A couple of days back, our own Judy Berman posted a wonderful essay called “In Defense of Turning TV Shows into Movies.” Give it a look, if you haven’t; it’s a reasoned, thoughtful, and persuasive piece. There’s only one problem: The Smurfs.
Yep, the 3-D CGI film adaptation of the inexplicably popular 1980s cartoon show hits theaters tomorrow, and every bit of information, every still, every trailer, and every promotional move (the movie’s website is smurfhappens.com — GET IT?!?!) has given us an unsettling, nauseous feeling, as though The Smurfs might be not only the worst movie ever made, but the worst thing ever made, our single lowest achievement as a species.
Okay, we might be overreacting. (But only slightly.) In fact, if The Smurfs merely turns out to be the worst movie adaptation of a TV show, that’s still a mighty tough competition. Though there have been occasional exceptions (The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Firefly), the boob tube has seldom proven a starting point for fine cinema. After the jump we’ll take a look at the ten worst TV-to-movie adaptations — and trust us, it was a hard list to narrow down:
Okay, in all fairness, Transformers isn’t technically based on a TV show — per the credits, it is (and we quote) “Based on Hasbro’s Transformers™ Action Figures.” But it was Gen X’s fond nostalgia for the half-hour commercial for those toys disguised as an afternoon cartoon series that prompted Michael Bay’s 2007 film — a thuddingly serious, bloated, overlong (it’s endless at two and a half hours), loud, obnoxious headache. Its basic problem is one of tone: it’s an utterly ridiculous story about cars that turn into giant robots and blow things up, but the entire enterprise in invested with a tone that is only slightly less somber than that of United 93. There are occasional scenes of “comic relief,” but they’re quickly overtaken by the picture’s relentless jingoism and laughable robot-on-robot dialogue (including Hawksian exchanges like “IT’S JUST YOU AND ME NOW, MEGATRON!”, which prompts the retort, “THEN IT’S JUST ME, PRIME!”). It made an estimated gagillion dollars, of course, so it was followed by two sequels so relentlessly, punishingly terrible that people have come to refer to the “original” (if such a word is appropriate) as “the good one.” Neat trick.
Let it be said: The idea of putting Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell into a big-screen version of Bewitched was not a terrible idea. What was a terrible idea was putting Nora Ephron (who somehow parlayed one good screenplay — When Harry Met Sally — into a full career in Hollywood without ever being responsible for another good film) in charge of it, and allowing her to foist an inexplicable meta-movie construct onto it. The film actually concerns a “retooled” TV remake of Bewitched, in which the prima donna Darren (Ferrell) is a washed-up movie star who insists on an unknown (Kidman) for Samantha — and she turns out to be an actual witch. On second thought, maybe that concept could’ve worked, had the movie been funny. But it’s not. There are about four laughs in the entire film, and they are all thanks to the performers and not the atrocious dialogue they’ve been given — and any film with a cast that includes Will Ferrell, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Jason Schwartzman, Kristin Chenoweth, and Amy Sedaris that can only deliver four laughs is a sad, sad film indeed.
FIRST EXECUTIVE: “So what the hell do we do? Everybody’s tired of terrible film adaptations of TV shows, but we already bought the film rights to The Honeymooners.” SECOND EXECUTIVE: “The Honeymooners? The Johnny Gleason show?” FIRST EXECUTIVE: “Jackie.” SECOND EXECUTIVE: “Whatever. Why the hell did we do that? That entire series was a personality piece! Without Johnny—“ FIRST EXECUTIVE: “Jackie.” SECOND EXECUTIVE: “Right, Gleason, there’s no point to that show at all.” FIRST EXECUTIVE: “Well, be that as it may, we paid for it, so we gotta make it. Can we get Kevin James?” SECOND EXECUTIVE: “No, he’s making some shitty Adam Sandler movie.” FIRST EXECUTIVE: “So how do we make this thing fresh?” SECOND EXECUTIVE: “Wait! I got it! Let’s do it with an all-black cast!” FIRST EXECUTIVE: “Hey, that’s an idea! Maybe hire some black writers and a black director, really reimagine it into something new?” SECOND EXECUTIVE: “Whoa, there, partner, slow down. Let’s not go crazy. We’ll get the white guys who wrote Big Momma’s House and The Nutty Professor and the white guy who directed Like Mike. That’s close enough.” FIRST EXECUTIVE: “Gotcha. What he hell was I thinking?” SECOND EXECUTIVE: “Lunch?” FIRST EXECUTIVE: “I’m buyin’!”
You may have seen John Wayne as Genghis Kahn, you may have seen Richard Gere as Sir Lancelot, but you have not seen miscast until you’ve seen Matt LeBlanc as an action hero. LeBlanc leads a cast apparently chosen by throwing darts and a wall of movie posters (Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, and Lacey Chabert co-star) in this adaptation of the 1960s television series, in which the primary danger to Will Robinson was the inane dialogue of Akiva Goldman (the Oscar winning — no, seriously — scribe behind Batman & Robin and I, Robot). Witlessly assembled by director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2), with special effects of sub-SEGA Genesis quality, Lost in Space had a short reign as the worst TV adaptation of the 1990s, until…
It looked like a sure-fire box office smash: Will Smith, whose Independence Day and Men in Black had racked up record grosses over the 1996 and 1997 Fourth of July weekends, reteamed with his MiB director Barry Sonnenfeld, with Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh in supporting roles and Salma Hayek providing eye candy. The source material was the popular 1965 hybrid of Western and spy series, but by the time the six (!) credited screenwriters got through with it, Wild Wild West was a nightmare of shifting tones, misplaced special effects, and precious few laughs. Warner Brothers promoted the hell out of it, and Big Willie did his customary promotional hit single, but the buzz was toxic: though it opened on Smith’s lucky Fourth of July weekend, it barely did half of MiB’s opening numbers and fell off steeply after that.
