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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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee tells the story of Koreans living in Japan

Throughout the book, spanning nearly a century and four generations, Koreanness is a flickering state.

The multigenerational family saga, spanning decades and often countries, has offered a way of looking at how individuals find themselves situated in relation to history, how they battle it and survive, sometimes even with a measure of triumph. The Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee’s second novel, Pachinko, marries the story of the generations with the immigrant narrative, but with a twist: instead of the now exhausted account of people fetching up in the West to forge a new life amid the travails of assimilation, Lee looks at a little-known history of exile – that of Koreans in Japan in the 20th century.

Lee’s novel begins in 1910, among poor people on the islet of Yeongdo in Busan, in a Korea that has been occupied by Japan. Hoonie, a good, simple, hard-working man with a cleft palate and twisted foot, finds a bride when he meets Yangjin, a destitute farmer’s daughter. Their only child, Sunja, becomes pregnant at 16 after a brief romance with a charismatic and mysterious older man, Hansu – who, we later discover, is a yakuza, a member of Japan’s organised crime network. Hansu is unable to marry Sunja because he already has a wife and family in Japan. A young Christian pastor, Isak, offers to marry her and give the child paternity, but he is bound for Osaka – and here Sunja moves to Japan, as does the novel. Lee’s cast of Korean characters will not be able to return home; nor will they be born on foreign soil.

In Osaka, Isak and Sunja join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and Yoseb’s wife, Kyunghee, in a Korean ghetto called Ikaino. It is here that the outrageous discrimination against ­Korean immigrants begins to mark the narrative, providing the insistent moral/political heart of the book. Theirs is a hardscrabble life: Isak earns a pittance as the minister of the local church, and the family is almost entirely supported by Yoseb’s small income from his job as a foreman and mechanic at a biscuit factory.

Sunja’s first son, Noa, is born, and then her second, with Isak – Mozasu. After the Second World War breaks out, Isak is arrested on the flimsiest of charges during the crackdown on Koreans and disappears for more than two years. When he is released he is a man broken by torture and tuberculosis and he dies shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, much against the wishes of Yoseb, the two women have set up a market stall selling home-made kimchi and sweets and, later, cooking in a restaurant. The hardship gets worse as the war progresses; then Hansu reappears and arranges for the family to be moved to a farm in the country before the Allied bombing of Japanese cities. It emerges that he has kept tabs on the family because he has a vital stake in it: Noa, his son.

After the war, the situation gets worse. Yoseb is severely burned in an accident, but despite their dismal financial situation Sunja refuses to accept help from the powerful and wealthy Hansu. Noa, taking after Isak, turns out to be a gentle, bookish, upright soul, while his brother Mozasu is more carefree, dashing and worldly. By dint of hard work, and overcoming all odds, Noa gets a place to study English literature at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo but the family can’t afford to send him there. Hansu steps in and paves the way, despite Sunja’s misgivings and Yoseb’s opposition.

Mozasu becomes a successful manager and, later, an owner of pachinko parlours (pachinko being the pinball-style gambling machine that gives the book its title), moving from Osaka to Yokohama. Inevitably Noa finds out who Hansu really is, and when he does the sense of shame and disgust that overcomes him has far-reaching consequences.

The self-loathing that is thrust upon Noa becomes a metaphor for Koreans living in Japan – those whom the Japanese call zainichi and look upon as less than human. Noa’s erasure of his Korean identity and transformation into “Nobuo Ban”, his Japanese name, is uneasy at best: “In no way did he see his current life as a rebirth. Noa carried the story of his life as a Korean like a dark, heavy rock within him. Not a day passed when he didn’t fear being discovered.”

It is a sentiment that recurs in the novel, echoed by several characters, with the coherence and heft of a motif. Throughout the book, spanning nearly a century and four generations, Koreanness is a flickering state, in an unstable equilibrium between erasure, first of all; problematic, even impossible assimilation; and, finally, an inchoate assertion. In Solomon, Mozasu’s son, who attends university in the US but chooses to continue his father’s pachinko business over working for an investment bank, the story of those in permanent exile is not returned to, but reclaimed as a broken past.

Lee writes about every character with sympathy, generosity and understanding; in particular, Sunja, the woman who holds the story together, is a wonderful creation. The immensely dignified survivors in this story are the two women at its core, Sunja and Kyunghee: history has bent but not broken them. They have endured. 

Neel Mukherjee’s third novel, “A State of Freedom”, will be published in July by Chatto & Windus

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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