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How television tuned into classic movies

TV series based on 1990s films have become voguish, but known properties excite great expectations in fans. Chris Evans talks to creators about the pitfalls and possibilities of revisiting old stories

Who would have thought the 1990s would be back in vogue so soon? More and more 1990s films are getting a revival on the small screen, but while some, such as Fargo and Reality Bites, have been met with general nods of approval thanks to their strong characters and settings ripe for TV transfer, others have been greeted with concern or even disdain.

Terry Gilliam, director of the original Twelve Monkeys film, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, openly said that making a TV series of his 1995 time-travelling film was a “very dumb idea”, and that “no one has contacted me”. The culprits are US cable network Syfy, who have commissioned a pilot, written by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, best known for their work on the series Terra Nova.

“I certainly understand why he [Gilliam] is concerned about an adaptation, and quite frankly it's a fear that we share,” Mark Stern, president of original programming at Syfy, concedes. “When you attempt to adapt something that is one of the classics of our genre, you need to be careful how you approach it – but we are very confident in the script, which will expand the Twelve Monkeys world and characters.”

According to Stern, the same main characters (played by Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe in the movie) will feature in the series, and they'll travel back in time to find the cause of a virus that destroys most of the planet. But there will be additional characters that flesh out the world, add conflict to the love interest between the two main characters, and add mystery to what they're uncovering.

Syfy are working with Charles Roven, who co-produced the original film, to put together the project. “We have immense respect for the original film, and the challenge, as with any adaptation, is doing it justice – respecting the source material, but finding a new way in and taking a different direction, and that is what we've done,” says Stern. They're currently looking for a cast, shooting locations and a director – but one thing's for sure: it won't be Terry Gilliam.

By contrast, the Coen brothers have happily attached themselves as executive producers to the TV series adaptation of their Oscar-winning film Fargo. The 1996 movie starred Frances McDormand as a determined, pregnant police chief on the trail of two bumbling criminals. The 10-part TV series for US channel FX will involve brand new characters and a different scenario, but will still be entrenched in the trademark humour, murder and “Minnesota nice” of the original film.

“For years, people have tried to adapt this Academy Award-winning gem into a TV series with no success,” says John Landgraf, general manager and president of FX. “I have always loved Fargo and I was sceptical about this as a series; but Noah Hawley's script made me a believer.”

Billy Bob Thornton has already secured the lead role as Lorne Malvo, described as “a rootless, manipulative man who meets a small-town insurance salesman and sets him on a path of destruction”. Thornton previously collaborated with the Coen brothers on Intolerable Cruelty and The Man Who Wasn't There.

“You can see how Fargo would work as a TV series,” says Robert Mitchell, a film and TV analyst. “The characters and setting are so rich that you can really imagine a Fargo world. But something like Twelve Monkeys [and to a lesser extent 1995 contagion drama Outbreak, which is being redone for TV by NBC] is pretty limited in scope. The film's story and virus conclusion mean that the series can only really go so far.”

The same problem could potentially arise with another 1990s adaptation, Hannibal, which has so far proven successful on US channel NBC. The series stars Mads Mikkelsen as a pre-prison Hannibal Lecter, with Hugh Dancy as criminal profiler Will Graham. The difficulty lies in how long they can stretch out the relationship between the two before Graham, or any of the other characters, suspect that Lecter is the one they're after. At which point, they reach the movie franchise.

Meanwhile, the concern for Fox with their new television version of the mystery thriller Sleepy Hollow (1999) could be matching up to the original film's director, Tim Burton, and lead actor, Johnny Depp, who played Ichabod Crane, the teacher who attempts to track down the Headless Horseman. This time, the lead has been given to Parade's End actor Tom Mison.

“This is always going to be a problem for the networks and cable channels creating series based on films starring big names like Depp, Willis and Pitt, because it might seem like a second-class knock-off of the real thing,” says Tim Westcott, principal analyst, TV programming intelligence and editor of Screen Digest.

The advantage of TV adaptations is that characters, as well as settings and stories, can be stretched in different directions over a longer period of time than films – and if the series is good enough, then the audience will usually happily follow the character's adventures, and forget who played the role in the original film.

“The key is that you have to take the franchise and make it wholly your own,” says Carlton Cues, writer of the current popular TV series Psycho, based on the original 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film, but set in the present day. “The best ones are where the series creators aren't looking over their shoulders at the legacy of the movie, but take the idea, run with it and make it their own. A good example is what Joss Whedon did with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series [based on the 1992 film].”

That tactic is also employed by the creators of Sleepy Hollow. “It is inspired by the original, but set in the modern day and more of a crime procedural, which fits nicely with what we do at Universal. There'll be the same darkness with the headless horseman appearing at night – but also a lightness of touch, particularly in the dialogue between Ichabod and the local town sheriff Abbie,” says Anna Morgan, UK press manager at NBCUniversal.

Another NBC Nineties adaptation set to explore the original main characters in greater depth is Reality Bites. The difference is that Ben Stiller, who starred in and directed the original 1994 comedy, will be on board as executive producer.

The plan is to make it a single camera show revolving around the character of Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder in the film), a college graduate struggling to make her way romantically and professionally in the recession-plagued, pre-internet early 1990s, and living with slacker friends. The interesting irony is that at the time of the film's release, Reality Bites suffered a little from the stigma of being labelled a “Generation X” film – but now that the Nineties are all the rage, that will be a strong selling point.

It could also be argued that the rise in popularity of these character-led 1990s TV adaptations is a direct reaction to the growing number of studio blockbusters invading our cinema screens, which are more concerned about spectacle. Films such as Reality Bites, Fargo and Sleepy Hollow are rarely made anymore, and interestingly a lot of the film talent involved in those kinds of films have actually migrated to television as well.

The result is that the television landscape is proving hugely popular, but somewhat overcrowded. There are hundreds of pilots made each year that fail to become TV series, and so it is increasingly difficult and important to stand out. The advantage with making adaptations of great 1990s movies is that the audience will already be familiar with the story and characters, and therefore more likely to dip into it. Plus, having big names such as the Coen brothers and Ben Stiller attached will also help.

But on the flipside, as Mark Stern at Syfy concedes, with adaptations there's an expectation that is hard to satisfy. “It could be perceived as something derivative or a pale imitation if you don't do it right. It has to be additive or innovative, and expand on the original world. The great thing is that you've potentially got at least 13 hours (13 episodes) to do this.”

'Sleepy Hollow' is running on Universal Channel in the UK