Big Screen Start, Small Screen Finish

July 9, 2019
Sometimes a movie is too big, too popular, too compelling, or just too damn good to finish its life on the big screen, as this collection of film-inspired TV series amply demonstrates.

M*A*S*H (1972-1983) In 1970, the great Robert Altman – then in the infancy of his film career after a storied run working in television – delivered a surprise hit of staggering proportions with the black comedy, M*A*S*H, which told of a group of cynical, rebellious medicos staunching the blood flow during The Korean War. “It was so different to the Doris Day/Rock Hudson, Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon, or Jerry Lewis goofy comedies,” filmmaker, Ron Mann – who directed the doco, Altman – told FilmInk in 2014. A blatant critique of the still-raging Vietnam War, M*A*S*H struck a chord with the counterculture, won the coveted Palme d’Or at The Cannes Film Festival, and picked up four Oscar nominations. But it was the dollars that counted, and after an attempt at creating a sequel for the huge hit failed, a television series was instead put into motion by 20th Century Fox in 1972. “I realised that we would basically be doing a miniaturisation of the feature – there was no way that we could approximate the toughness of it,” series creator, Larry Gelbart, told IGN in 2002. “We certainly couldn’t be spurting blood all over our doctors! Not happily, we would somehow have to dilute the force of it. Our job became a matter of ‘to what degree.’” With an almost completely different cast, and a far less biting tone, M*A*S*H initially struggled to find traction, but ultimately went on to become one of the most loved TV series of all time, with its 1983 finale rating as the most watched and highest rated single television episode in US television history at the time, with a record-breaking 125 million viewers.

ALICE (1976-1985, FROM ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE) The warm and wonderful 1974 comedy, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, remains an unusual entry for Martin Scorsese. Prior to this touching tale of gritty Middle American widow, Alice Wyatt (Ellen Burstyn in an Oscar winning turn), Scorsese had made the rough and ready Mean Streets and Boxcar Bertha. Despite his lack of personal connection to the material (he was strictly a director for hire here, brought in by big star Burstyn, then hot off The Exorcist), the film is one of Scorsese’s best: it’s funny, rich with emotion, and filled with great characters (Diane Ladd is brilliant as a sassy waitress; Kris Kristofferson is gruffly charming as Alice’s suitor; and Alfred Lutter is a scream as her irritating son). The success of the film prompted its screenwriter, Robert Getchell, to expand upon his ideas for a TV series, which would ultimately become the popular sitcom, Alice, with the earthily charming Linda Lavin taking over from Burstyn in the title role. Though far broader in its comedy than the film, Alice retained its fresh brand of blue collar feminism. “I was pulled into the women’s movement,” Linda Lavin told The LA Times in 2013. “I was asked to speak at events. I was invited to rallies and marches. I got educated. I was invited to join The National Commission On Working Women.” In an interesting side-note, when the show’s breakout character – Polly Holliday’s feisty waitress, Flo – left to head up her own spin-off series, Diane Ladd (who had originated the character in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) joined the show to fill the void as the mouthy Belle, a decidedly similar character.

THE ODD COUPLE (1970-1975) The late Bronx-born playwright, Neil Simon, was nothing short of a Broadway hit machine, with a slew of funny, popular, savvily intelligent works (Barefoot In The Park, Sweet Charity, Plaza Suite, The Sunshine Boys, Biloxi Blues) to his name, many of which were adapted for the big screen. Arguably the best Neil Simon stage-to-screen transition came with 1968’s The Odd Couple, which boasted seminal work from comic powerhouses, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, as two divorced men – neurotic neat-freak, Felix Ungar, and smoking, drinking, hard-partying slob, Oscar Madison – who decide to share an apartment together, despite their personality differences. Regular TV writers, and aspiring series creators, Garry Marshall (who would later create Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy) and Jerry Belson (later a producer on The Drew Carey Show), saw the potential in the popular film’s concept, and set it up as a sitcom for network, ABC, where it eventually ran to critical acclaim for five years. Uproariously funny and often surprisingly touching, a huge element of the success of the series came with the ingenious casting of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, who had a combustible comic chemistry as Felix and Oscar, respectively. “There’s nobody better to improvise with than Tony,” Klugman once said. “A script might say, ‘Oscar teaches Felix football’, and there would be four blank pages. He would provoke me into reacting to what he did. Mine was the easy part. He was the best friend a man could ever have. I loved him dearly. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. I will miss him for the rest of my days.” Ever the popular concept, Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon starred in another TV take in 2015.

