Another year, another TV-to-film adaptation. When the big-screen version of the 1980s teen cop show "21 Jump Street" debuts March 16, it will mark the latest example of Hollywood's long-running love affair with TV. And like any decades-long relationship, the one linking television and motion pictures has had its ups and downs.
"Hollywood has always been looking for good ideas," says Alan Gasmer, a producer-manager and former William Morris agent who had a hand in bringing "I Spy" to the screen. "With Hollywood so focused on brand recognition, the theory is, if it worked as a TV series, it could work as a motion picture. So they feel a whole generation who grew up loving 'The Brady Bunch' could go see a film version of 'The Brady Bunch,' and bring their kids, too."
"TV shows are out there, if not playing on some cable channel somewhere or late-night TV, they are in the vapor, which means they can always reappear," adds Irv Slifkin of moviefanfare.com. "Hollywood believes that the same people who watched the show, or at least were aware of it, will recognize that the show will be worthwhile on the big screen."
The fact is, the movie industry has always been looking to cannibalize other media for material. In the early days of the last century, it was films. And once Hollywood recognized that television wasn't necessarily a threat to its existence, the race to adapt boob-tube favorites was on.
The problem, however, is that the TV-to-film track record hasn't been a particularly good one. "The ratio of successful TV-to-movie translations remains low, say about four bad ones for every good one," Slifkin says. "There are two ways to go with TV remakes. One is to be reverential and use a similar premise, but make it bigger with class actors and high production values. The other way to go is to poke fun of it in an affectionate but smart way. In many bad TV remakes, the premise is the same but the mind-set is different, so the fans of the original are turned off."
"If you approach [the material] smartly and you try and be consistent with your tone, and you have a good story and characters you care about, the movie can be a success," says Chris Miller, who co-directed "21 Jump Street" with Phil Lord. "You have to honor the show; successful adaptations come from a place of love."
"You have to make sure you are taking the source material seriously enough that you appreciate what people love about it, but don't take it so seriously that the audience outsmarts you," Lord adds. "But if you make it a total goof, it can veer into silly, so it's a tricky problem."
The bottom line is that small-screen-to-big-screen conversions are not an easy thing to do. And a key reason may be the opposing natures of the two media. "TV shows often take several episodes to develop characters and situation," Slifkin says, "but a movie only has two hours to deliver all of its elements to hook an audience."
That said, the list of adapted winners and losers is an interesting and long one. Here are a few that stand out:
STAR TREK (2009) -- There have been a few bumps in the road, but basically "Star Trek" has made a successful transition to the big screen. And J.J. Abrams' recent reboot, with fresh, young stars -- Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Zoë Saldana -- injected new life into a franchise that was starting to get stale.
THE FUGITIVE (1993) -- Harrison Ford as the accused murderer looking for the man who killed his wife? Check. Tommy Lee Jones as the dogged cop looking for Ford? Double check. Hard to top this one for thrills, spills and smart TV-to-screen tinkering.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) -- Not every film in the series has dazzled, but the concept of a high-tech team charged with near-impossible missions seemed tailor-made for the big screen. And Tom Cruise was the perfect choice to head the group.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1991) -- Exuberant, playful and funny, this was a major upgrade from the TV series. And as Gomez and Morticia, Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston looked like they were having the time of their lives. A total joy.
LOST IN SPACE (1998) -- Here's how not to do an adaptation. Take a silly, low-budget family show and blow it up into a bombastic big-screen enterprise. Then cast Matt LeBlanc, a TV star totally unproven as a box-office draw, as one of your leads. Gobble, gobble.
WILD WILD WEST (1999) -- Another instance where a nice, small-scale series -- which also was smart enough to make fun of itself -- was turned into a mega-budget, out-of-control turkey. We'll take Robert Conrad and Ross Martin over Will Smith and Kevin Kline any day.
THE AVENGERS (1998) -- Easily one of the sexiest, most sophisticated TV shows ever -- Diana Rigg in black leather! -- was converted into a ludicrously plotted film with two stars (Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman) who lacked both chemistry and charisma. Even the great Sean Connery in a supporting role couldn't save this bomb.
THE MOD SQUAD (1999) -- An update that seemed dated, with a cast that had, and has, done better. Did Claire Danes make anyone forget Peggy Lipton? Did Omar Epps outcool Clarence Williams III? Not even close.
The funny side of the 'Street'
The original "21 Jump Street" ran on Fox from 1987 to 1991. The series, which starred the then-teen heartthrob Johnny Depp, followed a group of youthful-looking cops as they went undercover in high schools and colleges to fight crimes like drug trafficking. The show also dealt with issues like AIDS, homophobia and alcoholism, and when it was originally broadcast, some episodes were followed by public service spots starring cast members.
The new film version, which features a comedic take on the material, stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as underachieving police officers assigned to a local high school to catch a drug ring. "We all loved the concept of young officers going back to high school and getting swept up in the typical high school insecurities," says Phil Lord, the film's co-director. "We thought that would make a good comedy."