The Small Screen.
That’s a euphemism that has been around for a long time to describe television because it so perfectly captures the literal and figurative limitations of the medium. For decades TV was small, TV was cheap, and TV couldn’t impress the way cinema, or The Big Screen, could. That’s not exactly the case anymore.
These days TV doesn’t feel small. Series like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” have scale, effects and budgets on par with blockbuster Hollywood productions. Television is no longer confined to the sets of a Burbank studio and only showcasing B-List actors. Big talents like Matthew McConaughey and Steven Soderberg are branching over to TV and lending a legitimacy to the industry. And as far as physical televisions are concerned, high definition, flat screens — the size of Kubrickian monoliths — have quickly become common and affordable.
So, now that there are seemingly no barriers, defining the difference between The Big Screen and The Small Screen appears to be down to two things: audience commitment or a network’s potential to milk a premise for as many seasons as possible. But if some types of stories justify an expanded narrative (like the kinds we find on cable or streaming video) is it possible that others don’t? What kind of concepts don’t propel a plot but simply spin its wheels? What if the possibilities within a setting are limited or become intolerable after multiple hours? With these questions in mind, let’s examine some successful movies and explore why they should stay movies. Here is my list of 10 films that would make for terrible Television series.
Why it wouldn’t work: In 1997, this epic romance, set against the most famous iceberg related catastrophe in history, became the highest grossing film of all time. It earned a record eleven oscar nominations, thereby anointing James Cameron the King of the World — which I understand includes the seven seas and the moon. While that may seem like there is a built-in audience craving more stories aboard the “ship of dreams” what made the film a draw was the spectacle of the tragedy. The film nicely divided its 3 hour and 30 minute run time between romance and disaster but in the realm of TV that would mean the ice wouldn’t be introduced for three to four years. While I’m a big softy who still thinks Jack & Rose are infinitely more interesting than Belle and Edward (or Anastasia and Christian), even I don’t think my heart could go on for 7 seasons.
Then again . . . one of the most successful period dramas on ‘the tele’ right now is “Downton Abbey”, whose first episode took place on April 15, 1912 (ahem, the day the boat sank). For the last 5 seasons the show has followed an aristocratic family and their servants who all live within the aforementioned abbey. The show deals with romance, treachery, intrigue and social classes but without the excitement of impending doom! “Titanic” could model its storylines after “Downtown” and then eventually build towards a climactic final season that takes ten episodes for the ship to sink. There would be tension in the idea that its all leading towards a resolution of who will live and who will die. That could be an epic payoff for a long running TV show. Also, “The Love Boat” lasted for ten seasons and didn’t end nearly as cool.
9. The Goonies
Why it wouldn’t work: Unless you’re “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”— and let’s hope that you’re not — how many death-defying adventures can kids get into from week to week? How often will a golf course threaten to demolish their homes? How many treasures are within bicycling distance?
What made “The Goonies” awesome was that it was about an ordinary group of kids in an extraordinary circumstance motivated by a deeply personal goal. Midway through the film, Mikey gives an inspirational speech about how this last adventure is their “one chance” to set things right. A TV series (of weekly adventures) would undermine this idea. Also you can forget trying to present the series as one big narrative. Over time, Chunk would lose weight, Data would lose his accent and Bran would start losing his hair. Besides, without booby traps and pirate gold wouldn’t it just be a remake of “The Wonder Years”?
Then again . . . they can say “sh*t” on television now, so it’s all good. What’s great about “The Goonies” is that at its core the story is about friendship. Here’s what you do: Cast some new charismatic kids, put them in some perilous situations, and you still have the heart of the movie. Take the “Harry Potter” model and have the kids getting embroiled in a new adventure each season and that solves the problem of aging children. Change the tone as they grow older and expand the mythology to include historical macguffins from the museum where Mikey’s Dad works. Or take inspiration from “Super 8” and “Attack the Block” and have the Goonies solve a mystery or run afoul of killer aliens. The key to a successful series is having the kids work together, exchange some funny one-liners and eventually save the day.
8. Reservoir Dogs
Why it wouldn’t work: Well, for starters, the premise is too limiting. The movie centers on a single event (a bank job) and while TV and crime shows go together like cops and donuts there has never really been a successful heist show. “Thief” with Andre Braugher was a six episode mini series, NBC’s “Heist” only aired five episodes, and “Prison Break” proved to be an unsustainable concept past the first season. Also, the core of the story dealt with the aftermath of the robbery—as the criminals try to figure out who ruined their plans they begin to turn on one. Stretching out that storyline over multiple seasons would require a lot of padding. Not to mention, incorporating the films nonlinear narrative would complicate matters even more.
Then again . . . graphic violence, pop culture references, killer soundtrack, colorful characters — why wouldn’t you make a show about Quentin Tarantino’s debut cult classic? FX’s “Fargo” seems like a model to draw inspiration from and how cool would it be to see the actual bank job? Shoot it “True Detective” style, in one long take, or devote episodes to each character’s point of view and use flashbacks similar to “Lost”. Or how about showcasing other jobs? Remember what Lawrence Tierney said? “You're not Mr. Purple. Some guy on some other job is Mr. Purple.” What were those guys up to? Let’s explore Joe Cabot’s criminal syndicate and find out what Mr. Blonde went to prison for. Or maybe completely change the tone and just make it “Seinfeld” with cons. Have the gang hang out in a diner, drink coffee, talk about sexual subtext in music and solve the mystery of Joe’s little black book.
