Recent TV-to-film flubs such as Ab Fab: The Movie and David Brent: Life on the Road have proved that the transition is not always easy. Aaron Yap rounds up the television shows that have managed to make it to the big screen without stuffing it up.
Ricky Gervais should have put David Brent to rest a long time ago. Confirming what many fans of The Office feared, his big screen feature-length revival David Brent: Life on the Road reeks of a desperate cash-grab. This is the work of a comedian whose creative well has clearly run dry. Perhaps resurrecting Brent, whose unforgettably cringey worst-boss-ever antics made the British sitcom an all-timer, wouldn’t feel like such an exhausted move if he hadn’t already done it several times before.
In the years since the show went off air, Gervais pulled out Brent for a Princess Diana tribute concert, a music video with rapper Doc Brown, a cameo in the American version of The Office, and a web series called Learn Guitar with David Brent. Brent became a reliable iron lung that Gervais could use to supplement a spotty post-Office career that straddled bland, uninspired studio fare (The Invention of Lying, Ghost Town) and a mixed bag of TV projects (Derek, Life’s Too Short, An Idiot Abroad).
The great tragedy of Life on the Road isn’t that Brent’s utter lack of self-awareness is stretched beyond limits of credibility, as he ditches his lowly sales rep job to entertain delusions of being an earnest rock star. Nor is it that Gervais strains for relevance and subversiveness with ill-conceived un-PC humour set to offend everyone under the sun. It isn’t even that it reveals how integral the team behind The Office – from co-writer Stephen Merchant to the supporting players (Mackenzie Crook, Martin Freeman, Lucy Davis, etc) – were to the show’s success.
The great tragedy is that David Brent is now nothing more than a feeble, formulaic caricature. He returns complete with repetitive, affected high-pitched snigger that’s painfully akin to “Are you havin’ a laugh?”, the groan-inducing catchphrase that had come to destroy the artistic integrity of Andy Millman, Gervais’ Extras alter-ego.
In some ways, we only have ourselves to blame for the proliferation of TV-to-movie adaptations like these. They tend to fall into two distinct camps. Life on the Road, like Absolutely Fabulous The Movie, banks on the power of nostalgia to eclipse everything else, especially its reason for existence on a screen bigger than your living room. They pander to the satisfaction of catching up with favourite characters and seeing them one last time – with the added novelty of experiencing that in a theatre.
Then there are those movies that have been adapted from vintage TV shows, revamped with entirely new casts and bigger production values. This standard Hollywood practice also latches onto a theoretically safe built-in audience, but additionally makes a play for new eyes by exploiting hooky premises (21 Jump Street’s cops in high school, The A-Team’s ragtag special ops team, Transformers’, um, transforming robots).
Something like Life on the Road, with its flatly shot, mock-doc format, would’ve been better served on telly as a tidy hour-long Christmas special. Similarly, movie extensions of shows like Sex and the City, Veronica Mars and Entourage fail to harness the unique qualities of the cinematic medium. Although peak TV has increasingly blurred the lines between mediums, the scope of the big screen remains a powerful tool that can’t be replicated at home.
One can imagine the immersive, richly finessed worlds of Deadwood and Game of Thrones translating to the big screen more easily. Then there’s the casting. The difference between a TV and Movie Star are significant; for instance, there’s a colossal gulf between an endearing-enough TV presence like David Duchovny and say, Brad Pitt, whose glowing star wattage is ready-made to shoulder blockbusters. Simply put, if something works magic on the small screen, it doesn’t mean it’ll do the same on the big.
That said, while truly excellent TV-to-movie adaptations are an uncommon breed, they are out there. Here are a bunch to remind you they can be done well:
10) Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007)
As a show that delights in wall-to-wall non-sequitur madness, Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force really shouldn’t function any longer than the 11 minutes allotted to each episode. But in this expansion, creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro obliterate that notion completely. The random adventures of their talking snack food characters – Master Shake, Frylock, Meatwad – are taken to a whole new level of freewheeling, demented Dadaist stoner incoherence/brilliance.
It’s hard to see it working for non-devotees, but good for those up for a brain-melter. Otherwise, maybe swap this one out for The Simpsons Movie or South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut.
9) Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Rod Serling’s influential anthology series The Twilight Zone ran for five seasons, totting up 156 episodes of spooky, twist-filled tales that constantly questioned our relationship with reality. To encapsulate Serling’s work into one movie is a tall task, and this 1983 effort doesn’t quite get there, but – and it’s a big but – two of its segments are brilliant enough to warrant inclusion on this list. Joe Dante’s “It’s a Good Life”, and George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” – both adapted from original series episodes – are classic short-form examples of the cinema fantastique. Terrifying, imaginative, rewatchable.
