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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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