Movies: Reclaiming the Vast Wasteland

Made-from-TV movies aren't always cinematic eyesores.


In an age of corporate downsizing and diminished expectations, it somehow seems appropriate for the big screen to turn to the small screen for inspiration. That happened in a huge way this past summer, as three of the season's most-anticipated movies, Maverick, The Flintstones, and Wyatt Earp, reprised old TV shows. Two other films, Lassie and The Little Rascals, were inspired by TV series that were themselves inspired by movies, and the late-summer entry It's Pat! grew out of a skit on Saturday Night Live. These pictures join other recent releases such as Dennis the Menace, The Fugitive, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Coneheads, The Naked Gun 331/3, Addams Family Values, and Wayne's World II in what has emerged as the number-one growth trend in Hollywood: movies based on TV material.

The wave of made-from-TV movies isn't going to crash any time soon. In fact, it's swelling into a cinematic tsunami that big-time Hollywood players are rushing to surf. Renny Harlin, the director of Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2, is producing an American Gladiators-based film and Penny Marshall, who herself rose to stardom on the tube's Laverne & Shirley, is working on a big-screen Bewitched. Steve Martin is set to remake Phil Silvers's Sgt. Bilko and Tom Cruise will undertake Mission: Impossible. Home Alone auteur John Hughes is tackling a post-Schindler's List Hogan's Heroes and writer Larry McMurtry, whose films include The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment, is penning a script for a new Father Knows Best.

A partial list of other TV-based projects under development includes The Brady Bunch; F Troop; Gentle Ben; Gilligan's Island; Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.; Hawaii Five-O; Lost in Space; My Favorite Martian; and The Rifleman.

What are we to make of this sudden indebtedness to TV? Some critics view it as the final moral and artistic bankruptcy of a movie industry whose stupendous lack of imagination is matched only by its gargantuan appetite for big bucks. Time's Richard Corliss, for instance, derides the phenomenon as "Naked Trend 4" and sneers that the TV-based movies "give Hollywood what it wants most: a solid, safe return on its investment." Concludes Corliss, "The lemming rush to televidiocy reveals a movie industry close to creative exhaustion."

On a superficial level, the anti-TV critique hits the bull's-eye and blows away the whole target with the same shot. Moviemaking is, after all, a moneymaking enterprise, and TV-based films have a built-in recognition factor that minimizes investment risk. In fact, Brian D. Johnson of Maclean's quotes The Flintstones's director, Brian Levant, precisely to this effect: "We're in a big money business," says Levant. "If you can find something with a presold audience, then you have a better chance of realizing a profit." And, as the number of projects in development indicates, Hollywood moguls are actively picking at TV's corpus with Jeffrey Dahmer-like intensity. While such behavior may not constitute cannibalism per se, the idea of viewing a big-screen Gentle Ben or Brady Bunch movie in Dolby Stereo SR is only a slightly less gruesome possibility.

In a more fundamental way, however, the contempt for what Time's Corliss dismisses out of hand as "tele-visions" misrepresents the motion-picture industry, ignores its basic creative mechanism, and precludes a nuanced discussion of the growing list of films based on TV shows. Yes, last year's big-screen version of Car 54, Where Are You? was as terrible a movie as Hollywood puts out (I'm sure any of the 50 or so paying customers who saw it in its original theatrical release will back me up on this), but it was no worse than any number of non-TV-related flicks, either (Malice, The Pelican Brief, anyone?). To categorically sniff at TV-based movies is, ironically, to indulge in the same sort of snobbery that theater buffs once directed at film.

When critics stress the profit-motive angle, they indict the entire entertainment industry, not merely a current trend. They also haul out by implication the moldy argument that popular success necessarily comes at the cost of artistic integrity, a formula Hollywood refutes as often as it embraces. Long before the current slew of TV-inspired films, studio heads wanted to do two things: make movies and make money—not necessarily in that order. Hollywood has always been dedicated to the proposition that artists need not starve. Hence, producers are always looking for a product with a presold audience. That's why the rights to bestsellers get snapped up and why bankable stars get big money.

In any case, a TV-based movie, name recognition notwithstanding, is no more a sure smash than a Chevy Chase film is a sure bomb (actually, the odds are much, much longer on the former). Last year's Coneheads and Car 54 were certifiable flops and The Beverly Hillbillies, although based on one of the most popular series of all times (both in prime-time and reruns), did only mediocre business. The demand for nostalgia, it seems, is extremely elastic and depends less on the product's track record than its present performance.

If impugning TV-based movies as especially sullied by greed is myopic, then excoriating them as a sign of Hollywood's creative exhaustion borders on total blindness. Throughout its history, film has always been a hugely plagiaristic art form, exhibiting a longstanding penchant for appropriating materials from other genres. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Most movies—whether good or bad, popular or not—are based on something else.

Novels have probably been the most fertile source, but stage dramas and musicals have of course inspired countless films. Film makers also utilize non-fiction sources (All the President's Men), short stories (2001: A Space Odyssey), and even pop songs (Alice's Restaurant) occasionally, as the parenthetical examples illustrate, with excellent results. If anything, movies made from wholly original screenplays may be a distinct minority.

Since the movie industry is always borrowing anyway, it is worth puzzling over the contempt for TV in particular. A large part of the answer lies in the fact that the boob tube continues to be seen as, well, the boob tube—a younger, dumber cousin to film. Despite the occasional Marty or Requiem for a Heavyweight, the big screen has more often served as source material for the small, as with shows such as The Odd Couple, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and M*A*S*H. It is telling that the annual broadcast of the Academy Awards ceremony is almost always nominated for a number of special-event Emmys. TV itself defers to the movies.