8) Traffic (2000)
Those who’ve seen the 1989 British miniseries Traffik will rightfully assert that it’s a more nuanced examination of the globalised drug trade than Steven Soderbergh’s multiple-Oscar-winning picture. But what Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan have achieved with their version is commendable – a crisp, coolly impassioned distillation of the original that still engages with the issues. It’s like the big screen blueprint for the sort of ambitious, complex, gripping television that we now see everywhere.
7) The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! (1988)
After Airplane! demonstrated his deadpan genius, Leslie Nielsen was given more room to flex his comedic chops in Jim Abraham and the Zucker brothers’ 1982 follow-up, the cop show parody Police Squad! The series lasted only six episodes, but Nielsen’s legendarily dimwitted lieutenant Frank Drebin was revived in 1988 for The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, a career benchmark for all involved. Sequels went downhill a bit, but this one captured their sublime brand of spoof comedy – rapid-fire sight gags, double entendres, slapstick – at its funniest. Often copied, but never bettered.
6) Mission: Impossible (1996)
The most dependable and resilient of Hollywood’s blockbuster franchises started two decades ago with this stylish adaptation of Bruce Geller’s ‘60 series about top secret government agents undertaking elaborate operations. Lalo Schifrin’s catchy iconic theme, the gadgetry, the self-detonating recorded messages – they’re all here, slickly packaged with Tom Cruise’s stunt-happy bravado and Brian DePalma’s virtuosic direction. The film’s centrepiece, featuring Cruise suspended from cables attempting to break into the CIA’s vaults, is pure cinematic poetry that needs to be experienced on the largest screen possible.
5) Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Made as a bridge between the second and third seasons of the ‘80s animated series, Transformers: The Movie has more heart and soul in its first half hour than the whole of Michael’s Bay obnoxious live-action abominations. The emotional stakes were higher, the action more intense and violent than on TV. A key character death left many kids traumatised for life. The astonishing once-in-a-lifetime voice cast included Orson Welles, Casey Kasem and Leonard Nimoy. In other words, a cartoon masterpiece that I continue to revisit well into my adult years.
4) Serenity (2005)
Following the premature cancellation of Joss Whedon’s beloved sci-fi western Firefly in 2002, the materialisation of Serenity a few years later felt like a miracle to its ardent followers. Though its US$39 mill budget is chump change compared to most sci-fi actioners today, this theatrical continuation boasted a noticeable upgrade in special effects that kicked its space-opera thrills up a few giddy notches. Unpretentious pulpy fun all the way, equally satisfying as a closure of sorts for fans and a tasty, digestible intro for newcomers.
3) The Fugitive (1993)
If there ever was a model blockbuster of how to moviefy TV shows, Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive would be it. It’s a masterclass in suspenseful filmmaking, faithfully retaining key elements from the ’60s David Janssen-starring series while compressing into a remarkably taut and timeless thriller. The cat-and-mouse chase between Harrison Ford’s sympathetic everyman doctor and Tommy Lee Jones’ snarky, doggedly determined US marshal is one for the ages. They really don’t make them like this anymore.
2) Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Originally intended for a video-only release, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm hastily screened in theatres with little fanfare. Its box office failure forever relegated its reputation to a contingency of fervent fans who consider the movie, and the animated show it spun off from, the best adaptation of the DC comics superhero yet. With its striking art-deco look, moody noir feel and dark adult themes, it was an exhilaratingly mature Batman that presaged the gloomy atmospherics of Christopher Nolan’s live action trilogy. Clocking in at 74 minutes, it’s also wonder of economical storytelling, weaving in two timelines, Batman’s backstory, several villains, a romantic subplot and tons of action without ever feeling rushed nor cluttered.
1) Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
We’ll soon be getting an answer to the frustrating cliffhanger at the end of Twin Peaks’ second season, but back in the day all this theatrical prequel was as good as it got. Instead of telling us what happened to the fate of FBI agent Dale Cooper, series creator David Lynch went back to the past to unearth the skeletons in Laura Palmer’s closet.
The result was something that bypassed the series’ endearingly quirky tone in favour of a full-blown nightmare that turned off a lot of folks. It was eviscerated at Cannes, but time has been kind: it’s now regarded among Lynch’s best films, and next to Mulholland Drive, easily his most affecting and hauntingly beautiful work.
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