Surely you’ve heard about FX’s Fargo, a critically acclaimed TV series based on an equally acclaimed 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen that loosely follows a notorious 1986 murder. And although the quality of the TV version of Fargo has earned praise from the esteemed likes of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Broadcast Television Journalists Association and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, not to mention exceptional aggregated scores from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, don’t expect this trend in film-to-TV adaptations to yield a consistent string of well produced hits.
While Fargo is an inspiring example of how a great film can be turned into a good TV show, it’s an exception to the rule. As Hollywood’s new addiction with film-to-TV adaptations increases, so too will rushed productions and a bevy of less-than-stellar TV versions of otherwise solid films.
Current adaptations include Bates Motel on A&E, Constantine on NBC, From Dusk Till Dawn on Netflix and 12 Monkeys on SyFy. Many more are on the way, including adaptations of forgotten (and sometimes reviled) films like In Good Company and Monster-in-Law.
Fargo is an unusual example because its creators wisely decided to stray from the film’s predominant narrative arch, giving the writers more wiggle room to explore and extend the story line. In fact, the only resemblance between the two are their vague claims of being based on real events, a wintry setting in the Upper Midwest and grisly murder.
On the other hand, From Dusk Till Dawn is an example of a film-to-TV adaptation that, despite renewal for a second season, hardly makes for good storytelling. And while the narrative of From Dusk Till Dawn was perfect for a movie length feature, its simple and limited plot – two runaway felons who take a family hostage and become trapped in a Mexican brothel inhabited by vampires – is not enough background material for a multi-season TV series.
Simply put, there just isn’t enough content to expand the film into ten one-hour episodes – and definitely not enough narrative depth to expand into another season.
To put it bluntly, the writers of From Dusk Till Dawn had to stretch the narrative with added characters, implausible back-stories, flashbacks and dull subplots. Where the film guides the audience into the “Titty Twister” brothel within the first act, the show’s audience doesn’t get there until six, painfully drawn-out episodes later. As a result, the writers of the show are forced to tease out as much content as possible from one character’s murderous insanity, a bitter cop’s friendship to a fallen partner and the kidnapped family’s internal dysfunction. Unfortunately, none of these sub narratives are especially interesting.
“No new ideas” is the most common criticism that can be leveled at TV studios. And as with any new trend, most of these entries will fail in their first season. It is important, however, to reiterate that this is a trend. It’s here, and here to stay for a long time coming.
And it’s not a new trend, either. MASH and The Odd Couple are both early examples of the film-to-TV translations dating back to the 1970s. Some TV shows have even eclipsed the films they were based on, notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Dead Zone. Keep in mind that high-class Broadway depends on movies just to keep business alive. The Producers, anyone?
It comes down to this: accept this trend, enjoy the adaptations that work and forget the ones that don’t. The challenge, however, will be finding those good adaptations.