Smaller screen, lesser results?
For decades, television producers have been turning to the big screen for ideas, but for every rare success like M*A*S*H, there seem to be dozens of short-lived failures. Yet a few recent TV newcomers—including FX's Fargo, which wraps its strong first season next week—have bucked this trend by demonstrating that TV shows made from feature films need not be dumbed-down in their writing nor stripped-down in their production values. Next week also brings a Syfy newcomer, Dominion, that will attempt to take a mediocre (at best) film, Legion, and turn it into decent television.
Which TV shows have been the most critically successful film adaptations, and which have failed mightily? Below are all live-action TV programs based on feature films that have debuted in the U.S. since 1985, ranked from best-reviewed to worst-reviewed according to each show's first-season Metascore.
The best ...
1. The Returned 92 (Sundance, 2013–)
Based on the film Les Revenants (2004)
While French zombie film Les Revenants (They Came Back) is an obscurity in the United States (where it never officially reached theaters), its superior TV series adaptation has been a critical sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. The atmospheric and mysterious French-language series, airing with subtitles in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel (where it was the highest scoring new series last year), offers a fresh take on the "zombie" genre: While the dead do seem to come back to life in The Returned, they do so as normal-seeming humans (there's no brain eating here) who are just as confused about returning as the townsfolk who welcome them back. That "fresh take," however, is threatening to become a bit stale. Not only does ABC now have a virtually identical, though inferior, show (Resurrection, returning for a second season next year), but A&E is also producing an English-language adaptation of The Returned (starring Jeremy Sisto, Kevin Alejandro, Sophie Lowe, and Mark Pellegrino) for next season. After a few production delays, the original French series is also expected to return for a second season in 2015.
It seemed unlikely that a television series—and one with an all-new cast and a new writer—could capture the quirky but menacing tone of one of the Coen brothers' most beloved films, but Noah Hawley's FX series appears to have done just that. While Fargo the series borrows slightly more than just the Minnesota setting from the 1996 Oscar-nominated feature, much of the storylines, details, and characters are new, while staying true to the original's spirit. Strong performances from a top-notch cast (including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and relative newcomer Allison Tolman) help make this one of the year's best new shows so far and a strong Emmy contender, while a second season (should there be one) would feature new characters in the same general setting.
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer 80 (WB/UPN, 1997-2003)
Based on the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
|Watch (Hulu+)||Watch / +Q|
How could a lackluster horror satire about a vampire-hunting cheerleader turn into a TV classic beloved by millions? By staying true to the vision of its auteur, Joss Whedon. While Whedon is the credited writer of the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which starred Kristy Swanson as the title character and featured a young Hilary Swank in her first film role), the final product deviated significantly from Whedon's intentions (hint: he wanted something darker and scarier). But, given a second chance—with complete creative control—on the small screen, Whedon turned Buffy into an unlikely hit that ran for seven seasons and spawned a spin-off (Angel).
4. Friday Night Lights 78 (NBC/DirecTV, 2006-11)
Based on the film Friday Night Lights (2004)
Though Peter Berg directed the film adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's nonfiction high school football book Friday Night Lights, he jettisoned pretty much everything—including the location and characters—from the film when adapting FNL to the small screen. Only the small-town Texas setting and emphasis on high school football survived, though the series was able to move beyond the football field to focus more deeply on the lives of the inhabitants of the fictionalized town of Dillon. The result was one of TV's most critically acclaimed dramas of the past decade, though one watched by so few people that it took a last-minute save by DirecTV to prevent cancellation after season 2. While there was talk in recent years of completing the circle by moving this version of Friday Night Lights back to the big screen with a feature film, those plans appear to be dead at the moment.
5. Parenthood 78 (NBC, 1990-91)
Based on the film Parenthood (1989)
No, it's not the Parenthood you're thinking of, though that one is good too. NBC has actually adapted Ron Howard's 1989 theatrical feature twice, with the first attempt arriving on the small screen a year after the movie debuted. The 1990 version of Parenthood—one of a glut of film-to-TV adaptations that season—was a half-hour comedy starring Ed Begley Jr. and Remote Control host Ken Ober. Despite fairly strong reviews, Parenthood lasted all of 11 episodes before cancellation. (A 12th episode aired at a later date.) It would be a forgettable footnote in TV history were it not for a few quirks: the series featured the first big role for a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio (as well as some of the earliest starring roles for Thora Birch and David Arquette), while also providing some of a young Joss Whedon's first writing credits (after Roseanne).
6. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 74 (ABC, 2013–)
Based on the film Marvel's The Avengers (2012)
We don't mean to keep mentioning Joss Whedon; it's just that his resumé happens to be filled with film-to-TV adaptations. It wouldn't really be fair, however, to call first-year drama Agents of SHIELD an adaptation of any one film. Instead, it is a small-screen expansion of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, sharing continuity with all of the recent Marvel films (but especially Whedon's own Avengers, where the death of Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson triggered some of the TV show's ongoing storylines). Nor does it exactly seem fair to call Agents of SHIELD a 74-worthy show; declining ratings over the first season suggested some discontentment among fans, while critics also noted a decline in quality. Still, SHIELD will return for a second season, and this certainly won't be the last you'll see of Marvel on the small screen. Not only does ABC have a companion series, Agent Carter, arriving in January, but Netflix will stream at least four new Marvel series in the coming years, starting with Daredevil next season.
7. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles 74 (Fox, 2008-09)
Based on the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
This spin-off from the (somehow still ongoing) Terminator sci-fi film franchise picked up after the events of the second film, though it actually aired on television just before the release of film #4, Terminator Salvation. While the series retained the film characters of Sarah and John Connor, they were played on TV by Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker, respectively. (Coincidentally, the role of Sarah Connor will be played by Headey's Game of Thrones co-star Emilia Clarke in next year's Terminator: Genesis). And, while the series lacked the Arnold factor, there was a new benevolent Terminator aiding the two Connors, played by Serenity's Summer Glau. Critics liked Glau and, to a slightly lesser extent, the series itself (finding it to be smarter than expected, if a bit draggy at times), but viewership fell considerably during the second season, and the show was canceled after 31 episodes.
8. Traffic: The Miniseries 74 (USA, 2004)
Based on the film Traffic (2000)
Though only loosely connected to its two predecessors—both Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-winning 2000 film and its antecedent, the 1989 British miniseries Traffik (which is available to watch on Hulu)—this six-hour USA miniseries shares with them the general concept of using a series of semi-interlocking characters and plots to portray the effects of illegal trafficking on a variety of people involved at each stage. But rather than focus exclusively on drugs, this mainly Seattle-set Traffic expands the scope to include weapons and human trafficking as well, while embracing a fast-paced style reminiscent of Fox's 24 (with whom this miniseries shares a director). Some critics actually found USA's version preferable to the movie (while others noted that season 2 of The Wire did a far superior job with similar subject matter), though half-formed plans to turn Traffic into an ongoing cable franchise never came to fruition.
9. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles 72 (ABC, 1992-93)
Based on the film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Take the hit Raiders of the Lost Ark film trilogy, put it on the small screen under the guidance of George Lucas, and you have ratings gold. That was certainly the thinking of ABC back in the early 1990s, but that isn't quite what happened with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which followed the adventures of Indy as a young child (played by Corey Carrier) and as a teenager/young man (Sean Patrick Flanery). Instead, despite a mostly positive response from critics—and even some Emmy awards—the show lasted for just two partial seasons, with a third later airing on cable as a succession of TV movies, and with many filmed episodes never airing at all in North America. The reason for its failure might have something to do with Lucas's desire to have Chronicles be more educational than exciting. (It's still better than Crystal Skull, which was neither.) Note that the series (including some new footage, plus those unaired episodes) was later—and rather severely—re-edited into 22 feature-length "chapters" without the original introductions from 93-year-old Indy (George Hall), under the title The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones. It is these films that are available on home video, not the original episodes.
In an era (i.e., now) when the broadcast networks wouldn't dream of airing a drama series with an all-African-American cast, it fell to Showtime—then a distant also-ran to HBO—to take a chance on such a groundbreaking show. The result was at the time Showtime's best-ever drama series to date, and one that quickly developed an enthusiastic (if small) following. Based on George Tillman, Jr.'s semi-autobiographical movie of the same name about growing up in the Midwest, the dramedy Soul Food eventually ran for five seasons and 74 episodes, earning a strong response from critics even if it was mostly ignored by Emmy voters. In recent years, there has been some talk about reviving the show on another network, but it doesn't seem likely to happen.
... and the rest ...