PLANET OF THE APES (1974) Following on from the success of the brilliant Planet Of The Apes film franchise – set on a future Earth where talking apes rule, and timid, speechless humans cower – this 1974 TV series (which was put into motion after the film series’ 1973 final entry, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes) fits somewhat awkwardly within the vastness of the Apes universe. As the series begins, astronauts, Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton), crash land on the now familiar ape-dominated world. The two are almost immediately on the run, and are joined by the sympathetic chimp, Galen, portrayed by film franchise regular, Roddy McDowell, playing a character with no apparent relation to the father and son that he so memorably essayed in the movie series. Despite confusing chronology and continuity issues (there is mention in the series of another space ship crash occurring “ten years earlier”, alluding to the events of the original, Charlton Heston-starring film), this admittedly entertaining series (which was cancelled after just one season) was far lighter than the Planet Of The Apes films, and lacked their powerful sense of social commentary and tonal eeriness. “We kinda became The Fugitive, you know?” series star, James Naughton, says in the documentary, Behind The Planet Of The Apes. “Each week, we were caught, and then we escaped…that’s basically what each show was about. Television frequently winds up in a kind of formulaic place: ‘Who’s the bad guy of the week, and how are you gonna escape from that?’ We were constantly whacking some guy over the head with a stick, or drop-kicking a guy in a monkey suit.”

HEARTBREAK HIGH (1994-1999, FROM THE HEARTBREAK KID) The mid-nineties was a strong period for Australian film, with flicks like Muriel’s Wedding, The Sum Of Us, The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Bad Boy Bubby, and many more connecting with audiences in a major way. Just prior to that wave, the 1993 teen drama, The Heartbreak Kid, also found great success, furthering the impressive career of Claudia Karvan (who had been brilliant in High Tide and The Big Steal) and making a star out of then-unknown, Alex Dimitriades, who had never been on screen before. “Mum was always going to get us into ads, but never got around to it…I never knew anyone who wanted to be an actor,” he told FilmInk in 2001. With no formal training, Dimitriades felt wholly and horribly out of his depth. “Yeah, totally,” he admitted to FilmInk. “I didn’t know what being on a set was about. And it was spooky to create this whole character for yourself from the start. I didn’t depend on anyone.” Despite his lack of experience, Dimitriades had screen charisma to burn, so much so that he was backed to headline a TV series based on the film, which had followed a high school student who has an affair with a teacher. The series, Heartbreak High, retained the setting of a tough high school in a multiracial area of Sydney, and placed Dimitriades at the centre of a strong ensemble of hard-headed but largely misunderstood students, and their harried but mainly well-meaning educators. Though it became increasingly formulaic, Heartbreak High was initially a trailblazer, thanks to its racially diverse cast and full-on approach to youth issues.

FAME (1982-1987) After making 1976’s Bugsy Malone (a Prohibition-era gangster comedy cast entirely with children) and 1978’s Midnight Express (which was largely set within the tawdry confines of a Turkish prison), British director, Alan Parker (who would later helm the likes of Angel Heart and Mississippi Burning), continued to confound critics by choosing as his next project, Fame, a musical drama swirling around the staff and students of The New York City High School For The Performing Arts. Though he often found working with his largely unknown cast difficult (“It took me a long time to realise in New York that when an actor went off to ‘do a line’, they weren’t going over the script,” the director wrote in a retrospective piece for The Telegraph), Parker got fabulously energetic performances from them, and crafted a film as joyous and entertaining as it was tough and uncompromising, as the students’ dreams are dashed as often as they are realised. Fame was hugely popular, and a TV series was greenlit by MGM and NBC. The film was the brainchild of producer, David De Silva, and screenwriter, Christopher Gore, meaning that Alan Parker ultimately had nothing to do with the show, which retained a handful of the film’s young stars, and gathered a large audience, most predominantly in the UK. “Personally, I thought the show was meretricious and tacky,” Parker wrote in The Telegraph. “[Producer] Alan Marshall candidly pointed out that perhaps I would have felt a tad less bilious if I had participated in the subsequent profits. Mr. De Silva became very wealthy, and continues to license the vapid stage show around the world.”

