Imagine this pitch: “It will be ‘Arrested Development,’ but not funny. Instead, it will be about an estranged family that pulls together when the father is wrongfully put in prison.”
Or how about, “A ‘CSI’ movie, but the killer will be an alien from outer space instead of a human. Sort of an ‘X-Files’ meets ‘CSI.’ With amazing special effects.”
Sound ludicrous? Not in Hollywood, where movies like this crop up constantly. An old TV show is dug up by some producer and turned into an over-stuffed, all-star, Hollywood extravaganza that has little to do with the show from whence it came. The majority of TV-to-movie releases fall somewhere between mediocre and awful. In fact, I could only think of two really good ones: “The Untouchables” and “The Fugitive,” with the original “Mission: Impossible” squeaking in for third place. Beyond those three, exist a pantheon of movies that will make you shrug your shoulders and say, “Wait, someone greenlit that?”
This summer we’re getting three more additions to the club, the poorly reviewed, “Honeymooners,” the satirical take on “Bewitched” and the Jessica Simpson-starring “Dukes of Hazzard.” And, have no fear, there are many more on the way. There’s talk of a “Friends” movie starring the original cast, a new “X-Files” film is allegedly in the works, plus versions of “The A-Team,” “Miami Vice,” “Get Smart” and “The Munsters.” None of these films sound like they’re going to approach the level of “The Fugitive,” but just in case, here’s a few pitfalls the filmmakers might want to avoid:
Remove the “cool”
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s going through a filmmaker’s — or more precisely a studio executive’s — head. Take “The Saint.” In the TV show, Roger Moore basically does what he would do as James Bond years later. He’s ultra suave, has a way with the ladies and gets his man without breaking a sweat. In the film, Val Kilmer is full of actorly tics, seems to enjoy his odd costume changes and fake accents to a disturbing degree and is the polar opposite of cool. The movie seems to want things a whole bunch of different ways: It wants to explain the origins of the Saint in a semi-serious fashion, to be an action-packed adventure and be silly fun for the whole family. Somehow in the course of trying to go in all those directions, director Philip Noyce managed to extract “cool” from the film.
Other offenders: “The Mod Squad” (why is this not set in the ‘60s?), “Maverick.”
Directed by: This space for hire
Of the three good TV-to-movie films, notice that two (“Mission” and “Untouchables”) were directed by Brian De Palma. Even if you’re going to direct a big-screen version of a TV show, you’re going to need what former President Bush once called “that vision thing.” No offense to Bryan Spicer (“McHale’s Navy”), Stephen Hopkins (“Lost in Space”), Clark Johnson (“S.W.A.T.”) or Tom Mankiewicz (“Dragnet”) but their names don’t exactly inspire confidence. Directors like these may go on to make great films (indeed, Hopkins directed the HBO film of Peter Sellers’ life), but it’s as if the TV-to-movie genre is currently being used as training wheels for actual filmmaking.
Of course, this is not to say that a good director guarantees the film will work. Among those who’ve embarrassed themselves in the genre, Barry Sonnenfeld (“Wild Wild West”) and Richard Donner (“Maverick”) and the above mentioned Noyce, just to name a few.
The point is, just because a story works on the small screen doesn’t mean it will be a snap to make it work on the big screen. It still needs a steady hand to guide it and a real vision to make it go beyond its TV show roots.
The one-joke wonders
This is the category that makes me crazy: Films that make fun of old TV show. Parodies like these are only appropriate for Mad Magazine, “Saturday Night Live” and “Chappelle’s Show.” Ninety to 120 minutes of the same darn “wasn’t that TV show wacky” joke strains every last bit of patience. There may be those who claim to be big fans of “Dragnet,” “Starsky & Hutch” and “The Brady Bunch Movie,” but more often, when I ask people what they thought of those movies I get the old, “parts of it were good.” Well, hurray for parts! Yeah, these films are never as awful as say, “The Avengers” and “Lost in Space,” but they are always terminally mediocre. Way to aim low.
