'State of Play': When an American Remake of a British Hit Fails

This is the third installment in our series on American adaptations of British television. Read the first two installments: "'Being Human': Syfy Remakes a British Hit" and "'Prime Suspect': Can Maria Bello Live Up to Helen Mirren?"


Universal Pictures

When American studios remake British television hits, they're often aiming for a fairly direct translation of a proven concept. Whether they're trying to capitalize on the momentum of a still-running show like Being Human by removing the accents and picking a North American location, or revitalizing a story that's ended—as NBC is doing with its remake of British procedural Prime Suspect, which combines the bureaucratic politics of The Wire with the salacious thrills of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—the remakes hope that the replicas will have the same appeal as the originals.

But occasionally, they'll aim higher, convinced they can improve on the original, or at least produce something new entirely. Such was the 2009 attempt to turn State of Play—a 2003 six-hour BBC miniseries about a team of journalists investigating the murders of a young black man and a political researcher who was having an affair with her employer—into a two-hour star vehicle for Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck. But the ambitious remake fell short: Where the original was innovative and often wrenching, the adaptation was a contrived failure.

Some of the trouble with the remake was in the casting. In the original, actor David Morrissey, who plays member of Parliament Stephen Collins, is six years older than John Simm, who plays Cal McCaffrey, a journalist who once worked as his campaign manager. Yet despite the age difference, they are plausible contemporaries. By contrast, Crowe, who plays Cal, is eight years older than Affleck, who steps into the Collins role--and the difference looks even bigger than the number would suggest. This matters, because Cal and Collins are supposed to be college roommates. There's trouble with the other actors as well: Jason Bateman doesn't have the sickly immorality Marc Warren brings to the pivotal role of a murdered woman's friend. And however much swagger she's capable of, Helen Mirren seems rather wan for once, stepping into Bill Nighy's shoes as the editor of the paper.

Mirren fails, though, because of a larger problem with the movie: It doesn't understand what the mini-series was actually about and what makes it great. In the movie's interpretation, the story is a simple murder mystery, with Cal's role indistinguishable from that of a principled but troubled detective. Rachel McAdams as Della, a chipper blogger assigned to the case, is meant to provide some veneer of debate over the changing mores of journalism, but she capitulates to Cal's investigative impulses so quickly that declarations like "She's hungry, she's cheap, and she churns up copy every hour," don't land anything close to a punch.

The miniseries, by contrast, is an examination of how power works, with journalism as the primary field on which those struggles play out. The father of the dead young woman punishes the man who had an affair with her by alerting the press when he visits their home, forcing him to walk through a scrum of photographers on his way out the door and recording their conversation. A young reporter (a stellar James McAvoy before his rise to international stardom) finally earns his editor father's good opinion by proving essential to the story he is overseeing. The owners of the paper where the reporters work pressure the editor not to run a story that might harm the company's business interests. The press secretary who represents the politician remonstrates his charge with the gap between his public and private personas, telling him he can't imagine having "the arrogance to represent a constituency." Nighy's posturing has pop where Mirren's doesn't because the pressures on him are actually substantive and considerable, and the stakes build over the six hours we spend in the characters' company.

Ultimately, the miniseries is a shaggy dog story. The murders are the events that bring all the characters together, but it's the process of finding the culprits that's important, not the ultimate revelation of their identity. The conflicts among the five reporters who work on the stories provide a range of perspectives on the actual practice of journalism rather than the less-relevant question of where the stories eventually land, in print or online. The off-hand revelations that McAvoy's mother and Nighy's wife is terminally ill, or that two of the female reporters on the story had an affair are unnecessary to the story, but they provide a rich portrait of a newsroom, and of contemporary London. Those small details, and a longer subplot about an affair between two of the other characters, are among the major cuts the movie makes as it edits down the material from 350 minutes to 127, but those deletions remove the essential character of the material.

There's something to be said for efficiency, of course. A six-hour miniseries lies in an awkward place between a one-off movie and the sustained reward of a long-running television show: more people are likely to give the former shot than the latter. But sometimes it's the ephemera, the mini-bottles in the journalist's cupboard, a joke about an old lover's toothbrush put to use repolishing a pair of green shoes, rather than the essentials that are important. But as the miscasting of Crowe and Affleck proves—and the much better casting in remakes like Being Human proves—you've got to get the essentials right, too.