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1997-2003) “My love for strong female characters is partly political,” writer/director/producer, Joss Whedon, told FilmInk in 2005. “It’s about getting people to accept strong women as heroes. I love Hugh Laurie in House, but if his character was a woman, everyone would call her a bitch. And also, I confess, it’s partly the sleazy Eurotrash guy who twirls his moustache and goes: ‘I loves ze women!’” After scoring his first TV writing job on the sitcom, Roseanne, Whedon took his growing reputation for creating “strong women beats” to the next level by developing a dark film script called Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which was filmed in 1992 by director, Fran Rubel Kuzui. Whedon, however, all but disowned the resulting movie. “I had major involvement,” he told The AV Club in 2001. “I was there almost all the way through shooting, but it didn’t turn out to be the movie that I’d written. They never do, but that was my first lesson in that. Not that the movie is without merit, but I just watched a lot of stupid wannabe-star behaviour, and a director with a different vision than mine – which was her right, it was her movie – but it was still frustrating.” In 1997, however, Whedon regained the rights to his feisty vampire-killing high schooler, Buffy Summers, and created a TV series, with Sarah Michelle Gellar taking over stake-wielding duties from the original film’s Kristy Swanson. As show-runner and executive producer, Whedon retained full artistic control. Gratifyingly, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was hugely popular, both with critics and fans, and aired over seven much-talked-about seasons, also spawning the successful spin-off series, Angel (1999-2004).

THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES (1992-1993) “This show is the best thing on television, and that has nothing to do with my connection to Indiana Jones,” actor, Harrison Ford, told Entertainment Weekly in a show of public support that would embolden the creators of any TV series. Based on the then trilogy of films starring Ford as archeologist adventurer, Indiana Jones – 1981’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark, 1984’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, and 1989’s Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was created by movie series writer and producer, George Lucas, and screened from 1992 to 1993. Partly inspired by the warm response to the opening sequence of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (in which River Phoenix played a young version of the eponymous action man), The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles focused on Indy’s life as a child (Corey Carrier) and young adult (Sean Patrick Flanery), and was envisioned by Lucas as “edutainment”, with his lead character crossing paths with real life figures such as T. E. Lawrence, Pancho Villa, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and many more. “It’s about a boy who learns about life, which is unusual for global television,” said series producer, Rick McCallum. “Everything that he learns about – from his relationship to food, women, ethics, and morality, to the way that he interrelates with people – he learns from the rest of the world, not America.” Lavishly produced on a big budget, the series performed well and got solid reviews, but its ratings couldn’t justify the big wads of money that US network, ABC, was spending on it, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was cancelled.

DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND (2014, FROM THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND) “I held back on a few things because I just didn’t believe that people would actually buy it,” writer/director, Fred Schepisi, told FilmInk of his 1976 debut, The Devil’s Playground. “It might have seemed a little too exaggerated or preposterous if we’d gone all the way with it.” A gilt-edged classic of The Australian Renaissance, Schepisi based the film on his own experiences as a boy growing up and attending school at a Catholic seminary, from which he eventually fled when he realised that he wasn’t cut out to be a man of the cloth. The Devil’s Playground was quietly shocking, but also deeply sensitive, and boasted a stunning performance from untried young actor, Simon Burke, in the challenging lead role of Tom Allen. Fascinatingly, it was Burke who instigated the film’s television sequel over thirty years later during a genial lunch with Foxtel boss, Brian Walsh. When Burke mentioned that he often wondered about what had happened to his character from The Devil’s Playground, Walsh suggested that he should work on a TV pitch. The result was Devil’s Playground, which features an adult Tom Allen, now a respected Sydney psychiatrist working as a counsellor of priests. Going where Fred Schepisi hadn’t, the beautifully made series boldly tackled the fractious issue of child abuse in The Catholic Church. “Fred Schepisi was generous and gracious about saying that we could do the series,” Devil’s Playground producer, Helen Bowden, said at The Sydney Film Festival in 2014. “He was so lovely about it. He said that he loved it, and that he was actually surprised at how good it was.”

