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From Small Screen to Silver Screen: 
The Meh, The Bad, The Ugly, and the Absolutely Fabulous

p03zzkjdThe recent release of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is a reminder of the seemingly endless array of television series that have been turned into motion pictures. There are dozens upon dozens of movies that have been based on either a series or a recurring sketch within a variety show. Most of these TV-to-film projects are comedic in nature, though some of the best adaptations are based on action, sci-fi or drama series.

If we’re lucky, a feature movie adaptation of a hit show will be at least as engaging as a super-sized episode. More often than not, the transition from small screen to silver screen is a bumpy road and the movie fails to satisfy even the meager demands of a sitcom. Once in a blue moon, however, the filmmakers adapting a TV show strike pay dirt and the resulting movie is so good that audiences and critics—and, sometimes, Oscar voters—overlook entirely the stigma that said movie was borne from a TV show.

The new Ab-Fab movie plays like an extended holiday episode, and while it’s great to see the cast reunited—and satisfying to see the writers push the naughtiness factor into “Rated R” territory—it’s somewhat of a let-down that the movie doesn’t aspire to greater heights of sauciness. While Ab-Fab: The Movie doesn’t quite earn a place alongside the best of the best TV-to-film romps, it’s not bad at all. In fact, it could have been worse. A lot worse.

Here, for comparison and contrast, are some of the best TV-to-film projects, along with some of the worst, and a recounting of some of the many in-betweeners that are neither great nor foul, but merely “bad” or “meh.”

The Best of the Good

When recalling the greatest TV-to-film adaptations, two serious drama-based films sit at the top of the list: The Untouchables (1987) and The Fugitive (1993). Both films transcend their episodic source material and succeed as grand, larger-than-life epic adventures. Both films were nominated for several Oscars each, with both taking home the statue for Best Supporting Actor (Sean Connery for Untouchables and Tommy Lee Jones for Fugitive).

When folks reflexively say TV-to-movie adaptations are never any good, an utterance of either title will quickly shut down their argument. Other similarly worthy TV-series-turned-films include Mission: Impossible (five movies so far beginning in 1996) and The Equalizer (2014, with a sequel in the works for 2017).

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There are more comedy TV adaptations than any other genre (perhaps because there are more comedy TV shows ripe for adaptation), but rarely do funny shows or skits succeed on the big screen as splendidly as The Muppet Movie (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980), The Naked Gun (1988), The Addams Family (1991), Wayne’s World (1992), The Brady Bunch Movie (1996), Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996), South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999), Jackass: The Movie (2002), The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004), Borat… (2006), The Simpsons Movie (2007), Sex and the City: The Movie (2008), and 21 Jump Street (2012).

A few of these big-screen versions recast the main characters, but in each instance the charm and repartee of the original series remains intact, and in some cases is dressed in a new cloak of post-modern self-reference.

All but three movies (Beavis and Butt-Head, South Park, and The Simpsons), have spawned at least one theatrical sequel/spin-off, and some of them (not Bruno) are as funny as their predecessors.

When it comes to sci-fi series-turned-movies, Star Trek is the most famous and prolific, with thirteen feature films so far (1979–2016). Five of them (#’s 2, 4, 6, 8, and 11) are bonafide modern-day classics that hold up very well even for viewers unversed in the multiple television series and spin-offs.

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The X-Files has made the leap to the big screen twice so far, to decidedly mixed results (1998 and 2008, with a third feature reportedly still in development).

Thanks to vociferous devotees, the short-lived Joss Whedon space western series “Firefly” made the jump to the silver screen with the cult favorite Serenity (2005), but despite much fan and critic love, it didn’t set the box office ablaze.

A Sampling of the Meh

It’s always an intriguing proposition when big-name directors who have done incredible work take on a television show adaptation, and all the more frustrating when that project fails to generate equivocal electricity.

The western comedy Maverick (1994) reunites Lethal Weapon power duo Mel Gibson and director Richard Donner—trio, if you count the movie’s funny cameo by Danny Glover—but even with a jubilant Jodie Foster and original “Maverick” star James Garner on hand, the movie never quite takes off.

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Still, there are moments of brisk fun in Maverick, which is more than anyone can say about the dour, dull, and painfully overlong Miami Vice (2006) from respected director Michael Mann. Guy Ritchie’s 2015 update of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was amicable but unmemorable.

Yet rarely has a blah TV show adaptation boasted as much directorial talent as the 1983 anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie—John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller each contribute an episode, they get better as they go along, but only George Miller’s climactic segment fully lives up to the hype.

A Plethora of the Bad

There have been more bad TV show movies than we deserve, including a spate of atrocious animation-to-live-action adaptations like The Flintstones (1994), George of the Jungle (1997), Josie and the Pussycats (2001), Scooby-Doo (2002), Thunderbirds (2004), Fat Albert (2004), Alvin and the Chipmunks (four movies so far, beginning in 2007), and the Transformers flicks (the first one in 2007 was okay, but three sequels so far are neigh unwatchable).

TRANSFORMERS

Also among the “bad” are several adaptations of police/detective/action series such as Dragnet (1987), Charlie’s Angels (2000), I Spy (2002), Starsky & Hutch (2004), and The A-Team (2010). Naturally, many flat-out comedy adaptations pad out the “bad” list, including Coneheads (1993), The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), The Little Rascals (1994), Leave it to Beaver (1997), Brain Candy (1999), Bewitched (2005), Get Smart (2008), Land of the Lost (2009), and Entourage (2015).

And don’t forget to heap some scorn upon the big-budget sci-fi dud Lost in Space (1998).

A Splatter of Ugly

Sometimes the resulting TV-to-cinema feature is so ill-conceived and misguided and flat-out awful that one has to wonder how it ever got past the boardroom planning phase. Take caution: while we’ve got our fair share of “meh” or “bad” show-to-movie adaptations, rarely do TV-based feature films sink as low or suck as egregiously as The Gong Show Movie (1980), Car 54, Where are You? (1994), McHale’s Navy (1997), Mr. Magoo (1997), The Avengers (1998), Inspector Gadget (1999), My Favorite Martian (1999), Dudley Do-Right (1999), The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), The Honeymooners (2005), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), Aeon Flux (2010), The Last Airbender (2010), and Dark Shadows (2012).

Mention of any of these titles is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any self-respecting cinephile. And, finally, we come to what is perhaps the most universally loathed big-budget TV-to-movie fiasco ever produced, the Will Smith/Kevin Kline/Barry Sonnenfeld bomb Wild Wild West (1999).

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If you haven’t seen any or many of these, consider yourself lucky.

 

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