There are times when it feels like modern entertainment is a cycle of remaking the same stories on film and television, alternating back and forth for eternity. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Under the right circumstances, television shows that are based on films can be so good that viewers actually forget the series they’ve been compulsively binging got its start as a movie.
Diehard “Westworld” fans may know their beloved HBO science fiction series was adapted from a 1973 film starring Yul Brynner, but we’re betting the casual viewer is happily unaware of its earlier incarnation. While there are certainly cautionary tales amidst the film-to-TV landscape (the less said about the short-lived “Back to the Future” spinoff, the better), there’s also plenty of TV series that transcend or at least equal their cinematic origins.
“What We Do in the Shadows” (FX)
As fresh and engaging as Taika Waititi’s take on vampires was when he first released the film version of “What We Do in the Shadows,” there’s something about its offbeat sense of humor that seems particularly well-suited for a television series. The film occasionally suffers from the lack of narrative thrust, something that’s rarely an issue on television, which tends to be more character-oriented. The television adaptation of “What We Do in the Shadows,” relocating the vampires to Staten Island and evolving beyond the original film, maintains the charm of a group of immortals forced into an awkward roommate situation while still having the freedom to explore different storylines.
“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (ABC)
“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” is less in competition with the main Indiana Jones franchise as it is a charming canon expansion. If you’re a fan of the famed academic adventurer, there’s always a desire for more content, particularly from periods of Indiana Jones’ life that aren’t covered in the films. “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” is comprised of stories from Indy’s childhood and teen years, as told by an elderly Indiana Jones reminiscing about his past. He goes on a series of adventures with his father, which allows the series to both further develop the relationship between the two and introduce a number of historical figures for the duo to interact with.
“Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” (Netflix)
“Wet Hot American Summer” was a quirky cult hit that no one expected to find the audience and critical acclaim that it has amassed over the years. In the film, they leave the door open for a sequel, as the characters attempt to plan their ten-year reunion. But in the bizarre spirit of the film, when the time came to create a television sequel, they stubbornly rejected the most straightforward premise. Instead, the cast chose to return, significantly older, to play their characters on the very first day of camp. Backstories and unexplored subplots are revealed, but most importantly, the limited series captures the energy of the original film.
The crux of the Hannibal Lecter films has always been the fragile, strangely co-dependent relationship between the serial killer and the criminal psychologist. “Hannibal” takes this to an entirely new level, expanding on the dynamic between Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) to the point that an entire cult following sprouted around the fascinatingly flawed characters. As the line between the two characters becomes blurred, their common traits become more obvious and all the more intriguing.
“Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (Cartoon Network, Netflix, Disney+)
“Star Wars” had more than its fair share of failed television spinoffs, as anyone who has seen the “Star Wars Christmas Special” or “Star Wars: Droids” can attest. But with “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” the franchise seems to have stumbled into something genuinely compelling. An animated series that bridges the gap between “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith,” it adds depth to the characters that we’re already familiar with from the prequel trilogy as well as developing the larger Star Wars canon. If nothing else, it deserves credit for introducing Ahsoka Tano, one of the more interesting Jedi characters the series has given us.
“Friday Night Lights” (NBC)
While “Friday Night Lights” seems like exactly the schmaltzy, heart-rending melodrama that was built specifically for network television, it actually began as a film two years before the television series premiered. “Friday Night Lights” revolves around the coach of a high school football team in small-town Texas where football is everything. He and his players go through dramatic trials both on and off the field, and there’s an earnestness to “Friday Night Lights” that sucks viewers in almost in spite of themselves.
“Fargo” is a fascinating example of the film-to-television adaptation because rather than operating as a spin-off or continuation of the original 1996 film, it allows the source material to serve as an inspiration more than anything else. It takes on the vibe of “Fargo,” and little else. The television show is an anthology series, with each season taking place in a different time period and a new set of characters. They’re all set in the American Midwest and revolve around crime in some capacity, but there’s little other connective tissue save for a unique Coen Brothers energy that pervades the entire series.
“Bates Motel” (AMC)
If mainstream awards shows ever decide to start handing out trophies for casting, they should probably have to give one retroactively to the casting directors of “Bates Motel,” who looked at the kid from “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and decided he was Norman Bates. Freddie Highmore is an inspired choice to play the teen version of the famous killer from Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” alongside an equally impressive Vera Farmiga as his mother. Their dynamic is truly disturbing, as we watch Norman grow from a peculiar youth into the wig-wearing, knife-wielding murderer we know and love.
It’s difficult to find a film and its television adaptation with more acclaim in their own mediums. The film “M*A*S*H” was directed by Robert Altman and ended up nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay. By all accounts, the dark comedy about a group of medical personnel in the Korean War was both a critical success and an audience favorite. But its television spinoff, if anything, became more popular. The TV show “M*A*S*H” ran for eleven years and when it finally ended, its finale episode garnered a total audience of 121.6 million viewers, remaining the most-watched episode of television to this day.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (WB, CW)
What’s so impressive about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is that its creator Joss Whedon was able to take the kernel of an idea from an otherwise average 90s teen vampire movie and capture what made it unique. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” focused on the simple but effective concept of a teenage girl who, upon walking into a classic horror film situation, would be able to turn the tables on the monsters and take care of herself. Over the seven years “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was on the air, it used the lens of a genre show to present one of the more inspiring depictions of young womanhood we’ve seen on television.