7. City Lights
Why it wouldn’t work: “City Lights” is a comedy about a charismatic hobo who befriends a wealthy boozer, falls in love with a blind flower girl and becomes embroiled in a series of high stake ventures, trying to earn enough money to restore her sight. Sounds like a solid premise for sitcom, right? Here’s the problem: “City Lights” is a black & white, silent film — written, directed and starring the incomparable Charlie Chaplin. Even if you shot the show in color and added sound it’s undeniable the attraction is less about the premise and all about the star. Even 84 years later Chaplin’s humor and physicality is fantastic to watch and any actor attempting to take his place would have to fill some mighty big shoes . . . literally. I mean, look at them. They were size 14!
Then again . . . the film itself is very episodic and has plenty of opportunities for stories involving a variety of characters in interesting situations. “Mr. Bean” has proven that a modern TV comedy can be successful focusing on a silent protagonist with an emphasis for physical humor. Plus, the film has some timely social themes. In the film, The Little Tramp interacts with both rich and poor characters, highlighting issue of class divide — a relevant topic that has been lacking on contemporary network sitcoms (and “2 Broke Girls” doesn’t count). Chaplin’s film has a winning television formula: a good-hearted, oddball who adapts to outrageous circumstances. It is funny, charming and endearing and its timelessness would make for good television.
6. Cast Away
Why it wouldn’t work: Not a lot of films feature a character who is alone — and I’m talking alone. In “Cast Away” Tom Hanks finds himself marooned on a deserted island and is left to survive by his lonesome for a majority of the movie. He did not battle vampires or manimals, and he didn’t even have a CGI tiger to keep him company. He was not Legend (that’s a Richard Matheson joke) so it’s hard to picture a TV show adapted from this film. Imagine “Lost” crossed with “The Biggest Loser”, minus smoke monsters and love triangles, and co-starring a charming volleyball and you’d be on your way to envisioning the exciting possibilities of a “Cast Away” series. What’s more, you’d have to find a really charismatic actor to hold an audience's attention week to week. The movie didn’t gross a quarter of a billion dollars domestic — I honestly did a double take at that figure — because of the plot.
Then again . . . it’d be difficult, but not impossible! Of course, one of the core themes of the film was isolation but that doesn’t mean the show couldn’t feature flashbacks, dream sequences or even other actors as mental projections of the castaway’s inner monologue. In fact, “The Last Man on Earth” just premiered to great reviews, and I think it’s the first show I’ve ever heard of to feature a single, solitary character*. Perhaps “Cast Away” would need to be a comedy, featuring a talking Wilson ball who helps guest stars that wash up on shore week to week. Be on the lookout for Don Rickles, the Harlem Globetrotters and Helen Hunt. Talking gym equipment seems like the best way to go.
(* SPOILER I wrote too soon. He’s only the last man on earth until the third act of the 1rst episode.)
5. The Human Centipede
Why it wouldn’t work: Ewww. Just . . . ewww. It’s hard to imagine a television series based on this concept. Basically, an insane German surgeon sews a trio of tourists mouths to each others butts to create a monstrosity with a single digestive system. At most it seems like the premise could sustain nothing more than the length of a “Robot Chicken” sketch let alone a feature length film. Once again you run into the “Cast Away” problem of having limited story possibilities or character development. In the movie, the guy at the front of the centipede was chosen because he didn’t speak English (and/or German). This language barrier reinforced the mad Doctor’s lack of empathy for his creation but in a TV series it becomes a barrier for character interactions. The film is a thriller, dependant on a shock factor and the tension of whether the victims will be rescued. The body horror and captivity motifs are tolerable within a 90 minute running time but on TV it would be tiresome, for even the biggest horror fans, unless other characters become the focus. Or maybe the showrunners could add a new person to the chain each week, but at that point all they’d be doing is beating a dead centipede.
Then again . . . horror on TV is really popular right now. “American Horror Story”, “The Walking Dead”, “Penny Dreadful” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” are great examples of how human monsters can attract an audience. I’m actually a bit of a “Human Centipede” apologist. I think the movie is surprisingly well made and walks an impressive line between disturbing body-horror and hilarious absurdity. Dieter Laser, as the Doctor, is fantastic in the film because he exudes real menace and yet his scenery chewing is also the source of the comic relief. The movie is often very funny even though it is fundamentally bleak. My guess would be in order to make a successful adaptation you’d have to go the “American Horror Story” route i.e. a series that throws in every outrageous device plus the kitchen sink. Or, center on the comedy and turn the insanity all the way up to eleven. Introduce a group of mad scientists who compete with each other or include a Igor-esque lab assistant who helps the Doctor with his work. Or perhaps, have the centipede solve crimes like “Lassie” or maybe enter a hotdog eating competition. The theme of the show should be all about teamwork because, as we all know, there is no ‘me’ in human centipede.
