From Silver Screen to Small

Books into film has been a long, overdone, nobody’s fully on one side, debate. “Imagination beats 3D” vs. “You get so much more out of it” arguments going round and round with every “based on” statement said. How about we shake that up?

The latest craze for American television is series based on classic cult Hollywood movies, and it’s spreading into British. The latest of these is Bates Motel: a look into the background and psychology of Norman Bates, the star of Hitchcock’s masterpiece horror Psycho. When the film is closing and we discover the murderer was Norman in his mother’s clothes, often talking to “his mum” who is decaying in an upstairs room. This definitely has potential for more interesting material, but is the TV the way to do it?

Aside from Bates Motel, there is also Hannibal, based on the books of Tom Harris and made famous by Anthony Hopkins’ chilling performance as “Hannibal the cannibal” and Sleepy Hollow, the story of a Headless Horseman who terrorized Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci told in modern Manhattan (predictably).

So there’s definitely a lot to get into, but is it enough?

There’s a reason I spend more time in front of the big screen rather than the small: there’s no urge to grab the remote in the cinema, unless truly nothing is happening. There’s just too much that needs to be said in a limited amount of time, so a pee-break is dangerous to your understanding of the story.

Rumour has it, so many aspiring screenwriters get knocked back by Hollywood producers so often that their back-up plan becomes TV studios, so suddenly a budding film writer has to stretch an hour and a half, maybe two hours, worth of material into at least six, 45 minute long episodes. And if they don’t go for that they’re screwed, unless they want to run it by radio?

But does it make for a good series?

Well, Bates Motel started with a bang, or to be more technical, a rape/murder scene. That was 30 minutes or so into the first episode and after that nothing else happened. The look into Norman’s mind we were all promised comes in painstakingly small doses to the point that even at the end of the series he’s just established as a boy with bad mummy issues.

Hannibal however impressed more by being the ultimate murderer hunted by his fast declining therapy patient, not fully revealed until the end of the series when Will Graham’s mind is warped so much that no one believes him. Before that, Hannibal himself is basically forgotten. What keep you watching are the horrific crimes going on around him: bodies buried to farm magic mushrooms (still alive!), guts harvested to make bow strings etc. It’s just enough for the voice yelling “What’s that got to do with Hannibal?” to forgive.

The problem these TV shows will have in the long run is just that: looking into the future. More often than not, these new shows are prequels to their films, so will the Bates Motel series end with the death of Norman’s mother or will it simply be another plotline ending as Psycho starts. Plus, in between, how many yawns and channel-hops are we going to have to endure before these climaxes make an appearance. Just how far will the studio attempt to stretch an interesting premise? To the point that it’s stretched so thin that it tears in the middle with the cancellation of the show? Cancellation being another risk producers take with TV series.

Hannibal is making sure not to allow a dull moment, but to do that they are straying away from the premise, Hannibal himself, his only contribution to the first few episodes being his impressive gourmet cooking skills.

The reason shows like Game of Thrones and Lost succeed is due to the many characters dealing with many problems – there is no one obvious favourite. To have a series surrounding one person is dull. You’d get sick of seeing them quickly. So they compensate for this by introducing unheard of characters, which would be fine except we never saw them in the movies so we’re not as attached, which always amounts to “not the least bit interested”. It’s why we like Norman’s mother’s part in the series but not his new half-brother (who I predict will die in the next series) and why we like Will Graham but not his bosses story.

Sleepy Hollow appears to be clutching at straws as it is. The premise of Sleepy Hollow as its original short story is a town terrorized by a Headless Horseman. Past one thrilling episode of horror, and maybe one of catching him, what more story is there? Not enough to fill a TV screen.

And presuming the series finale will be the capturing of said Headless Horseman, how will they spin it without making it look like an episode of Scooby Doo?

The reason Sleepy Hollow has been kept a periodic story until now, is to keep the mystery alive: there’s no technical explanation of who/what is the Headless Horseman and we don’t need one. Forensics and fingerprints aren’t going to find a ghost and so they shouldn’t. Whereas, to have him wandering down Times Square demands an explanation. Without the mystery, the series should last two episodes without boring you to death.

Another problem with TV based on classic films is shock factor: there is none. As with any prequel, if you’re a fan of the original film that brought you to this show, as you’re likely to be, you already have a feel for how things are going to happen, can guess what will happen and will be waiting excitedly, knowing full well what will happen, most importantly, in the series finale. Hannibal’s first series ended with the “shocking” discovery that Hannibal Lecter was a murderer. No! Really?

And of course if you weren’t a fan of the films before you’re still out of luck. They’re all based on cult classics: films you don’t have to see to know every detail.

So is it possible to make a good TV series based on a film? I wouldn’t say so. A good slab of buttery concept is being spread too thinly over many slices of bread. Had Bates Motel planned for one series and taken it from there, they might have had something.


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