows are developed from films that no one involved ever thought would become a TV show (Snowpiercer might fall into this category). Steven Soderbergh’s drama about a high-priced escort didn’t exactly scream weekly drama, but the Starz adaptation found new stories to tell within this concept. Sometimes TV shows can even build on their source in ways that make them feel more creatively accomplished, such as Netflix’s Dear White People, which unexpectedly turned a good film into a great series. Going the blockbuster-to-show route can often lead to mediocre product, but shows like The Girlfriend Experience prove that there’s no specific “type” of movie that will succeed as a series.
The most common creative tenet of film-to-TV adaptations seems to be “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After all, if people liked it on the big screen, they’re bound to like it on the small screen, right? While this often produces faded carbon copies of creative ideas, it also just works sometimes. The dynamic between Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple that went from stage to screen to TV didn’t need to change. The movie Fame practically played like a pilot for the show. And the Taika Waititi hit that blended reality TV filmmaking with vampire lore was a perfect fit for the series, now on FX, without much alteration to the formula other than dividing the storytelling into bloody chunks and a change in location from New Zealand to Staten Island.
The main thing the best TV adaptations do is provide a recurring emotional connection that usually naturally dissipates after the credits have rolled on a film. Millions of people spent years with the families on shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, two programs that are arguably on the Mt. Rushmore of film-to-TV because they treated the source material as something not just to copy but to emotionally enrich. The format allowed the creators of these shows to go deeper and make these characters a part of viewers’ families for multiple seasons. People may have first checked out FNL because of the movie, but they hung around because of their emotional connection to the show. If only more film-to-TV adaptations were this good.