Quite often when Hollywood adapts a television show to the big screen, the results range from tepid to catastrophic. Recently audiences have had to endure a spate of them, from “Bewitched” to “The Dukes of Hazzard” to “The Honeymooners.” It’s enough to make you wonder if Congress will eventually step in and do something.
Yet occasionally a marriage of TV show to feature film takes place that, at the very least, provides hope. Such is the case this week with “Miami Vice.” While there’s no guarantee it will cause critics and movie-goers alike to put on pastel clothing, pop champagne and ride speedboats in celebration, it’s hard to argue with the choice of Michael Mann as director, partly because he has churned out such respected works as “Heat” and “The Insider” but also because he created the influential TV show upon which the film is based. If he can’t get it right, the future of such projects is bleak.
Using “Miami Vice” the movie as the catalyst, it might be fun to speculate on what other television shows of the past might be worth adapting into feature films, and with which directors. So many times Hollywood executives hand these assignments to directors who come out of commercials or who have done one warmly received indie and the results are often predictably woeful.
Here is a list of 10 television shows that would make interesting and possibly even successful feature films, if they’re given to directors who are right for the material and who know what they’re doing. In most cases, these pairings will never happen, practically speaking. But we can dream:
“The White Shadow” directed by Spike Lee This one-hour drama about a former professional basketball player (Ken Howard) who takes a coaching job at an inner city high school ran for only three seasons, beginning in 1978, but it had a lasting impact on hoop junkies. It was a simpler time on television. The characters were likeable, the situations were believable and the life lessons were appreciated. Spike is one of the craziest basketball fans around — he sat through the Knicks’ recent draft and didn’t weep when the name “Renaldo Balkman” was announced — and he would bring the proper amount of hardwood passion to the project. Also, he has a vibrant visual style that would infuse new life to the “White Shadow” world. He would also be able to maintain the show’s good nature but add a grittiness necessary for a modern urban drama. How about Jeff Bridges in the lead?
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” directed by Quentin Tarantino
This has actually been rumored for quite some time, but Tarantino’s people have usually put the kibosh on it. Too bad, because the old spy series that ran for four seasons in the mid 1960s is the perfect fit for Tarantino’s campy sense of violence. The show starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, perhaps the two best character names in television history. They worked for a long-winded organization called the United Network Command for Law Enforcement, which battled evil-doers from T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). Tarantino has enough bravado and cinematic panache to lift this clash of acronyms into Hollywood heaven for critics and audiences. George Clooney and Owen Wilson maybe?
“Rawhide” directed by Clint EastwoodBefore he was Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name and an Academy Award-winning director, Clint starred in this Western series as Rowdy Yates, second-in-command of a cattle drive. The show ran for eight seasons, ending in 1966, making it one of the most successful Western shows in TV history alongside “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.” Clint has a particular knack for bringing the Old West to life with such directorial efforts as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Pale Rider,” but he hasn’t delved into the genre since 1992’s “Unforgiven” brought home a best picture Oscar. It would be gratifying to his fans to see him go full circle and adapt the film version of a series that helped to introduce him to mainstream America. He’s too old to play either Yates or trail boss Gil Favor, but he’s still spry enough to direct the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Matt Damon in the leads.
“Friends” directed by Cameron Crowe Some people found the long-running NBC cash cow to be a bore. Some built altars to it. But the premise of six single people living together and dealing with the ups and downs of romance is Crowe’s bailiwick. The romantic comedy is a dying art, but Crowe might be the only director working today who can resuscitate it. (O.K., so “Elizabethtown” was a gross miscalculation. Everybody’s entitled to one disaster.) With “Friends,” there would be a built-in audience eager to see a big-screen continuation of the sextet’s exploits. Crowe’s cover of this hit would avoid much of the cutesiness and the tired setup-payoff humor that plagued the small-box version while keeping the heart and the laughs. Wouldn’t Rachel McAdams make a great Rachel?
“NYPD Blue” directed by Martin ScorseseThe temptation here is to hand this project to Sidney Lumet, master of the New York cop flick with such entries as “Serpico” and “Prince of the City.” But Sidney has been there, done that, and someone beyond the reach of the long arm of the law would probably bring a fresher feel to this. Enter Scorsese, who has spent plenty of time on the other side chronicling the adventures of bad guys in “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” “Blue,” the creation of Steven Bochco and David Milch, was a dark and often disturbing show to begin with. In order to transfer it to the big screen, it would need a raw and graphic updating. One of the criticisms of Scorsese’s films is that he often portrays unsympathetic characters, which makes it harder to connect with mass audiences. That wouldn’t be a problem with Det. Andy Sipowicz. It’s hard to top Dennis Franz in that role, but Gene Hackman might have the right stuff.
