TV on the Silver Screen

With Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation arriving in theaters this weekend to great buzz, let’s talk about the best film adaptations of TV shows.

The borders between film and television are obviously permeable for actors and writers and directors, but they’ve also been proven so for the stories and premises of shows and movies themselves. There have certainly been many TV shows based on successful (and even unsuccessful) films. But, starting largely in the 1990s, as people who were children in the 1960s aged into the cultural catbird seat, there has been a stream of film adaptations of beloved TV shows washing up in theaters.

This top ten list draws a distinction between films that were made as sequels or continuations of a series (your Star Treks, your X-Files, your Veronica Marses) or by the creative teams of the original shows (your Naked Guns,  your Jackasses, your South Parks). This is a list of actual adaptations, mostly made decades after the original series had run their course.

based on The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)

While this movie is sadly haunted by the tragic helicopter crash that killed Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, and hobbled by the fact that two out of the four segments in the film aren’t good, Twilight Zone: The Movie is still well worth seeing. The prologue is fun and funny and serves as a nice table setter for the rest of the film. “Time Out,” the John Landis segment is a frustrating miss, and it’s hard to tell if it would have played much better had it been completed as planned. “Kick the Can,” Steven Spielberg’s remake of the episode with the same title, is probably the worst work of Spielberg’s career (a minor regret in addition to the awfulness of the lives lost is the wonder of what Spielberg would have made of his originally planned Halloween costume story or a proposed remake of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”). After that, though, Joe Dante’s remake of “It’s a Good Life” takes that story into a wild and inventive new direction, and George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” has such furiously gonzo energy that it may outdo the original episode for scares.



based on Land of the Lost (1974-1977)
As much a broad Will Ferrell comedy as an adaptation of the Sid & Marty Krofft series, it is understandable why fans of the show would be disappointed that they didn’t get a big kids’ adventure movie here. But the Ferrell comedy they got instead is a genuinely funny and weird one, with some great supporting work by Danny McBride, Anna Friel and Jorma Taccone as Cha-Ka. The dinosaurs are really neat, and they’re actually given some character (see Ferrell’s relationship with Grumpy, the tyrannosaurus). And for all of the irreverence toward the show, the film also takes a surprisingly nerdy dive into the mythology of the show, with Altrusians and Sleestaks and The Zarn.



based on Dark Shadows (1966-1971)
It seems fitting that an adaptation of such a strange show (a half-hour supernatural soap opera with vampires, witches, werewolves, time travel, and alternate dimensions, all in a creaky live production that didn’t have time for a second take if a fly landed on an actor’s face) would result in such a strange movie (basically the same, but with an extra veneer of nutty comedy and a lavish production budget). The fish-out-of-water comedy element was a new (and unwelcome to many fans) addition, but the film as a whole does an admirable job of generating the weird vibe of watching a bunch of Dark Shadows. And while the cast is generally quite good, Eva Green basically runs away with the movie in a performance that prefigures her total domination of 300: Rise of An Empire, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and Penny Dreadful.



based on Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)
This movie might be worthy of the list just for the effervescent work done by Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu as the Angels from the title. But it also happens to be a hugely fun action comedy, and easily the best thing that director McG has had his hands on. Candy colored, with a lighter-than-air tone and fun-but-preposterous action, it is the most successful expression of what got him noticed in the music video world into a feature film. And, not for nothing, the leading ladies are supported by a killer array of quirky cool men (Tim Curry! Crispin Glover! Sam Rockwell! Bill Murray!).



based on The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)
The Brady Bunch Movie is an interesting film adaptation in that it is an adaptation of a situation comedy that adds another layer of ironic comedy over the top of it. Stranger still, it works! The film walks a tricky tightrope of obvious nostalgia and affection for the original show (and the reassuringly idealized world it depicted at the time) and a modern 90s comedy sensibility. The cast (led by Gary Cole and Shelley Long as Mr. & Mrs. Brady) nails the tone, and the result is thoroughly charming.



based on 21 Jump Street (1987-1991)
Another series adaptation that trades in the tone of the original series for a broader action comedy vibe ( contributor Ben refused to see it for that reason), 21 Jump Street would seem to be the most successful version of that approach to date. It helps that the comedy is really funny (with Channing Tatum showing a game facility for comedy that helped endear him to basically everybody everywhere) and the action is genuinely fun and exciting. The film truly set Director Phil Lord and Christopher Miller up for their current reputation as geniuses who can make even the worst premises into pretty great movies. Even the jokes about tired television retreads mostly land!
Special Mention: 22 Jump Street is also hilarious. And features two of the funniest sequences in either film (Tatum’s reaction to a revelation about Ice Cube’s daughter & the escalating series of sequel ideas over the credits).



