‘Tis the season for adapting movies into television shows: A&E made a big splash with its Psycho prequel series Bates Motel (distractingly set in the modern era, so have fun untying that continuity), NBC has its Hannibal Lecter series Hannibal on deck for an April 4 debut, and Amazon has just announced their order for a pilot episode of Zombieland, based on the 2009 Jesse Eisenberg/Woody Harrelson movie. With all this activity stewing in the movie-to-TV pipeline, let’s not forget one important fact: with only a few exceptions (Buffy, M*A*S*H, Friday Night Lights, The Odd Couple, and… I dunno, Clueless?), most TV shows based on motion pictures sink without a trace. Don’t believe us? After the jump, we’ve got ten movie-to-TV adaptations that you probably didn’t know existed.
It’s one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time, so certainly no dumb schmuck ever tried to turn ‘Casablanca’ into a TV show, right, you’d think, and you’d be wrong — twice. Yes, two separate attempts (nearly 30 years apart) were made to somehow recapture the magic of Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic. Both were prequels, centering on the action at Rick’s Café Américain; the first, with Charles McGraw filling in for Bogie, ran ten episodes (as part of the rotating anthology series Warner Bros. Presents) from 1955 to 1956, while the second only lasted half that long, with David Soul (aka “Hutch” from Starsky and Hutch) playing Rick in 1983. Here’s hoping they remember these two flops as they inch closer to maybe making that sequel nobody wants.
Though it’s not quite as ridiculous as trying to replace Humphrey Bogart with David Soul, there’s something to be said for the befuddling decision to turn over a role made famous by Al Pacino to… David Birney, the likable if bland star of Bridget Loves Birney, best remembered these days for lending his last name to Bridget co-star and onetime wife (and, later, Family Ties star) Meredith Baxter-Birney. But Birney grew out a scraggly beard and stepped into the role of real-life whistle-blowing NYPD detective Frank Serpico, though “Birney’s attempt to intimidate dangerous street hoods was reminiscent of Richie Cunningham’s attempts to emulate the Fonz,” according to David Hofstede’s book What Were They Thinking? Birney’s Serpico was cancelled in January 1977, after only 14 episodes.
Here’s what a hit Animal House was back in 1978: it begat not one, not two, but three sitcom spin-off/rip-offs in early 1979. ABC had the “official” adaptation, titled Delta House, which not only boasted a pilot episode penned by film’s screenwriters, but five supporting players from the film (including John Vernon’s Dean Wormer and Stephen Furst’s Flounder). NBC’s entry was Brothers and Sisters, while CBS contributed Co-Ed Fever. The latter was notorious for only airing one episode before being canceled for low ratings, but the other two barely did better; Brothers and Sisters only lasted 12 episodes, and Delta House a mere 13. Apparently, somehow, no one involved in any of these shows, or at any of the networks, took a moment to reflect that part of Animal House’s appeal was its vulgarity, nudity, crassness, and other elements that were unlikely to make the transition to primetime, circa 1979.
The 1989 John Hughes movie ranks second only to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles among his collaborations with the late, great John Candy. It was also the project that introduced the writer/director to young Macaulay Culkin, with whom he’d later work on a little picture called Home Alone. But two years after its release, it also inspired a CBS sitcom, with stand-up comic Kevin Meaney (remember his “we’re big pant people” bit? No?) filling in, rather unconvincingly, for Mr. Candy. The show’s pilot provoked some controversy by including the line “Miles, you suck!,” a sentiment that had gone previously unexpressed on the network. But that was about the last anyone heard of Buck; it lasted 22 episodes before the network pulled the plug.
In spite of the fact that it’s sort of terrible, every child of the ‘80s remembers the 1987 Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey vehicle (if for nothing else than for its iconic “lift”). Less memorable was CBS’s lame 1988 attempt to spin that summer coming-of-age story into a weekly series, with (again) none of the original personnel intact. Melora Hardin, later familiar as Jan Levenson on The Office, was cast as the never-put-in-a-corner Baby, while Patrick Cassidy (half-brother of ‘70s heartthrob David) was the show’s faux-Swayze. The show’s producers hired M*A*S*H co-star McLean Stevenson for a supporting role, perhaps as adaptation insurance, but it didn’t take; the show was cancelled after 11 episodes due to low ratings.
The Bad News Bears
The 1976 Walter Matthau hit had already inspired two lackluster sequels (1977’s The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and 1978’s The Bad News Bears Go to Japan) when CBS premiered its sitcom adaptation in 1979. All three follow-ups were sorely missing Mr. Matthau, though only the series went so far as to cast another actor as Buttermaker, the beer-swilling vulgarian Matthau had played in the film. The great Jack Warden (Shampoo, All the President’s Men) did his best, as did the crew of cute kids (which included little Corey Feldman), but without Matthau and the foul-mouthed dialogue that gave the original film its dirty, funny kick, the show was bound to play like a pale imitation.
Another case of a star vehicle somehow expected to float without its stars — in this case, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, whose unmatched charisma and unforced chemistry helped raise the 1982 film Stir Crazy from forgettable prison comedy to a worldwide smash. CBS’s series adaptation not only premiered three years after the movie’s release (an eternity in pop culture years), but the 60-minute show was weirdly done as an action series with comic beats (in an apparent attempt to distract from the fact that the funny guys in the movie weren’t around this time). It was gone in nine episodes.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
CBS didn’t learn its lesson with Stir Crazy — a year after its cancellation, the network was back with another short-lived adaptation of another hit 1982 movie. (What was it with that year for them?) This time, the film in question was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and this time, they wouldn’t make the same mistakes: the film’s director Amy Heckerling was a producer, screenwriter Cameron Crowe was a creative consultant, and actors Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprised their roles as Mr. Hand and Mr. Vargas, respectively. Alas, this one was gone even quicker than Stir Crazy (a mere seven episodes), presumably since, again, the frankness and adult content of the film (to say nothing of Phoebe Cates doffing her bikini) couldn’t be replicated on network television.
No, no, we know you’re well aware of the wonderful (yet perpetually low-rated) NBC drama from Jason Katims (who previously adapted Friday Night Lights for the network). What everyone seems to have forgotten is that the current show actually represents the second attempt to turn Ron Howard’s 1989 comedy/drama into fodder for the boob tube. Back in 1990, Howard served as executive producer for a half-hour, single-camera adaptation, which featured Ed Begley, Jr. in the Steve Martin role and pre-fame turns by the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio, David Arquette, and Thora Birch. (Also, an unknown named Joss Whedon was on the writing staff.) Unlike Parenthood 2.0, the original show used the same character names as the film — the new series is about the Braverman family, which bears many similarities but is clearly not the same family as the Buckmans of the film and original show. It ran for 12 episodes in 1990, only to be canceled and resurrected 20 years later as an hour-long show about this other, completely different group of people.
Parenthood isn’t the only show to see multiple attempts at television adaptation; A&E’s new Bates Motel is the second, albeit already more successful, try at turning Hitchcock’s classic into a weekly series. The first crack, also titled Bates Motel, dates back to 1987, and the idea (which ignored the events of Psycho II and Psycho III) was that Norman Bates dies in the state mental asylum and leaves the Bates Motel to his friend and roommate Alex Ward (played by Bud Cort of Harold and Maude). Upon his release, Ward renovates and re-opens the motel, where strange things would presumably happen; we’ll never know, because Bates Motel never made it past the pilot stage. NBC got a look at the first, two-hour episode and passed, though they aired it as a standalone TV movie in July 1987 (to bad ratings and worse reviews).