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What do Casablanca, Private Benjamin, Planet of the Apes, Shaft, The Third Man, and The King and I have in common? When these popular movies were transformed into television series, they all failed miserably.
This is the age of endless cinematic sequels-from Rocky III and Star Trek II to James Bond XI. But for years, television has been going the sequel mill one better by reincarnating hit movies as all kinds of small-screen fare.
The list of adaptations ranges from such comedies as M*A*S*H, Going My Way, and The Odd Couple to dramas and adventure series like King's Row, Dr. Kildare, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Fame. In 1982 new spinoffs from the movies included9 to 5, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and The New Odd Couple. And this past spring, yet another TV version of Casablanca came and went as three-week series.
No Knack For Knockoffs
Although few of these stepchildren succeed, the ones that do, such as M*A*S*H and the original Odd Couple, usually inspire the network executives to new heights of imitation. Karl Tiedemann, a former writer on NBC's Late Night With David Letterman, says, "The thinking runs that if a movie is a hit, a TV series with the same elements will also be a hit."
"Hollywood is a town of memory and insecurity," adds Josh Greenfeld, the screenwriter of Harry and Tonto, a successful movie that was considered for a TV pilot. "You get a head start and a pilot deal more easily because producers have a better idea of what they're going to get."
But hit movies rarely make waves in the TV ratings. "There are different requirements on television," notes Stefan Kanfer, senior editor and media watcher at Time magazine. Good characterization can be more crucial in a TV show than in a theatrical film.
"The Odd Couple is basically a one-joke idea," says Tiedemann. "So was Barefoot in the Park [which premiered at the same time]. Barefoot was likable but had thin and superficial characterizations. They were not very interesting. But in the TV version of The Odd Couple, certain aspects of the film characters were well developed. Felix became a person who always wanted to help and who always went one step too far and regretted it. It was great character comedy."
Cashing in on M*A *S*H
Characterization was also the key to the long-running M*A*S*H series, which began life as a novel and then in 1970 became an unexpectedly successful Robert Altman film starring Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland. When M*A*S*H came to CBS in 1972, it seemed an unlikely vehicle for television: a black comedy about the wild goings-on in an army medical unit during the Korean War.' In fact, it almost' didn't survive its first season.
"What made M*A*S*Hultimately work for television," says Bill McLaughlin, creative director for the cable TV comedy show Videosyncracies, "was that it got away from the wackiness of the movie and eventually settled into a show about relationships. The movie was not all that personal. It was more a situation movie. As the television program grew, so did the characters. We cared about them."
And now M*A*S*H will have an afterlife, in more ways than one. The original series has been syndicated and will therefore live on in rerun heaven. The sequel, AfterMASH, is scheduled to debut sometime this fall.
Another military comedy, Private Benjamin, took a different approach. The movie on which it was based starred Goldie Hawn and followed a young woman's growth in boot camp from spoiled child to responsible adult. As in the M*A *S*H TV series, the central character evolved in the course of the story. In the television version, however, such change was problematic. "We can't resolve the conflict like the movie did," said Benjamin star Lorna Patterson in 1981. "As soon as Judy Benjamin matures as a woman and a human being, the series is over."
But without that character development, there was little to interest viewers. “It was just another wacky sitcom with flat characters," recalls McLaughlin. Not surprisingly, Private Benjamin lasted only about a year and a half.
Not Always a Great Notion
Going beyond the original concept does not always work either, as Michael Rennie found out in his 1959 TV series, The Third Man. Adapted from the 1949 film, which starred Orson Welles as mystery man Harry Lime, the TV show filled in the blanks and turned Lime (played by Rennie) into a suave financial speculator and amateur sleuth. There was little that made the series stand out from other crime shows, and it lacked the atmosphere and suspense of the famous movie. The series died quickly.
Altering the concept can also, paradoxically, strengthen the point of the original story. For example, 9 to 5, based on a Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin-Dolly Parton movie that broadly caricatured male-chauvinist and feminist attitudes, was softened for television.
"I wanted more warmth," Jane Fonda, one of the producers of the series, told TV Guide. "The boss, for example, was too much of a buffoon, a straw man for the secretaries. We redesigned the role . . . to make him a worthier human opponent for them, less a chauvinist cartoon .... The series 9 to 5 is less pointed than the film, and a heavy-duty feminist series we’re not and never will be. We're not going to do an issue a week-it has to be very subtle or it's boring. And boring shows don't last."
Monkeying with the Movie
When it debuted in 1974, Planet of the Apes seemed likely to succeed on television. Based on a popular film and its sequels-which CBS had recently broadcast to tremendous ratings-the TV series starred Roddy McDowell in a re-creation of his movie role. Nevertheless, it ended up among the lowestrated programs of the season.
"Planet of the Apes didn't have a strong premise," says Time's Kanfer. "In the original movie, there was a good idea for the ending: the ape-ruled planet turned out to be Earth. But once you found that out, all you could do was watch the costumes."
Apparently, the presence of a star from the movie makes little difference to audiences. Shaft, a series based on three black exploitation adventure movies, featured Richard Roundtree in the same title role he had created on the big screen. But the leather-jacketed, foul-mouthed, violent sleuth was sanitized so much for TV that there was hardly any resemblance between that character and his cinematic namesake.
Yul Brynner, another movie star, made the jump to television as the popular Siamese monarch he had played in The King and I, a stage and screen success. The series, Anna and the King, was a flop, despite the actor's
"Brynner performed as regally as he had in the film," says Jim Sirmans, a spokesman for CBS. "The fault was probably not with him." Adds Kanfer, "When a movie star goes into a TV series, the public perceives it as a step down for him, indicating that he can't get film parts anymore. And that can be a mark against the series."
But the public's memory of the original star does not always hurt a replacement. "There's a danger, in doing a part originated by someone else," admits Linda Lavin, star of the popular Alice (based on the 1975 movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore). "But I was very moved by its personal and human qualities. I like Alice."
"Ellen Burstyn won an Academy Award for Alice' Doesn't Live Here Anymore," says Sirmans. "Yet now everyone thinks of Linda Lavin as Alice. That's what TV will do. Viewers see the performers every single week so there's that constant exposure, which reinforces audience identification. I'm not saying it's good or bad. It’s just the way TV is.”
"A successful adaptation depends on whose hands you have working on it," he continues. “It always begins with the writer, the actor, and the director. Can you imagine M*A*S*H in less talented hands than Larry Gelbart's? Or having a less experienced cast than Alan AIda and the rest?"
Den of Thieves
But television is also a highly imitative medium, and what it doesn't adapt, it often copies outright. "If television executives detect a trend, they will steal," remarks Greenfeld. "Happy Days obviously derives from American Graffiti, Tales of the Gold Monkey from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why buy the movie for TV when you can imitate it? You know, larceny is the cheapest form of flattery."
In the future, however, the television industry might not have as many opportunities to create new series based on movies. "I don't think M*A *S*H would have gotten on the air today," comments Greenfeld. "The movie companies would have made M*A*S*H II. They feel they're better off turning one'successful movie into another successful movie." And judging from the track record, they may be right.
DIVERSION AUGUST 1983