Radio 4’s tagline is still “the home of radio comedy”. Besides the old faithfuls (I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Just a Minute, The News Quiz), a different strand of programmes has emerged in the past 20 years by making the leap on to our small screens. The list is impressive – Goodness Gracious Me, often remembered for its superlative three series on television, began life on Radio 4; Dead Ringers had a 48-episode run over five years on BBC2; Little Britain and the Mitchell and Webb show both had their big breaks on radio. Even Radio 1 gave us a Chris Morris vehicle, Blue Jam (it became just Jam when it moved to Channel 4 for one magnificent season in 2000).
So, radio is one tried and tested formula for getting on the telly. Books are another. Many of our best-loved television detectives started life on the page, from Sherlock Holmes and Cadfael to Miss Marple and Mma Ramotswe. More recently the richly detailed worlds of HBO’s Game of Thrones were pulled from the pages of George R R Martin’s fantasy books, and Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards inspired the second of two TV series more than two decades apart.
As television becomes more ambitious, more sweeping and just plain more, we’ve discovered a rich “new” source of ideas, too: in the movies. This summer, the Coen brothers announced that they will adapt their 1996 movie Fargo for television, starring Billy Bob Thornton. This autumn NBC will show the new series About a Boy, based on the 2002 film with Hugh Grant (based on Nick Hornby’s novel). The show’s producer is Jason Katims, who has form in this genre – he was head writer and executive producer on the spectacular Friday Night Lights (originally a book) and on Parenthood (great but underrated in the UK), both previously films. So we know it can be done, that it has been done. The important question is: how can it be done well? Execution is what separates the good from the execrable. For every Parenthood, there’s a Dirty Dancing. Yes, really.
It’s fair to assume that the Fargo adaptation is in pretty safe hands, given that the Coens will be executive producers (the film won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress, which went to Frances McDormand). They also have a reliable workhorse in Billy Bob Thornton, starring as an approximation of the Steve Buscemi character. Most importantly, although the TV show is based on the big-screen version and its snowy universe, it will not be a continuation of the film. Nostalgia is an entryway to the new show but it can’t be expected to fuel the series. Just ask Nia Vardalos, who adapted her runaway hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding for CBS in 2003 (it lasted seven episodes).
MTV’s surprisingly good Teen Wolf (created by Jeff Davis and now in its third season) took the basic idea of the 1985 movie – the werewolf condition as a metaphor for puberty – and expanded it. On the small screen there’s a greater focus on the wolf mythology (rather than having a genetically inherited problem, Scott McCall, the hapless teen, gets bitten) and added peril, higher stakes, more drama. A change in tone also worked for Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman. The lesson is to recast and rewrite as necessary, the key being to make TV audiences care, and for longer. Twelve hours over 12 weeks allows for exploration of character and story. The joy of television is its long-form nature. It is utterly different from 90 minutes in a dark cinema.
The queen of all film-to-TV adaptations is, of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It seems I can’t write a column without mentioning it, but that’s only because it’s so good. The creator of the show, Joss Whedon, took the core element of the limp 1992 film (“teenage girl fights hell’s baddest beasts”) and, together with his team of writers, fleshed it out over seven seasons. They built entire mythologies for the show and painted themselves into – and then worked themselves out of – very tight corners every season. The result is taut, confident storytelling.
I urge everyone moaning about film-to-TV adaptations to remember Buffy. It’s as clear a “how to” as anything ever written on the subject, and still the gold standard.
Hunter Davies’s column “The Fan” returns next week