How to Turn a Great Movie Into a Great TV Show

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.

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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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