Perched between Oscar season and blockbuster season, March is traditionally a quiet time for Hollywood – but at least one film this month has the potential to change the course of cinema as we know it.
This Friday sees the launch of the Veronica Mars movie, a cinematic revival of the Noughties TV drama, a teen noir about a high-school girl turned private investigator in the fictional California town of Neptune. It will be released in UK and US cinemas – and also, in an unusual move, be simultaneously available in the US to buy or rent online. More interesting than its distribution, however, is its financial backing: its entire $5.7m (£3.4m) budget was raised via Kickstarter, making it the first mainstream Hollywood release to be crowd-funded. Not only that, but the project exceeded its original $2m target in a mere 24 hours, which began with writer Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell stating: “ Guys, we really want to do this show again, what do you think?”.
It’s a remarkable renaissance for a series which was cancelled in 2007 after three seasons and which first aired on America’s tiny UPN channel. So what was it about Mars that spurred its fans into action? As a committed “Marshmallow” (as Mars fans are known after a line in the show), and for the uninitiated, let me explain.
The simple answer is, to quote one of its most celebrated lines: “Veronica Mars is smarter than me.” Back in 2004, when Thomas came up with his idea for a show about a teenage female Philip Marlowe, the biggest teen shows were The O.C. and One Tree Hill: glitzy, soapy dramas featuring glamorous teenagers with crazy lives that you could giggle over with friends on a lazy Sunday morning.
By contrast, Veronica Mars chose not to celebrate but to dissect notions of privilege and class; not since S E Hinton’s novel The Outsiders had there been a portrayal of teens so concerned about the difference between the haves and have-nots. Thomas’s setting was a town where the privileged could always buy their way out of trouble, leaving the less fortunate to pay the price. Veronica was the daughter of the former sheriff, a once-popular girl who found herself cast out of the inner circle after her dad, Keith, wrongly accused the richest man in town of murdering his own daughter, Veronica’s best friend Lilly. While many of Veronica’s classmates lived in suburban mansions, Veronica and Keith shared an apartment in a run-down complex where she obsessed over uncovering the truth about Lilly’s death.
Thomas, a well-regarded teen fiction writer who got his start in TV writing on Dawson’s Creek, drew inspiration both from the books of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and those two great and unfairly cancelled teen shows of the late 1990s, Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life. He knew that he wanted to write a show in which the teenagers felt real and were allowed to behave badly; they would deal with big issues – murder, blackmail, revenge – but also be driven by the ordinary rhythms of high-school life.
Meanwhile his heroine, crucially, would be Fury rather than femme fatale. “I wanted to create a character who was so far down that her outlook was ‘there’s nothing anyone can do to me now’,” Thomas told me in 2006, “…who no longer got embarrassed or worried about what others said about her, or fretted over what she was going to wear”.
And so, Veronica was born: a character whose default feature was anger. Like a certain Vampire Slayer before her, Veronica was resourceful and unafraid to kick ass – but, more radically in terms of TV’s gender politics, she was also entirely uninterested in being liked.
In the very first episode, she frankly described being date-raped: she had been through the worst that a US high school could offer and had come out the other side, not unscathed, but prepared to take on anyone and anything. Her default setting was the desire for vengeance, and she was unapologetic about it. “We work pretty diligently to keep Veronica from ever being too huggable,” said Thomas. “She has a rather Old Testament sense of justice.”
Nor was it all about Veronica. As the dead Lilly, a luminous Amanda Seyfried made the most of her brief appearances, while Veronica’s relationship with her father, Keith, was one of the best parent/child pairings on television, a perfect mix of mutual warmth and exasperation.
Then there was would-be nemesis Logan Echolls, Lilly’s ex-boyfriend and, in an inversion of the classic noir trope, an homme rather than a femme fatale. Presented in early episodes as the worst kind of rich kid, he was subsequently revealed to be as driven by grief and rage as Veronica. (He also snaffled some great exchanges with her: “What’s your poison?” “Emotionally unavailable women” and the like.)
Yet, despite a near-perfect first season, Veronica Mars struggled to find a wide enough audience to satisfy television executives. By the third season, under pressure to boost ratings, Thomas tweaked the format to be more episodic, with the focus on light-hearted “cases-of-the-week” rather than a season-long narrative arc. The consensus among fans was that it was a mistake, and the show ended.
In the normal run of things that would have been that and Veronica Mars would have become a fond memory. What saved it was that it had always been ahead of its time – and not just in terms of what happened on-screen
It’s easy to forget that Veronica Mars aired in an era less dominated by social media. Its first year, 2004, was also the year that Mark Zuckerberg unleashed Facebook on the world. Yet from the beginning Thomas was willing to engage with the show’s fervent fan base, talking to them on the website televisionwithoutpity.com, listening to their desires and concerns and occasionally implementing them in the show’s plots. The relationship between Veronica and Duncan, Lilly’s brother, for example, played out sooner than initially planned once it became clear that fans preferred Veronica with Logan.
When Veronica Mars was yanked from the air those fans kept talking. There were countless Veronica Mars fan fictions, sites dedicated to its possible return and, later, Tumblrs collecting the show’s best quotes and moments. For Thomas and Bell, who had also never stopping loving Veronica, the show’s internet afterlife gave hope – that maybe there was still a chance to end the story in the way they’d wanted. As Bell remarked recently: “When you get that much amount of love from a fan base you would be an asshole if you didn’t give it back.”
The film picks up the action nine years on and finds the former sleuth living in New York – only to return home to Neptune when Logan is accused of murder. But what of the greater danger of returning to the scene of past glories? Can Veronica Mars, the movie, hope to be as good as the TV show?
Based on the clever trailer and the recently released two-minute opening clip, I’d tentatively say “yes”. All the correct ingredients – sharp one liners, simmering class-based discontent, a compelling murder to solve, Veronica looking both furious and sardonically amused – are present. Of course, my response is coloured by my desperately wanting this to be a success. To paraphrase the show’s theme song, by the Dandy Warhols, a long time ago Veronica Mars and I used to be friends. Next weekend I’ll find out if we still are.
‘Veronica Mars’ opens in selected cinemas on Friday
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Veronica Mars is out on digital download today and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD later in the year.