MARVEL AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D (2013 -, FROM THE MARVEL UNIVERSE) “We exist in The Marvel Universe,” writer and co-creator, Jed Whedon, said of the big-screen-on-the-small-screen behemoth that is Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. “Everything up until this TV show has had hundreds of millions of dollars behind it. We say, ‘How can we pull this off in eight days?’ That is the ongoing struggle: how to fit these giant ideas into the little TV box.” After delivering smash hits on the big screen with films featuring superheroes, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk, comic book powerhouse turned movie studio, Marvel, shifted its attentions to the small screen in 2013. The studio’s TV series, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – which locks in narratively with its big screen movies, and features occasional guest appearances from its cinematic characters – focuses on S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team of agents, and really kicked into gear in the second half of its first season, when it locked into the game-changing plot reversals that formed the crux of its big screen counterpoint, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Charged up with new levels of threat, suspense, and excitement, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (currently heading into its seventh season) is now the show that everyone had hoped that it would be, standing on its own, and not just functioning as an adjunct to its big screen counterparts. “Nothing that happens in this show is in conflict with anything that’s happening in the Marvel movies,” Clark Gregg told FilmInk in 2013. “It’s like different chapters of this giant pop culture novel. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D just happens to be a new chapter that is distinguished by the fact that it’s on television, but I don’t sense that it’s viewed differently by Marvel.”

PUBERTY BLUES (2012-2013) “Growing up as a surfie girl in the seventies meant that you were little more than a life support system to a pair of breasts,” Australian author, Kathy Lette, told FilmInk in 2008 of the semi-autobiographical subject matter of her classic 1979 novel, Puberty Blues. “We were human handbags, draped over the arms of the boys, living vicariously through them. No wonder I’m a feminist!” Set around the then slightly wild and undeveloped beaches of Sydney’s Cronulla in the seventies – an often cruel landscape home to local surfing crews, cheap and nasty drugs, copious booze, scrappily captured moments of teen sex, street prowling “fuck trucks”, and fierce territorialism – Lette’s novel was brought to the screen in 1981 by Bruce Beresford (Don’s Party, The Club), who crafted a straight up, no-bullshit Aussie classic. In 2013, producers, John Edwards and Imogen Banks, made the surprise decision to reconfigure the famous Aussie book and film for the small screen, deepening the story to superb effect. “The series aims to expand the storylines of the book, to take us into the minds of the parents and teachers; and to give us a taste of the politics of the time, and the shifting social attitudes,” Lette told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2012. “And while the film of the book was dipped in disinfectant to secure a PG rating, the series promises to reveal all: board-short rashes, acne, shaggin’ wagons, abortions, and burst condoms included.” Over two seasons, Puberty Blues ingeniously enriched the source material into a wide-canvas look at family, friendship, and the precarious adolescent rites-of-passage in a decidedly more politically incorrect era.

FARGO (2014 -) The Coen Brothers’ 1996 Oscar winner, Fargo, was a labyrinthine, idiosyncratic crime thriller of the first order, brilliantly toplined by Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, a pregnant, inherently decent, and outwardly kooky Minnesota cop battling an unlikely wave of murder and greed in her snow-caked small town. For his 2014 television take on the film, creator, Noah Hawley, took an enjoyably expansive, “mythological” approach to the material, setting his nine-part limited series within the world of the film, rather than merely retelling its story. Hawley’s Fargo is set ten years after the first film, against the same Midwest whiteout background. While the series’ characters share similarities with those of the film (Allison Tolman plays a cop not too dissimilar to Marge), they are different, and while events from the film are discussed and even featured (that famous suitcase of buried ransom money is actually dug up), they serve in the series as mere subplots, rather than driving narrative forces. Fargo’s second season jumped back in time to 1979, and featured younger versions of some of its first season’s characters. The third season, meanwhile, was set in 2010, while the upcoming fourth will take place in 1950. “I like the idea that somewhere out there is a big, leather-bound book that’s the history of true crime in the Midwest,” Noah Hawley told Zap2It of his vision for the larger Fargo universe. “The movie was Chapter 4, Season 1 was Chapter 9, and Season 2 is Chapter 2. You can turn the pages of this book, and you just find this collection of stories. I like the idea that these things are connected somehow, whether it’s linearly or literally or thematically. That’s what we play around with.”

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