When TV hits the big screen…to film or not to film?

The trend of continuing a popular television series as a feature film is by no means a new phenomenon in the entertainment industry. After all, the bizarrely successful “Batman” series of the 1960’s spawned its own equally bizarre 1966 movie starring the legendary Adam West. Nevertheless, there does seem to be an increasing move to transplant beloved shows onto the big screen. At a time when studios are looking to maximize profits by slavishly adhering to brand names (see the relentless onslaught of terrible sequels and remakes flooding the multiplex — who exactly was clamoring for a fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie?), it appears to be a financially sound decision to rely on the established popularity of a long-running series. As a result, numerous showrunners, some more foolishly optimistic than others, have recently announced plans to revive their old shows.

To name just a few, the creators of “Entourage,” “24,” “Arrested Development,” and “Friday Night Lights” have all expressed interest in expanding their series to a feature-length format. These promises, however, have left me with feelings of dread rather than hopeful anticipation. Past forays into this conversion process have repeatedly proven that there can be too much of a good thing. While I do agree that the creative minds behind a television series need to adapt their storytelling approach to fit the demands of a two-hour film, such modifications have more often than not been a detriment to the quality of these movies. Consequently, the resultant films only serve to tarnish the reputations of shows that had strived for hours to win over viewers.

Here are two shows that for different reasons have produced lackluster results on the big screen and serve as a warning for showrunners who are currently in danger of running their successful series into the ground.

The movie versions of the wildly popular HBO series “Sex and the City” veered off track. (Courtesy of www.firstshowing.net)

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, two new shows would come to define HBO as the home of quality cable programming, free to air without the scheduling and creative restrictions imposed by the broadcast networks. One was “The Sopranos,” the brilliant New Jersey mafia saga that quickly became a critical and commercial success. The other was “Sex and the City.” Yes, some might scoff at the comparatively frothy “Sex and the City” being mentioned in the same context as the dramatic powerhouse of “The Sopranos,” but the former show managed a careful balancing act over its six-season run. Deftly flowing between moments of absurdist comedy (a politico suitor, played by a pre-“Mad Men” John Slattery, revealing a secret urine fetish) and touching drama (Carrie walking the single Miranda down the aisle at her mother’s funeral), “Sex and the City” beautifully juxtaposed the wild tumult of dating in a modern city with the ladies’ steadfast bonds of friendship.

I will concede that “Sex and the City” did have some minor flaws. At times, the show could be overly materialistic and frivolous; the dating frustrations of four well-off women can only carry so much gravity. Rather than addressing these flaws, which the first movie largely succeeded in accomplishing (hello Jennifer Hudson!), “Sex and the City 2” took the opposite approach and indulged them. Filmed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the second movie’s primary storyline about the ladies taking a lavish vacation to Abu Dhabi bordered on insulting.

It’s true that the original series also reveled in the allure of an opulent lifestyle (pairs of Manolos aren’t exactly cheap), but it never displaced the emotional dilemmas of its main characters, and if you really wanted a brutally realistic show in the first place, you should have been watching “The Wire.” In “Sex and the City 2,” the hardships that the women are forced to overcome are basically reduced to dealing with the boredom of married life (after only 2 years!), and in the case of Samantha, trying to have sex in the socially conservative society of Abu Dhabi. What was presumably designed as a light escape in actuality became a self-indulgent, occasionally xenophobic, and utterly unnecessary undertaking.

Whereas the second “Sex and the City” movie maligned the reputation of the original series through sheer awfulness, “Serenity,” the film continuation of the underappreciated space opera “Firefly,” drastically changed the show’s tone to fit the requisites of the big screen. During its one season on Fox, “Firefly” distinguished itself as a straddler of genres, a sci-fi western with the sly sense of humor characteristic of its creator Joss Whedon. Even though “Firefly” boasted sharp writing and a fantastic ensemble cast led by Nathan Fillion as a spaceship captain in the vein of Han Solo, the series ultimately proved to be too outlandish for a mainstream audience (see the recent box office failure of the similarly themed “Cowboys & Aliens”) and was swiftly cancelled after a mere twelve episodes. “Firefly” ended its brief run in 2002, but Whedon gave despairing fans new hope when he announced that a film version would be released in 2005.

“Serenity” is by no means the critical debacle that “Sex and the City 2” represented; in fact, it’s quite entertaining. My main complaint is that Whedon, whether of his own volition or under pressure from studio executives, decided to alter several elements that had made the television series so compelling. In comparison to the frequently lighthearted “Firefly,” the humor in “Serenity” often takes a backseat to the exigencies of the action, a likely product of the studio’s attempt to market a typical space adventure film. Moreover, the roles of several supporting cast members are severely diminished, most noticeably Ron Glass’s Book and Alan Tudyk’s Wash, so that Nathan Fillion could take center stage as the movie’s hero. I totally agree that Fillion has the talent to assume such a role (I’m thrilled to see him working steadily on ABC’s “Castle”) but not when it reduces previously nuanced portrayals to simple stereotypes.

So please, Kiefer Sutherland, reconsider stepping into Jack Bauer’s shoes once again. The show is called “24” for a reason; changing that concept will turn it into just another action movie, and the last time I checked, “The Sentinel” wasn’t added to the National Film Registry. And Mitch Hurwitz, “Arrested Development” worked so well because it explored areas normally considered taboo on a broadcast show (incest, physical handicaps, shamelessly unsympathetic characters, Cornballer injuries).

Is it really worth sterilizing such biting comedy to find a larger audience? Both creators and fans will benefit in the long run by leaving these shows on the small screen where they belong.

Johnny is a senior. You can reach him at jtaesch1@swarthmore.edu.

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