4. Groundhog Day
Why it wouldn’t work: The Bill Murray comedy classic “Groundhog Day” (also known by its alternate title “WAKE. MARMOT. REPEAT”) concerns an arrogant TV weatherman who magically relives the same day over and over again. Traditionally sitcoms thrive on the status quo —which is why “M*A*S*H*” was allowed to last 8 years longer than the actual Korean war — but while it may be tempting to chronicle the entirety of Phil’s time-warp experience, the novelty of actors repeating the same scenes would quickly wear thin. In the film, the audience laughed when Bill Murray punched his alarm clock, but by the middle of a third season, it’ll be the audience destroying their DVRs in frustration.
Then again . . . while sitcoms traditionally thrive on the status quo — which is why “M*A*S*H*” was allowed to last 8 years longer than the actual Korean war — watching Phil make different choices, and grow to be a better person over the course of several seasons could be a fun journey to follow. Every townsperson in Punxsutawney has a story and a TV show could use multi-seasonal arcs to really delve deep and explore their lives and daily possibilities.
Why it wouldn’t work: My head hurts just thinking about how this would be accomplished. “Memento” is a complex mystery that has two storylines playing out concurrently. The gimmick: one of those stories is presented backwards. Christopher Nolan’s neo noir features a detective who can’t form new memories so the director used this editing device to disorient the audience and place them in his hero’s shoes. Since Leonard’s short-term memory wipes every five minutes watching his story play out in reverse chronology cleverly simulates his disability — but it also makes for a challenging watch. With a running time of 113 minutes, it’s an ambitious and tricky puzzle Nolan has crafted, but think about how difficult it would be to follow a story presented like this week to week . . . for multiple seasons. Viewers would need access to a website like mementopedia.org and every episode would have to start with a “previously on Memento” recap.
Then again . . . who doesn’t like a good mystery? “Lost” proved that audiences can follow the double narrative structure with their signature flashbacks and the recent hype for “True Detective”, “The Fall” and the return of “Twin Peaks” prove there is a renewed interest in dark, clever, serialized murder mysteries. Also, “The X Files” already pulled off a great “Memento” style episode called “Redrum.” The best part of a “Memento” television series is that the ending has already been written! All that needs to be done now is to work backwards to see how Leonard got that very first tattoo. In all seriousness, the movie implies that Leonard has been chasing his wife’s killer for years. After all, Teddy tells Leonard, “Cheer up. There's plenty of ‘John Gs’ for us to find.”
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Why it wouldn’t work: "An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute watching Kubrik’s “2001” seems like an hour." -Albert Einstein
Where do I begin to explain the difficulty in translating this movie to television? Should I start with the slow pace? The flat characters? The absence of dialogue through large stretches of the running time? The fact that we are living in the year 2015 and Pan Am is outta business? How about that the film was shot in 70mm and designed to be viewed as visual feast on a gigantic, cinerama auditorium screen? Or perhaps, that despite the impressive visual effects, at the premiere over 200 people left the theatre due to the avant-garde nature of the film.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” is a deeply meditative and psychedelic spectacle of sight and sound. It is not binge-watch storytelling. Arthur C. Clarke once said, "If you understand '2001' completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered." Damon Lindelof once made a similar comment about “Lost” and we all know how that turned out (his reputation not the show. No one knows how that turned out).**
Then again . . . of course my main argument is all about presentation and not adaptation. Peter Hyam’s sequel “2010” is essentially the same story but with more interesting characters, more conversations, more excitement and more comprehension. I believe there is potential for crafting storylines from even the most basic premise (who doesn’t love “Clue”?). Personally, with all the apocalyptic depictions of the future, I think there could be a lot of good in a show with a Utopian vision. It’s interesting to remember that “2001” was made during the space race of the 1960s and released a full year before the Apollo moon landing. It inspired a generation of a promise of a future that never came to be. What if the series involved the same circumstances of the film — an extraterrestrial signal buried on the moon and a first contact expedition to Jupiter — but with the reality of our current, underfunded space program?
In the film, humanity had the technology to explore the solar system but the television series could be about humanity finding the will to achieve that goal. There is no denying the artistry, vision, inspiration and authenticity of Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus but there would need to be a new approach in regard to an adaptation if its going to capture imaginations. Or how about a sitcom featuring two astronauts and their nutty computer like “The Odd Couple” meets “ALF”?
** (I’m a big “Lost” fan but I had to go for the cheap joke.)
1. 12 Years a Slave
Why it wouldn’t work: The true story of Solomon Northup, a violinist living free in 1840’s New York with his wife and children, who is abducted and sold into bondage in the Deep South for over a decade. The film is uncompromising portraying the cruelty of slavery and the depictions of beatings, rape, murder and injustice are an exhausting experience. I thought about "Schindler's List" for the top spot until I realized that, while the film features horrors, the story is fundamentally about a man fighting against them. "12 Years a Slave" is all about a man enduring horror. I couldn’t sleep after watching this film it was so upsetting. I’m getting sad just thinking about it right now.
Then again . . . uh, nope.