Television series have always used movies as inspiration. In many cases, shows were directly based off movies, a trend that continues to this day, such as the new series following the movie Minority Report and another based on Rush Hour. Many of them were poor ideas that didn’t last long, such as the attempt to turn Working Girl into a short-lived sitcom starring a then-unknown Sandra Bullock. Or to flip it around, the Bullock thriller The Net turned into a USA series that was nothing more than a female version of The Fugitive. In so many cases, the shows are forgettable and just serve to distract from how great the original movies were.
But there have been a lot of successes over the years, with the ’70s war comedy MASH as one of the top examples. The key is that the best adaptations don’t just replicate the movie but actually expand on the ideas and potential the film set up and use the freedom of having more time to bring them to fruition.
Indeed, in some cases, the work is so great that it’s the show, not the movie, which comes right to mind whenever a title is mentioned. Here are ten series that achieved this impressive goal, ten shows that in many ways are actually better than the films that inspired them and expanded wonderfully on already great ideas.
The Cohen Brothers are known for their unique projects, filled with dark humor and biting commentary. Fargo is one of their best and the most fitting for a TV project. But rather than ape the film, the Cohens helped to produce a series that uses the name but offers a different plot, yet still manages to capture the movie’s tone nicely.
Billy Bob Thornton is magnetic as a contract killer who spreads chaos in a small Minnesota town, helping to encourage a salesman, played by Martin Freeman, to commit murder. Allison Tolman makes one of the most impressive debuts ever as the deputy investigating these crimes.
The show uses the frozen landscape to its fullest; a sense of dread permeates throughout, with black humor used to enthrall alongside the brilliant performances. It keeps viewers guessing, as proven by how, right in the middle of an episode, it suddenly jumps ahead a year in time to shake things up. The first season is fantastic and one can only hope for more in the second season to show how a TV series expands on a movie’s potential very nicely.
The USA Network was first to try a series based on the classic Luc Besson action movie. But this CW series was even better, helped by a fantastic lead. Maggie Q was gorgeous but also believable kicking ass left and right as a former spy trying to take down the black ops group she once belonged to.
She brought emotional depth to things with her guilt over her past and the series was smart balancing her quest with how a “newbie” recruit is actually a mole placed into Division by Nikita. Throw in Shane West as her lover/hunter and Melinda Clarke and Xander Berkley as the cold bosses and you had a recipe for thrills.
Through it all, Maggie Q dominated with a fantastic lead character you could root for and the unexpected twists of characters with dark secrets and plot turns kept you on your toes. Overall, it was a show that truly deepened the source film by showing how one can never let go of a life of killing no matter what.
The 1989 movie was a fun comedy with a great cast that included Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen and Rick Moranis. The NBC series took the same title and concept of a large family and their significant others and delivered one of the best dramas in years.
The comedy was high as members of real families can more than relate to the Bravermans’ constant bickering, arguing, bonding and more, just like real families do. The casting and writing were top notch, as it genuinely felt like a real family, which helped the show click with viewers.
More than one person has joked about how this series lasted over twice as long as the real Korean War did. The 1970 Robert Altman film was a straight-up satire of the war, a wild comedy focusing on the medics during wartime.
At first, the CBS series replicated that feeling with Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers as Hawkeye and Trapper, a pair of medics who acted like frat boys but were still good doctors. While the comedy was ever-present – complete with laugh track – the show offered some powerful commentary on war.
Its final episode, which holds the record for the most watched finale of any television series with 121.6 million viewers, was stunning television with a shocking that showed how, even as you laugh, war is always hell.
6. Friday Night Lights
The 2006 big-screen movie was little more than adapting the book it was based on, which relates the story of a small Texas town whose residents’ lives revolve around the high school football team. The NBC series, however, blossomed amazingly well thanks to its fantastic cast and writing.
It’s the most realistic version of high school life of any prime time television show. It’s not adults in kids’ bodies making witty pop culture references. They screw up, they think they’re smarter than they really are, they get over their heads and act like true teenagers. Combine that with the unique filming style that makes you feel like a fly on the wall and the way they talk like real people do, and it’s no wonder this series drew such a passionate fanbase.
The show used football as a metaphor for life and while it had some slumps, the series shone far better than most others for a sustainable period, with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton providing one of the best marriages any television series has showcased. Its ending is one of the best finales in television history, going out on the perfect note and solidifying a show that elevated its source material beautifully.
5. Teen Wolf
You could almost hear the massive eye-rolling when this was announced. MTV attempting a series based on a 1980s Michael J. Fox comedy? Little did anyone know the show’s producers had a lot more in mind than just replicating that goofy idea of a high school athlete turned werewolf.
Instead, they added in some moody storylines, wild sexy touches and more. Better was how they played with audience expectations, such as how seemingly shallow dimwit Lydia was actually a genius with her own powers or how innocent love Crystal was a top hunter. Tyler Posey handled it all as the lead in a series that does a fantastic job of pushing emotion over just “hot teens.”