A couple of years back, when all of the buzz started gathering around the Marvel All-Stars movie The Avengers, we wondered, for a brief moment, if there would be some confusion, since there was already a 1960s television show and 1998 movie called The Avengers. And then we laughed at that notion, because nobody actually saw the 1998 movie, and its reputation was so bad as to all but eradicate the memory of the television show from modern popular culture. Again, on paper, it sounded like a can’t-miss: Ralph Fiennes as John Steed? Uma Thurman as Emma Peel? Sean Connery pulling villain duty? Where do we sign up? Alas, The Avengers proved a late-summer bomb, thanks mostly to its brutal reviews (“With pseudo-suave repartee that would make Austin Powers blush and with so many shades of Howard the Duck that one scene depicts man-size pastel teddy bears sitting around a conference table, it’s a film to gall fans of the old television series and perplex anyone else,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times — and that was one of the nicer ones); neither screenwriter Don MacPherson nor director Jeremiah S. Chechik ever made another theatrical film.
Brad Siberling’s 2009 would-be summer blockbuster has a slapdash, tossed-together quality, frequently incomplete and hurried, as if scenes were re-written on the spot and tossed out by the handful in post. It’s not hard to guess why: the suits they took a known quantity (in this case, the cult ’70s TV series), threw in a big-star (Will Ferrell), set a summer release date, and pushed to make that date. As a result, Land of the Lost feels like what it is: a filmed deal. There are incongruities all over it: There’s a strangely chintzy, back-lot quality to the sets and especially the costumes — the lizard people and monkey people look like they stepped out of a shabby Corman picture. At first, it plays as a deliberate homage to the low-budget look of the original series, but then the dinosaurs show up, and they’re all as sleek and CG-enhanced as a Jurassic sequel. The humor — most of it seemingly, and sometimes desperately, improvised by Ferrell and co-star Danny McBride — mixes uneasily with the family-friendly elements. Too schlocky and too adult-minded in its humor for the family audience, but too dumb in its broad strokes for grown-ups, Land of the Lost wound up playing to neither; it tanked badly in its theatrical release, not even grossing half of its $100 million production budget.
Bill Cosby has no one to blame for this milquetoast film version of his wonderful 1970s cartoon but himself. He co-wrote the screenplay, which reeks with the worst elements of his failed projects: it is preachy, simplistic, and hopelessly out-of-touch. Like Bewitched, the picture jettisons straight adaptation in an attempt to create something clever and “inside” — a young girl cries over her troubles while watching Fat Albert, her tear falls on the remote, and a portal opens up (this is apparently the first time someone has cried while watching television), and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids enter the “real world” to help her. Okay, the phrase “real world” might be overselling it a touch; this is Cosby’s real world, an idealized back-lot inner city where everyone’s friends (except for an irritatingly uninteresting villain) and where a non-drinking birthday block party (with the hippity-hop music, above) is the hot ticket for the coolest kids in school. Of course, none of that would matter if Fat Albert had any of the humor or tenderness of the original show, but it comes up astonishingly short there; though Kenan Thompson is a credible Albert and the closing scene (of Cosby himself and the real guys who inspired the characters) is rather touching, Fat Albert is a dry slog of a movie that will annoy the show’s fans and bore everyone else.
Television critics were not kind to the 1979-1985 CBS television series, but they were positively charitable compared to the film critics who took in Jay Chandrasekhar’s 2005 film version, with Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott as the Duke boys and Jessica Simpson (remember her?) as Daisy Dukes-wearing Daisy Duke. “There’s a stink coming off the big-screen Dukes of Hazzard that even fans of the TV series won’t be able to shake out of their nostrils,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers. “The story is negligible, the humour is juvenile, and most of the cast are far less entertaining than their TV counterparts,” added The Guardian’s Steve Rose. Of co-star Burt Reynolds, Roger Ebert asked, “I wonder if there were moments when Reynolds reflected that, karma-wise, this movie was the second half of what Smokey and the Bandit was the first half of.” And then there’s the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, who put it “in stiff competition for the lamest thing ever put on celluloid” and added, “Instead of releasing this film in theaters, they should have sent it straight to Guantanamo.” Youch.
Here’s the thing about last year’s big-screen 3-D movie version of Yogi Bear: if you see it, you will, at one point, see the titular character shake his big, CG-animated bear ass to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” It’s embedded above, but we implore you: do not subject yourself to this. It’s like The Human Centipede — you can see it, but you can never un-see it. Anything else that can be said about the movie is irrelevant. That’s all the information you need.
Those are our picks — what other film versions of TV shows would you put on the list?