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

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game