Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The best (and worst) film-inspired TV shows

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Sometimes movies can inspire great television and sometimes the results are terrible. Dominic Corry picks the good from the bad.
Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo, the television show.
Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo, the television show.

Even though they correlate perfectly with the contemporary market's reliance on adaptations and reboots of known brands, TV shows based on movies are not a modern phenomenon.

Sometimes it can be difficult to comprehend the creative reasoning behind a particular movie being adapted for TV - that was my reaction upon learning of the existence of a new show based on the Coen brothers' landmark 1996 film Fargo.

What could a film of such nuanced and finite pleasures offer to a medium that favours serialisation? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Last week I watched a preview of the first episode of Fargo, which premieres at 9.30pm, May 7 on Soho, and it was an experience delightfully in contrast to what I had anticipated. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a drama pilot so much.

Unlike a previous attempt at a Fargo TV show from 2003, this new series doesn't carry over any actual characters from the film.

Moreover, it's been designed to capture the tone and feeling of the source material, which are usually the first things to go when movies head to the small screen.

The show is more than successful in evoking both the doom-laden dread and the stark black comedy of the film. And beyond these elements, it also offers up pile of fantastic acting and a sustainable (so far) unpredictability.

Like the film, the show does not principally take place in Fargo, Minnesota, but a nearby town with an even stupider name - in this case, Bemidji (it was Brainerd in the movie, also a real place).

The three central figures in the plot so far are Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a wandering hit man prone to proselytizing his nihilistic world view; Lester Nygard (Martin Freeman), a hen-pecked insurance salesman and Molly Solverson (Alison Tolman), a green young deputy.

To explain how they interact would spoil some of the fun of watching the first episode, but don't expect them to follow the paths of their respective ostensible analogues from the film: Peter Stormare's dour killer Gaear Grimsrud; William H. Macy's scheming car salesman Jerry Lundegaard and Frances McDormand's Oscar-winning Marge Gunderson.

The show remixes various traits and spreads others around, creating a spiritually faithful adaptation with its own narrative path to tread.

The show has gifted Thornton his meatiest role in years - he is an absolute hoot as the horrifying and hilarious Malvo, and he alone will have me coming back for more no matter how things proceed.

His presence at times recalls Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem's chilling bad guy from the Coens' 2007 film No Country For Old Men. It enhances the idea of the new Fargo as almost more of a Coen Bros. TV show than simply a Fargo TV show - you can spot elements of Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987) and even The Big Lebowski in here. It's awesome.

Freeman is revelatory as Nygard - he demonstrates a range here that past roles barely hinted at. The little-seen Tolman holds her own, but she doesn't have a huge role in to play in the pilot.

Great actors like Keith Carradine (Emperor of the North Pole) and Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad's Saul) fill out the edges along with a bunch of unknowns who bring a wide range of consistently amusing small town Minnesota folk to life.

The unexpected awesomeness of this show got me thinking about the greatest successes and failures in the realm of TV shows based on movies. It's probably too early to make a final judgement on Fargo, but I'm more than ready to lump it in with the best.

Probably my all-time favourite TV show based on a movie is one that I shamefully prejudged before coming to it about half-way through the run - Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

With this landmark series, Joss Whedon (now director of things like The Avengers) got to fulfil the potential left untapped by the damp squib 1992 film adaptation of his original screenplay.

The show's knowing exploration of new and old genre tropes remains an inspiration for both film and TV to this day. Whedon once said that anyone put off by the title of his show didn't deserve to watch it - that was me for three years. Then I got wise.

M.A.S.H. (1972-1983) deserves full respect, but my enduring perception of it defined by this clip from Futurama.

The Odd Couple TV show (1970-75) is probably more widely known than the 1968 film that it is based on, and it deserves its status as one of the all-time great sitcoms. It's amazing how often networks attempt to make half-hour comedies out of movies (just check this craziness), considering they pretty much always fail. These two examples are TV history's most notable exceptions.

Formers Friends star Matthew Perry is producing and starring in a new sitcom version of The Odd Couple. This could work, if Perry wasn't playing Oscar, which he is. I just don't get that. He's so a Felix!

The CG series Star Wars: The Clone Wars featured a lot of cool stuff over its six seasons, but never got much attention outside the hard-core fan base. It arguably contains some of the most spiritually faithful Star Wars stories since the original trilogy. I'm looking forward to seeing what showrunner Dave Filoni does with the impending follow-up, Star Wars: Rebels.

Speaking of Star Wars, I maintain a soft-spot for George Lucas' The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which ran for one season and a few telemovies in 1992-93. Lucas experimented with digital sets in the show, leading directly into techniques he applied during the filming of the SW prequels, for better or worse.

I'm only just beginning to discover the pleasures of Friday Night Lights, but it's very much living up to its rapturous reputation.

Like Fargo, the currently-running Hannibal is a TV show based on a movie that works much better than it should.

Designed to be familiar to viewers of The Silence of the Lambs, but taking most of its plot elements from the book/film that that multiple Oscar winner was a sequel to - Red Dragon/Manhunter, Hannibal (the show) is a lot of very dark fun.

Somehow finding a dramatic niche amongst the overwhelming swarm of serial killer shows, Hannibal's grisly murder tableaus; lushly shot cooking sequences and overall David Fincher-vibe render it one of the best-looking shows on television.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (The Door) is highly relishable in the title role, and Hugh Dancy gives good crazy as his nemesis, tormented profiler Will Graham. There's some pretty dark stuff in here, but the never ending torrent of cannibalism puns keeps things cheery.

Does Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. count? The show takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is impacted by the events of the MCU films, so I think so.

It was pretty disappointing at first, but my childhood nostalgia-driven excitement at the very notion of a Marvel TV show kept me watching, which I'm happy about as it's finally starting to get good.

Luc Besson's 1990 thriller La Femme Nikita (which I thought about a lot while watching the trailer for Besson's upcoming film Lucy) was the inspiration for two TV shows, one which just finished a four year run in the States and another which starred Aussie Peta Wilson and ran from 1997-2001. Both shows had a cultish slickness that elevated them beyond the likes of, say, Highlander: The Series (1992-98).

Which brings us to the worst examples? TV history is littered with failed attempts to spin movies into TV shows, most of which never get past the pilot stage. But some that made it to air remain more memorably bad than others.

I'll never forget the sustained awfulness of the Ferris Bueller show, but its case was not helped by the presence of Parker Lewis Can't Lose, which out-Ferris Bueller-ed it on every level.

There were several attempts at a live-action Robocop for the small screen, and some were quite well-intentioned, if ultimately bad. There wasn't exactly a high standard to live up to, but somehow this Police Academy series managed to sink beneath it. The less said about TV shows based on Mortal Kombat, Logan's Run and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the better.

And it turns out Mr Belvedere was based on a movie. Who knew?

* Amped for Fargo? What are your best and worst TV shows based on movies? Who else is up for a TV show based on The Blob? For the inverse of this article, click here.

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