based on The Fugitive (1963-1967)
This is the only film on this list featuring an Academy Award winning performance. Tommy Lee Jones won Best Supporting Actor for his terrific turn as Deputy Sam Gerard, the man who spends the film in dogged pursuit of the wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble (an also excellent Harrison Ford). While the “wrong man on the run” concept might seem generic enough that the TV series title is just a box office consideration, but the film also cleverly allows for the inclusion of some of the  “Kimble runs into a situation and has to help others along the way” structure of the series. Plus, there’s that killer train crash…



based on Maverick (1957-1962)
Starring Mel Gibson at the peak of his movie star powers (back when his charisma was relatively unsullied by his real world persona), Richard Donner’s comedy Western is a real delight. James Garner, predictably providing value to the film far in excess of the affectionate cameo that TV stars would usually be used for in these kinds of adaptations, is given a real character to play, and the dance that plays out between Gibson, Garner, and a very funny and game Jodie Foster powers the film through a veritable checklist of fun and well-executed Western touchstones.



based on Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)
When Tom Cruise decided to try out a franchise of his own, selecting an ensemble spy show as the perfect vehicle may have seemed a little counterintuitive. Indeed, the series has an ongoing tension built into its attempts to be both a clear star vehicle for one of the movie starriest movie stars of the last few decades AND a satisfying take on the basic ensemble concept of the original series. Similarly, it’s a wonder now that Brian De Palma was the guy to kick off a twenty year old blockbuster film series. But in practice, all of these potentially strange decisions came together to create a really excellent (and surprisingly De Palma-y) summer entertainment. There is pleasure to be had for fans of the original series in seeing the early scenes of Jim Phelps and his team plan and execute a mission (and the cracked-mirror version of the same that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt pulls together later in the film). But there’s also a real subversive charge to the way the film envisions the series moving into a post-Cold War world, and particularly in the way it uses Jim Phelps. And it’s a wholly satisfying, tense and twisty spy thriller even outside of its connection to the TV series. Basically, this is something of a best-case scenario for these kinds of TV adaptations, with equal amounts of thought and craft brought to bear on adapting something the creative team clearly had real affection for.
Special Mention: The Mission: Impossible film series has sequels both good (III) and terrible (II), but (at least until the crew sees Rogue Nation this weekend) the king of the M:I sequels (and arguably even a rival for this spot on the list) is the fourth film, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. In contrast to De Palma’s paranoid, dangerous take, Cruise and director Brad Bird came up with a film built around a series of incredible, cracker-jack set-pieces (with the truly spectacular Burj Khalifa sequence a thrilling highlight). Ghost Protocol is light on its feet and easily the most fun of the sequels to date.



based on The Addams Family (1964-1966)
The only sequel on this list, Addams Family Values is a sequel that successfully recognizes and improves on what worked in its predecessor. Director Barry Sonnenfeld brings great energy and a deft touch with the Addams tone to this follow-up, while the cast returns in particularly fine form. Raul Julia’s Gomez recalls Sean Astin’s turn in the role, but his ebullient-verging-on-deranged performance works both as tribute and as its own glorious thing. Christopher Lloyd is great as always as Uncle Fester who, freed from amnesia in the first film, gets to play a new mix of demented and romantic to great effect. And Angelica Huston was basically born to play Morticia. But what puts the movie over the top is Wednesday and Pugsley’s adventure in summer camp. Recognizing Christina Ricci’s killer deadpan as the secret weapon from the first film, the sequel gives her some enemies of her own (Peter McNicol and Christine Baranski’s bubbly camp counselors and Mercedes McNab’s perky sneery queen bee), a love interest (David Krumholtz’s fearful, neurotic Joel Glicker), and an iconic, climactic moment of pure badassery.
Special Mention: While it probably wouldn’t rank quite as high on this list, The Addams Family (1991) is also an excellent early entry in the wave of TV adaptations that swept theaters in the 1990s. If Values is a little funnier, with a richer role for Christina Ricci’s breakout Wednesday Addams, Family still first pulled off the trick of integrating the kooky fun of the TV series with a little more of the ghoulish and gothic vibe of Charles Addams’s original cartoons (and its mistaken-identity plot is a fun riff on the sitcom stories in the original series). I also prefer it’s 90s requisite Rap Over The End Credits.
Tell us in the comments what you think! What’s your favorite TV adaptation? Least favorite? Is The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle as fun as I kind of remember it being?