“It Takes a Thief” directed by Christopher Nolan
Universal is reportedly set to make a feature film out of this series that starred Robert Wagner as master burglar Alexander Mundy and only ran for two and a half seasons beginning in 1968. Will Smith is said to be attached to play Mundy, which isn’t a bad idea. But Nolan would be perfect to helm this international romantic spy thriller. He did a masterful job of creating mood and visual power in “Memento,” “Insomnia” and last year’s “Batman Begins.” He’s a Brit who won’t bring the same old hackneyed Hollywood conventions to an adaptation of a series that has endless possibilities because of its genre and because it’s old enough that no one is locked into ideas at this point. Bad sign: Universal has already had eight writers attached to this, usually the kiss of death. All the more reason to bring in Nolan, who is also an excellent screenwriter.
“Combat!” directed by Paul Greengrass
He isn’t a household name as a director, but Greengrass’ last three films were superb examples of his skill. After working for years in documentaries, Greengrass broke through with the indie “Bloody Sunday,” then followed it with a commendable effort on a studio sequel, “The Bourne Supremacy.” Then he lensed the extraordinary and unforgettable “United 93.” The World War II series “Combat!” ran for five seasons, beginning in 1962, and was notable for its black-and-white, newsreel-like feel. It would be tempting to cast this one with any number of Hollywood leading men in the role of Sgt. Chip Saunders, made famous by the late Vic Morrow — Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Edward Norton, Sean Penn come to mind — but knowing Greengrass, he’ll take the same approach as in “United 93” and cast it with unknowns, which would be perfect.
“Hawaii Five-O” directed by Steven SoderberghUnfortunately, Soderbergh lately has been mired in Hollywood muck with the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise, although “The Good German” may soon restore some of his artistic cachet. But he’s one of the smartest and most innovative directors in the business. “Hawaii Five-O” ran for 12 seasons, beginning in 1968. It was a fairly standard police procedural (albeit without the heavy forensics we see today) made special largely by the locale. In the hands of a hack, a film adaptation could be embarrassingly poor. But with Soderbergh at the controls, “Hawaii Five-0” could be dark, quirky, ominous, witty, intriguing and powerful, all against a lush and breathtaking backdrop. Crime dramas in pristine settings require a special touch, but done well can reap extra rewards. What would you say to Russell Crowe playing the Jack Lord role as Det. Steve McGarrett? Book him, Danno.
“Barney Miller” directed by the Coen BrothersThis show, which ran for eight seasons starting in 1975, was a study in heartwarming cynicism. Barney and his motley crew of detectives sat around all day making wisecracks and ribbing each other, with an occasional visit from an odd outsider who caused one or two of them to bolt into action. Joel and Ethan Coen specialize in offbeat takes on humanity, from “Barton Fink” to “The Big Lebowski” to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Another director might make a straight adaptation of this, complete with sitcom humor and stock characters. But you can count on the Coens to liven up Barney’s world with some imaginative predicaments that would more truthfully reflect the “You’ll never believe this” quality of law enforcement in the big city. The major question is which role would John Goodman play? Barney? Fish? Wojo? Nick Yemana?
“Bonanza” directed by Steven SpielbergHe’s directed all sorts of movies over the years, including several period pieces and even a lone comedy (“1941”). But he hasn’t done a Western. And that seems odd, since one of his heroes is John Ford, the patriarch of the American Western. Generally speaking, the genre is played out. The last Western to hit gold was “Unforgiven” in 1992. There have been others since then of course, but they all seem like regurgitations of Ford films. In the capable mitts of Spielberg, “Bonanza” could be a big-screen event that reinvents the Western. “Bonanza” the TV series was a steady hit, starting in 1959 and lasting 14 seasons, and made Ben Cartwright and his three sons from three different mothers all feel like family. The Ponderosa ranch, spread over 1,000 square miles of Nevada, is enticement enough to lure bad guys and create conflict. Robert Duvall would make a fine Ben.