The show’s going strong, as it’s more popular than when it began, serving as proof that even the craziest of movie ideas can shine properly on television given the right care.
There’s no greater compliment than how so many newer fans will go “wait, this was a movie first?” The 1986 film introduced the idea of the last of a race of Immortals who engage in sword duels, with the winner taking his foe’s head and unleashing a force of energy called “The Quickening.”
Any ideas of a franchise would have appeared to die with the horrific sequel but the television series soon broke out nicely. Adrian Paul played Duncan MacLeod, a 400-year old Scotsman; each episode would feature flashbacks set among his long life. At first, the show appeared to be leading up to the events of the movie with talk of a “Gathering” for the final Immortals. But the producers smartly realized how limiting that was and thus rewrote the film’s ending to allow the Immortals to survive.
From there, the show truly thrived; Paul was well cast, handling Duncan in his various time eras – note how his accent gets thicker the further the show went into the past – with some good supporting characters like the feisty Amanda and the 5000 year old Methos. Another smart move was introducing the Watchers, a group that studies Immortals, allowing viewers to learn more about their history.
It dealt with the deaths of major characters and truly pushed the hardship of someone being alive for so long. Plus, it was fun watching the epic sword fights! Its six-season run did more than just push the Highlander concept; it also helped a show about Immortals possess a very long life with fans.
3. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
The debate over Genysis continues but a common comment popping up from fans is “why couldn’t they just continue the Sarah Connor Chronicles?” Running just two seasons, this series was amazing in how it took the mythos of the Terminator movies and elevated them nicely.
Lena Headey was an excellent choice for Sarah, not aping Linda Hamilton but giving the role her own drive, a protective mother mixed with soldier out to ensure her son becomes a future savior, but willing to stop this future if she could. Thomas Dekker started off rough but soon grew into the role of John; his performance grew darker as he saw this future as inevitable, having to stand up to handle it. And Summer Glau was an inspired choice for Cameron, the reprogrammed Terminator; she was totally believable as a robot handling human oddities and such. For its lower TV budget, it was filled with great action sequences involving other Terminators and the like.
The show truly blossomed more in its later run, playing with the idea of glimpses at the dark future and the war against Skynet. It added Brian Austin Green as John’s uncle, becoming a new mentor and a new edge to the war as well as Shirley Manson stealing the show as the T-1000 posing as a businesswoman. The show took the idea of Judgment Day being inevitable yet still offered hope for preventing it.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Believe it or not, Joss Whedon was once just another writer, nothing special amid the sea of Hollywood talent. His 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer had the fun idea of a high school girl discovering she’s a vampire hunter but it didn’t make much of an impact. So you can understand the skepticism when the WB turned it into a weekly series. Little did we know that the results would be a show that would take off and kick-start a fresh new style for sci-fi/fantasy series.
The key was how Whedon used high school as an allegory for battles against evil and Hell, balancing monsters with going to the prom and relationship issues. Few shows have tackled coming to grips with sexuality so well even amid the wicked smart dialogue that could make you laugh out loud one moment and leave you stunned the next.
The cast were key as Sarah Michelle Gellar made the title role a truly relatable heroine, often feeling overwhelmed by her duty but doing her best to handle it. Meanwhile, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon and Anthony Stewart Head helped her out as her loyal gang.
The show never played it safe: characters would die, beloved vampire Angel went bad, evil vampire Spike became a key ally and they even killed the main character and brought her back as a mental wreck. It was far more emotional than detractors would give it credit for and while the last two seasons have flaws, they still retained the magic that made the show break out. If nothing else, it helped launch Whedon’s career as a geek icon and that alone makes Buffy a standout for TV shows based on films.
1. Stargate SG-1
1994’s Stargate was a unique sci-fi movie that pushed the idea of aliens creating the pyramids, offering a gateway to a distant world. It was a decent success but when Showtime announced a regular series based off it, there were doubts it would work on the smaller screen, especially without original stars Kurt Russell and James Spader. But instead, the series launched its own amazing franchise.
It took the idea that the Stargates were about thousands of planets, allowing Earth to explore new worlds and such. It also posited that the movie’s villain, Ra, was only one of the Goa’uld, a race of worm-like aliens possessing human bodies and basing themselves off the Gods of ancient Earth. Thus, the series kicked off into a wild new direction that would utilize time travel, alternate realities and full-scale invasions for its ten-season run over two networks. The special effects were cutting edge and just got better as the show continued to show full-scale space battles and a truly universal sense of adventure.
The series stands as a fantastic example of a show that took the concept of a movie and just ran with it in beautiful fashion. It would inspire two spin-offs and win over tons of fans, serving as one of the best sci-fi shows of the 2000s and still being popular today. Truly, this a case where the show is far better than the source film.
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