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Elisabeth Rappe

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Elisabeth Rappe is a regular contributor to Film.com, CHUD, and The Spectator's arts blog. She spends her off-time with comic books, her pug, Elliot, video games, and Clint Eastwood movies.

The Best, Worst and Weirdest TV Shows Based On Movies

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Not to put a damper on all this talk about “The New Golden Age of Television,” but despite the glories of ABC and HBO, it suddenly seems like TV has been seized by the same strain of “prequelitis” that plagues movie studios. Did you want to know how and why Norman Bates mummified his mummy? Here’s “Bates Motel” on A&E, which will spin this serial killer’s origin story for as long as the ratings demand. Did you need additional backstory to Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon,” which introduced readers to an imprisoned Hannibal Lecter as the FBI’s go-to serial killer expert? You’re in luck, because NBC’s “Hannibal” will spin at least two seasons out of the relationship between Lecter and Special Agent Will Graham.

With news that “Gangs of New York,” “Fargo” and “Zombieland” are racing to serialize, it seems that our small screen will simply be full of stories we’ve already seen on the big one. While this deluge of small screen adaptations is certainly new, we weary cinephiles must remember that television has been gleefully ripping off the movies for decades. Many movies have found themselves repurposed into episodic bites. Sometimes, the result was so popular and successful that it outstripped the movie in pop culture, but more often than not, these television adaptations were hastily canned and buried, never to be discussed again.

Here are the good, the bad and the downright weird attempts to repurpose the silver screen for the television set. (For reasons of space and sanity, we’ve limited the list to live-action adaptations. Also because the cartoon “sequels” of everything from “Back to the Future” to “Men in Black” were pretty darn awesome.)

THE GOOD

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003), based on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992)

This is the rare example of a television show that completely, utterly and indisputably outstripped its cinematic predecessor. The movie was a modest hit, but it failed to make much of a dent in pop culture. When Joss Whedon was given the chance to resurrect it on WB, he jumped at the chance, and the result was a delicious mix of girl power, horror, and wit that ran for seven successful seasons. It remains beloved and inspirational to this day, and may be the only vampire show to have inspired a whole subset of academia.

“Alice” (1976-1986), based on “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974)

Martin Scorsese’s melancholy and hardbitten dramedy, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” doesn’t seem likely fodder for a television sitcom. But the television industry lives for the inexplicable, and so Scorsese’s film naturally inspired a sitcom called “Alice” that ran for nine seasons. While it lacked the pathos of Scorsese’s film, it could be surprisingly dark, never really shirking away from the stingy, greasy poverty that the waitresses of Mel’s Diner lived in. It could be argued it outstripped Scorsese’s film in pop culture knowledge, as more people remember Flo, her “Kiss my grits!” catchphrase, and her eventual spin-off than the finer points of the original “Alice.”

“McCloud” (1970-1977), based on “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968)

If you were to pick a Clint Eastwood cop flick to meander its way to the small screen, you probably would have expected it to be “Dirty Harry” or “The Rookie.” But it was “Coogan’s Bluff” that found itself repurposed into “McCloud.” The premise is the same – a cowboy cop finds himself in the alien streets of New York, busts heads, and seduces women – but McCloud stays in the big city, his good-natured ways, Western drawl, and cowboy hat at odds with the mean streets and cynicism of New York. It ran for 7 seasons, and found time for a John Denver appearance, which was sorely lacking in the original film.

“M*A*S*H” (1972-1983), based on “M*A*S*H*” (1970)

It’s rare that great movies spawn great television, but “M*A*S*H*” really did manage to equal its cinematic predecessor in terms of tone, characters, and social criticism. (In retrospect, it seems downright radical to have a show commenting on a war while America was embroiled in one.) It could be argued the show even outstripped the film in terms of cultural impact. If you were to ask who played “Hawkeye” Pierce, most people would answer Alan Alda, and not Donald Sutherland, while many probably assume that the movie was based on the show, and not vice versa. (Bonus: “M*A*S*H also inspired the successful “Trapper John M.D.” (1979-1986), which managed to transfer one of its characters to a postwar scenario, and remain thoughtful and interesting, instead of descending into campy humor.)

“The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-1985), based on “Moonrunners” (1975)

“Dukes” and “Buffy” share a similar origin story. (A sentence I never thought I’d write, and probably never will again.) Like Joss Whedon, writer/director Gy Waldron had the chance to develop a television series with WB, and opted to expand the moonshine-and-hot rods world of his film, “Moonrunners.” Substantial changes were made (the Duke boys were only former moonshine runners), but the schlocky, B-movie tone remained intact. “Dukes” was a huge hit, far more than the film ever was, and the Duke boys became permanent pop culture fixtures. Strangely, the cultural recycling process went full circle when “Dukes” was remade into a 2005 feature film.

“In the Heat of the Night” (1988-1995), based on “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

A crime thriller laced with a seething current of racial tension hardly seems the stuff of a television series. The decision to update the story of Virgil Tibbs, and recast him as a former citizen of Sparta, Mississippi was at odds with the original’s theme. Yet the show works – even if it became more of a showcase for Caroll O’Connor than Howard Rollins – and was fairly fearless in its depiction of hot-button issues and grisly crime. It ran for eight successful seasons, and while “Heat” never came close to shoving the original film from its cultural standing, it remains a nifty, intriguing little sequel that worked on its own merits.

“Parenthood” (2010 to present), based on “Parenthood” (1989)

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The sprawling and tender “Parenthood” actually seems like a solid basis for a television series. Yet the first attempt, in 1990, was a critical and commercial flop and was quickly canned. It took Jason Katims of “Friday Night Lights” to rework the essence of the film – the constant dramas of being a parent and child – into a funny, sentimental, and honest story of a multi-generational family. It regularly reduces audiences to tears. Will it outstrip the original film in pop culture canon, or simply stand as a terrific example of adapting a story to the 21st century? Time will tell.

“Peyton Place” (1964-1969), based on “Peyton Place” (1957)

The lurid, rambling drama of “Peyton Place” was the ideal candidate for a nighttime soap opera, and it translated into a huge hit for ABC. It’s easy to understand why – sex sells! The Betty Drapers of the day just couldn’t get enough of the trashy shenanigans of this New England mill town. While it’s not as iconic as some of the other series on this list, it was certainly a cultural touchstone for its day, and a landmark for how television began approaching sex.

“The Odd Couple” (1970-1975), based on “The Odd Couple” (1968)

The title has become so synonymous with clashing roommates that it’s hard to remember it all sprang out of the brain of Neil Simon, and that it was an Oscar-nominated comedy long before it was a laugh-tracked sitcom. Nevertheless, it’s the show that persists in pop culture memory, despite the ludicrous guest-star lows it spun to, and it’s Tony Randall that has gone down as the epitome of Felix Ungar. Perhaps Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were simply too much of the “Odd Couple” in real life to let one movie stick to their reputations the way it did to Randall and Klugman.

ON PAGE 2: OUR PICKS FOR THE WORST TV SHOWS BASED ON MOVIES.


Categories: Lists

Tags: Alice, Bates Motel, Buffy the vampire slayer, Casablanca, Elisabeth rappe, List, Mash, McCloud, Parenthood, Peyton Place, Psycho, Shaft, The Dukes of Hazzard, The odd couple, Tv