How to Turn a Great Movie Into a Great TV Show

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Will The Firm and Napoleon Dynamite be the next M*A*S*H, or the next Clueless?

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NBC


Much has been written about why TV remakes are a bad idea and the mixed performance of films based on TV series (Sex and the City: alright; Sex and the City: 2: not so much)—not to mention the endless frustrations on the path to get them made (Arrested Development, anyone?). But what about TV shows based on films?

Two new series premiere this week based on well-known flicks. The Firm revisits young lawyer Mitch McDeere 10 years after the events in John Grisham's book, which was originally published in 1991. In the novel, which was turned into hit 1993 movie starring Tom Cruise, McDeere becomes a whistle-blower for the FBI, ratting out his firm on their corrupt dealings. Now, McDeere is portrayed by the affable journeyman actor Josh Lucas, and finds himself encountering a dangerous situation eerily similar to the one a decade before. The Firm premiered last Sunday, and airs its first episode in its regular time slot Thursday night on NBC.

Also set for a debut this week is an animated adaptation of Napoleon Dynamite, based on 2004's droll, zeitgeisty MTV film about a listless teen outcast with an affinity for wry facial expressions and deadpanned catchphrases ("What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?" "Whatever I feel like I wanna do. Gosh!"). Several members of the film's cast and creative team are back for the cartoon reincarnation—which premieres Sunday, Jan. 15 on Fox—including director Jared Hess and lead Jon Heder as Napoleon.

Does either of these new series have a shot at success? Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to capitalize on a film's big-screen popularity with a TV adaptation, and the television graveyard is overrun with the failed tries (My Big Fat Greek Family, Ferris Bueller, and Serpico comprise the entryway to a massive cemetery). It's obviously rare for a TV show based on a movie to become a hit. (Have I mentioned the three misfired attempts to turn Animal House into a series, or two botched tries at it with Casablanca?) But it has happened. In fact, three particular film-to-TV adaptations aren't just successful, they're arguably iconic: M*A*S*H, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Friday Night Lights.

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What did these successful shows have in common? For starters, each wisely involved the film's creative talent in the TV adaptation. Joss Whedon is considered one of modern television's most inventive, creative auteurs after creating the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, based on the campy 1992 film that he also wrote. He penned some of Buffy's most iconic episodes, including "Hush," "The Body," and the musical "Once More With Feeling." Similarly, Peter Berg, who co-wrote and directed the Friday Night Lights film, was instrumental in shepherding it to it's heralded five season run—even earning an Emmy nod for his direction of the pilot. M*A*S*H the TV series hewed close to the universe created in the film, going so far as to follow the same characters depicted in the book and movie and even use the film's theme song "Suicide is Painless" as its iconic title credits.

By that metric, The Firm and Napoleon Dynamite are on the right track. John Grisham himself is among The Firm's executive producers, while, as mentioned before, much of Dynamite's creative team is on board for the animated series. That's key, as echoing the tone created by and recreated the universe depicted in the original film was paramount to the success of the benchmark trio of film-to-TV adaptations.

But the more important reason why that trio of TV series resonated when others did not is that, when they premiered, they were unlike anything else on television at the time. M*A*S*H tackled the dark humor of war in a way no other series had, all while bringing to the mainstream one of the most honest depictions of wartime's tragic realities—ushering what's become the popular "dramedy" genre. Buffy's unprecedented melding of camp, horror, action, comedy, and heartbreaking teenage drama set it in a class of its own when it premiered, while Friday Night Lights' commitment to quiet subtlety and the honest depiction of the human condition put it in a league of its own.

As to the future success of The Firm, there's already a verdict: It's a flop. Its debut on Sunday ranks as the lowest-rated drama premiere in NBC's history, though reviewers were cautiously optimistic that the series could evolve into a captivating thriller. The problem, however, is that in the two decades since The Firm first hit theaters, legal thrillers have become par for the course on TV, with L.A. Law, The Practice, Damages, and The Good Wife all filling that role. Any interest that was piqued by having Grisham's story back on screen (which, judging by the ratings, wasn't even that high) was likely thwarted by a collective eyeroll: Really? Another lawyer drama? It lacks crucial originality.

Napoleon Dynamite is similarly at risk of getting lost in the shuffle. Fox's Sunday night animation block is not only storied, but ever-growing. The sarcastic, ironic humor that defines Dynamite can already be found in a host of other hit cartoons airing on the network, not limited to The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, Bob's Burgers, and Allen Gregory. Finding a distinct voice among a glut of animated gems will be a challenge for Napoleon Dynamite, even if it boasts a recognizable brand name.

Now more than ever, originality is key on TV. It's no coincidence that, just as Buffy and company caught on for their uniqueness, this season's breakout TV series count their distinctiveness as their prescriptions for success. In Zooey Deschanel's Jess, New Girl has a lead whose neuroses and quirks make her different from any other character on TV right now. Two Broke Girls features a Lucy and Ethel/Laverne and Shirley dynamic among its two lead characters that's been missing from television for decades. And suffice it to say that Game of Thrones and The Killing are peerless in their genres.The splashy new dramas that flopped—The Playboy Club and Pan Am among them—can blame their failure on copycat syndrome. Mad Men already exists. Viewers don't need, nor apparently, want, another one.

So while it may still be slightly premature to deem The Firm and Napoleon Dynamite doomed, their eventual demise seems likely. Even if a show is based on an existing entity, like a film, it still needs to bring something new and exciting to the TV landscape in order to succeed.

AMC's rumored adaptation of Goodfellas: You're on notice.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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