So, in terms of relative prestige, TV was and still is generally viewed (albeit less harshly) as a vast wasteland to which has-been or never-were movie stars are banished. Ronald Reagan's career was hardly going gangbusters when he moseyed onto Death Valley Days. The same could be said of Candice Bergen and Burt Reynolds, who restarted stalled careers via sitcoms.

The film industry's recent use of TV shows, then, is a reversal of the traditional hierarchy of big and small screens, a turnabout which no doubt bothers film mavens. For the cinema to turn to TV for ideas is an aesthetic double-cross, akin to finding out that the camera angles in Citizen Kane were stolen from comic books.

Beyond selectively seizing on economics and overlooking the motion-picture industry's relentless use of other media, the peremptory dismissal of TV-based movies shrugs off an even more elemental truth regarding any film adaptation, whether the source is TV or Tolstoy: The quality of a movie's source is ultimately unrelated to how it turns out on the screen.

In 1987, for instance, Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities was a huge critical and commercial success as a novel. For the much-ballyhooed movie version, Hollywood packed the production with hot stars of the moment (Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis) and a hot director (Brian DePalma, flush with success from his remake of TV's The Untouchables). The final result was a neutron bomb of a movie that cleared the theaters of people and the studio of its top management. But if an outstanding original source can give rise to an utterly failed movie, it's also true that mediocre material sometimes culminates in great cinema. Casablanca was based on a thoroughly forgettable play titled Everybody Comes to Rick's.

This same kind of tenuous connection between source and movie holds true for TV-based films. The real question to ask of the TV-based movies is the one that should be asked of any cinematic adaptation: Are they any good as movies? The short answer is the same as it is for any other sort of movie source. Some of them are; most of them aren't.

Not surprisingly, the most successful TV-based movies are more than mere reruns playing out on the big screen. As with novels and plays, the results are best when TV shows are actively made new for the big screen by updating and revising characters, plots, and themes. This is readily apparent when looking at two recent TV-based movies that were both commercially successful and well-received by critics (even Corliss concedes they are "good"). While it seems unlikely that either The Fugitive or Addams Family Values is destined for classic status, both movies showcase how TV-based movies can succeed fully as motion pictures.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the big-screen Fugitive is the way it took a picaresque source (the Fugitive series lasted four years) and reshaped it into a tightly knit plot that is fully resolved in two hours. The one-armed man's murder of Dr. Richard Kimble's wife structured the TV show by giving the falsely accused Kimble license to wander the country and have various adventures while simultaneously evading police and searching for his wife's killer. The episodic nature of the series dictated that Kimble never actually resolve his situation; the pleasure of viewing was tied to seeing how, week after week, events conspired to keep that from happening.

For the film version to succeed, however, the opposite held true: If the action is not resolved by the movie's end, the viewer feels cheated. The movie achieved its closure by inventing an evil pharmaceutical cabal that is responsible for the plot's catalyst—the murder of Kimble's wife—and is brought to justice in the final reel. (In the TV show, the murder is ultimately found out to be a random act of violence, committed during a burglary.)

Similarly, The Fugitive's main characters are remade for the big screen. Since the movie compresses events, Harrison Ford's Kimble is by turns flustered, disoriented, and rage-filled. Since the experience of being chased is new to the filmic Kimble, there is a greater sense of urgency and terror. In the TV show's two-part finale, by contrast, David Janssen's Kimble, understandably worn out by four years of false leads, false hopes, and false endings, is almost devoid of any affect.

And, in place of Barry Morse's brooding, relentless police lieutenant who becomes personally consumed by his search for Kimble, Tommy Lee Jones's U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard is a by-the-book tactician who values detached procedure over all else (a comforting thought in a post-Rodney King world). The spectacular train-wreck and waterfall sequences exploit film's panoramic potential to its fullest.

For its part, Addams Family Values remains true to the perverse spirit of both its TV and cartoon predecessors while putting a very contemporary, very wicked spin on the 1992 Republican national convention theme. Just-married Fester's gold-digging bride cuts off all contact with the family, the better to carry out her plan to kill him for his inheritance. But it turns out that the Addamses are so close-knit a clan that the bad relations manifest themselves in a peculiar condition afflicting Morticia and Gomez's newborn son Pubert. The baby's jet-black hair suddenly turns into curly blond locks, and his pallid complexion is replaced by rosy cheeks. If a reconciliation is not quick in coming, the child will be condemned to go through life looking like an All-American boy.

While that sort of comic inversion of normal expectations was central to the series' humor, it takes on an added dimension in our contemporary world where norms can no longer be taken for granted. Underlying the movie is the truth that the Addamses cherish the institution of the family above all else. (When asked if his newborn is a boy or a girl, Gomez proudly blurts out, "It's an Addams!".) But what remains unclear is whether they value the family in spite of their oddness or because of their oddness. The same sense of indeterminate irony extends to the relentlessly deadpan cast, particularly Raul Julia as Gomez, Anjelica Huston as Morticia, and Christopher Lloyd as Fester. It is difficult to know whether something is a straight line or a punch line (more than the movie's title, it seems, recalls the Republican convention).

The movie also manages to simultaneously participate in and lampoon political correctness in a hilarious summer-camp pageant sequence in which Wednesday and Pugsly, dressed as Indians, attack campers dressed as Pilgrims. Like The Fugitive, Values is shot with the big screen in mind, featuring a richly textured, cavernous mansion setting and a climax in which Pubert is slung about the house—and the Earth's atmosphere—with a reckless abandon that would have been lost on the small screen.

Both movies, in other words, succeed because they have been extensively refashioned with the big screen and a new audience in mind. While there's little doubt that any number of painfully insipid, unwatchable TV-inspired flicks are yet to come, it is worth remembering that the tube is merely one source among many. Far from being a sign of creative exhaustion, the embrace of TV may provide film makers with the basis of some very entertaining movies.