Very special episode: The movie
I have nightmares about the big screen version of “Blossom.” In it, she discovers that she’s violently bipolar and ends up in a mental ward with Joey, saying “Whoa,” just outside the gates. Luckily, it hasn’t happened yet, but in the meantime, I have to make due with films like “Lost in Space,” which try to cram a “good for the whole family” message into their TV-sized packages. Frankly, I don’t recall the strained relationship between Will Robinson and his father John during my years of watching reruns of the old show, but somehow this becomes the core of the movie. Instead of a movie about a space adventure, it’s about solving father-son issues. And, as such, “Field of Dreams,” it’s not.
Yeah, it would be fine to have some subtext about the father-son relationship, but in the film John Robinson literally confronts his son as an adult and sees where his poor parenting has led him. Danger, Will Robinson, indeed.
Just do your schtick
Taking big-screen comedians and putting them into adaptations of TV shows seems to be a license to let them do whatever they want. Take Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson in “I, Spy.” Hey, Bill Cosby is a comedian, too, but I never noticed him mugging his way through episodes of the original, “I, Spy” series (he saved that for “Leonard: Part Six”). But Murphy seems to be channeling his Kit Ramsey character from “Bowfinger”; he’s arrogant and does a lot of shouting. Over the top would be putting in mildly. Meanwhile, Wilson plays the same guy he plays in every film: that laidback surfer dude with the surprisingly tender side. Fine, let these guys do their thing, but why call the movie, “I, Spy” if it’s not going to have anything to do with the TV show?
Other offenders: “Wild Wild West,” “Dragnet,” “The Honeymooners”
Bigger will be MUCH better
There are some filmmakers that think adding special effects and elaborate action sequences can make any movie great. Well, as someone who has sat through “Wild Wild West”, I would beg to differ. What’s so tragic about this film is how great the original series was: Robert Conrad as the cool James West in his ultra-tight, blue velvet pants; Ross Martin as the smart master of disguise Artemis Gordon; the diminutive Michael Dunn as the evil yet always strangely funny Dr. Loveless. The show reveled in its own oddities. Even the way it was shot, with freeze frames going into commercials was different.
Director Sonnenfeld put all those niceties aside in favor for big special effects, like a giant mechanical spider and a Dr. Loveless who is part machine. He also strips Artemis of his intelligence (shame on you Kevin Kline) and extracts any sense of fun from the film. This movie is all about the set pieces and proves that if you don’t care about the characters or understand why they do what they do — the movie seems to suggest that Artemis is just randomly into cross-dressing — the movie won’t work.
Other offenders, “Charlie’s Angels,” “S.W.A.T.”
Let’s get those old guys
Stars of original series should stay far away from these remakes. It only reminds the audience that it’s getting a pale imitation of the original. Case in point: James Garner’s cameo in “Maverick.” His cameo only serves to point out that Garner would have been much better than the talented but awfully intense Mel Gibson at delivering lines in the lackadaisical manner required by the role.
Other offenders: “Starsky & Hutch.”
The absolute worst of the worst
OK, advice is all well and good, but the most important thing to remember, filmmakers, is whatever you do, don’t make “The Avengers.” This movie had me watching the seconds tick by on my DVD player. I’d rather have dental surgery than watch it again. It ranks among the absolute worst movies I’ve ever seen.
Uma Thurman is terminally miscast as the slinky Emma Peel. And if you thought having Sean Connery in your movie would bring it to “Untouchables” level, think again. He chews scenery as the weather-changing Sir August de Wynter. The director, Jeremiah S. Chechik, who made the sweet “Benny & Joon” hasn’t done much since — and it’s hard not to think that this film killed his career. The story doesn’t make sense, and like “Wild Wild West”, it primarily relies on big action sequences. It also lacks the British sensibility and sex appeal that made the original series fun.
This film should be required viewing for any filmmaker embarking on his own TV-to-movie project. Especially, whomever is chosen to direct “The A-Team.” I pity the fool.