|TV Show||Based on the movie ...|
|11||68 Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show (Syn, 1997-2000)||Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)|
|12||68 La Femme Nikita (USA, 1997-2001)||La Femme Nikita (1991)|
|13||67 10 Things I Hate About You (ABC Family, 2009-10)||10 Things I Hate About You (1999)|
|14||66 Bates Motel (A&E, 2013-)||Psycho (1960)|
|15||66 Nikita (CW, 2010-13)||La Femme Nikita (1991)|
|16||64 Barbershop (Showtime, 2005)||Barbershop (2002)|
|17||64 Dangerous Minds (ABC, 1996-97)||Dangerous Minds (1995)|
|18||63 Baby Boom (NBC, 1988-89)||Baby Boom (1987)|
|19||62 From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series (El Rey, 2014-)||From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)|
|20||61 Parenthood  (NBC, 2010-)||Parenthood (1989)|
|21||61 Stargate Universe (Syfy, 2009-11)||Stargate (1994)|
|22||61 Teen Wolf (MTV, 2011-)||Teen Wolf (1985)|
|MTV's ongoing Teen Wolf is the only show on this list to take a bad movie (Metascore = 25) and turn it into positively reviewed television.|
|23||60 Fast Times (CBS, 1986)||Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)|
|24||60 The Net (USA, 1998-99)||The Net (1995)|
|25||60 The Outsiders (Fox, 1990)||The Outsiders (1983)|
|26||59 RoboCop: The Series (Syndication, 1994)||RoboCop (1987)|
|27||56 Catfish: The TV Show (MTV, 2012-)||Catfish (2010)|
|28||54 Clueless (ABC/UPN, 1996-99)||Clueless (1995)|
|29||53 Alien Nation (Fox, 1989-90)||Alien Nation (1988)|
|30||53 Stargate Atlantis (Syfy, 2004-09)||Stargate (1994)|
|31||53 The Big Easy (USA, 1996-97)||The Big Easy (1987)|
|32||52 The Firm (NBC, 2012)||The Firm (1993)|
|33||51 The Client (CBS, 1995-96)||The Client (1994)|
|34||50 Eastwick (ABC, 2009-10)||The Witches of Eastwick (1987)|
|35||49 Blade: The Series (Spike, 2006)||Blade (1998)|
|36||48 Party Girl (Fox, 1996)||Party Girl (1995)|
|37||48 Stargate SG-1 (Showtime, Syfy, 1997-2007)||Stargate (1994)|
|38||48 Tremors: The Series (Syfy, 2003)||Tremors (1990)|
|39||47 The Magnificent Seven (CBS, 1998-2000)||The Magnificent Seven (1960)|
|40||46 Are We There Yet? (TBS, 2010-12)||Are We There Yet? (2005)|
|41||46 Outsourced (NBC, 2010-11)||Outsourced (2007)|
|42||45 Stir Crazy (CBS, 1985-86)||Stir Crazy (1980)|
|43||45 Total Recall 2070 (Showtime, 1999)||Total Recall (1990)|
|44||44 Anger Management (FX, 2012-)||Anger Management (2003)|
|45||42 Crash (Starz, 2008)||Crash (2005)|
|46||42 In the Heat of the Night (NBC/CBS, 1988-94)||In the Heat of the Night (1967)|
|47||42 Weird Science (USA, 1994-98)||Weird Science (1985)|
|48||40 My Big Fat Greek Life (CBS, 2003)||My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)|
|49||39 Ferris Bueller (NBC, 1990-91)||Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)|
|50||35 Working Girl (NBC, 1990)||Working Girl (1988)|
|51||34 A League of Their Own (CBS, 1993)||A League of Their Own (1992)|
|52||34 Bagdad Café (CBS, 1990-91)||Bagdad Café (1988)|
|53||34 Starman (ABC, 1986-87)||Starman (1984)|
|54||32 Baby Talk (ABC, 1991-92)||Look Who's Talking (1989)|
|55||29 Nothing in Common (NBC, 1987)||Nothing in Common (1986)|
|56||29 Timecop (ABC, 1997-98)||Timecop (1994)|
|57||28 Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Fox, 1987)||Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)|
|One of the nascent Fox Network's very first shows, Down & Out suffered the biggest Metascore drop from big screen (82) to TV series (28) among all shows on this list: a difference of 54 points.|
|58||28 Gung Ho (ABC, 1986-87)||Gung Ho (1986)|
|59||27 Dirty Dancing (CBS, 1988-89)||Dirty Dancing (1987)|
... and the very worst
60. Uncle Buck 22 (CBS, 1990-91)
Based on the film Uncle Buck (1989)
John Hughes' 1989 film comedy Uncle Buck is probably the movie most closely associated with John Candy, so it's hard to imagine a TV version sans Candy being very good. But the CBS version of Uncle Buck wasn't just not very good; it managed to be offensive, vulgar, and distasteful while simultaneously boring nearly every critic who watched it. Series star Kevin Meaney came off as more mean-spirited than Candy, and the show was canceled after one forgettable season (though CBS didn't help matters by shifting the series to Friday nights midway through the year).
Note that a few more shows did not have enough reviews to enable us to calculate a Metascore. These include:
- BeastMaster (syndicated, 1999-2002)
- Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures (Fox, 1992)
- The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (syndicated, 1998-99)
- Freddy's Nightmares (syndicated, 1988-90)
- Friday the 13th: The Series (syndicated, 1987-90)
- F/X: The Series (syndicated, 1996-98)
- Harry and the Hendersons (syndicated, 1991-93)
- Highlander: The Series (syndicated, 1992-98)
- Police Academy: The Series (syndicated, 1997-98)
- Tyler Perry's For Better or Worse (TBS/OWN, 2011–)
- Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns (TBS, 2009-2011)