I urge everyone moaning about film-to-TV adaptations to remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There are numerous routes to television - through radio, books and film. Is the upcoming adaptation of the Coen brothers' excellent "Fargo" something we need to be worried about?

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

Scream for me - the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, still the film-to-TV gold standard.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era