Films adapted from or inspired by television series have been around nearly as long as TV sets ― but there is no guarantee that success on the small screen will transfer to the international box office. Leonard Klady reports

Rolling out around the world, Joe Carnahan’s The A-Team is the latest TV show to be given a big-screen makeover. For decades, small-screen shows, particularly those produced in the US, have provided the film industry with a rich vein of material for adaptation.

Attempts to reconfigure a successful television series for the big screen date back virtually to the start of network programming. While not strictly a film version of I Love Lucy, The Long, Long Trailer in 1953 capitalised on the personalities and dynamics of the series’ Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz union to the delight of their enormous fanbase. More than a half century later, everything from The Honeymooners and Sgt Bilko to The Simpsons and Sex And The City has made the transition from the living room to the multiplex with varying degrees of success.

Artistically, there is no consistent template. Some vehicles slavishly retain the original’s characters and storylines; others completely reinvent them. Many attempt to cast according to type while a few take the original television cast along for the ride.

“Unless it’s The Simpsons or The X-Files ― and I suppose if we make 24 ― you’re hoping to reintroduce an audience to characters and premises they enjoyed a decade or two ago,” says Tomas Jegeus, co-president of Fox International. “It’s early, but so far on The A-Team what we’re finding is that it’s playing best in territories where the series was popular.”

There is no question that many small-screen hits have repeated their popularity as movies. Star Trek and Mission: Impossible have evolved into sturdy franchises while such films as The Untouchables and The Fugitive were both critical and financial hits.

A random sample of 20 TV-inspired films shows that, contrary to popular wisdom, they have performed better internationally. The difference is a modest 7.5%, but nevertheless it suggests there is no significant cultural barrier facing shows which could be considered thoroughly American.

There is still a bit of sleight of hand involved in the development of television-inspired projects because of the distance between a particular property’s height of popularity and its arrival in cinemas.

The current crop of movie-goers will doubtless include those with fond memories of the initial broadcast as well as those only familiar with, for instance, Get Smart from syndication. The challenge is that those with the most visceral connection to The Wild, Wild West or The Mod Squad are likely to be older by industry standards and less likely to be in the all-important first wave of ticket buyers. The core of frequent film-goers, conversely, may only know The Untouchables or other vintage TV series by reputation.

“You have to produce something that works on its own terms,” notes Jegeus. “You can play up the nostalgia element where the series is known but you can’t rely on it. And some series, like The Dukes Of Hazzard, weren’t seen widely outside of the US.”

Future adaptations of US television shows are nonetheless likely to shrink in the future as far fewer series are being bought by major networks in Europe, Asia and Latin America, where indigenous fare has ballooned in popularity in the past decade. With rare exceptions, programmes that were once a staple of ­global broadcasting are more likely to develop a niche following via satellite and cable exposure.

So, eliminating the anomalies ― adaptations of series still in active rotation or those which retain the same cast ― the best approach would seem to be to retain the spirit of a bygone hit, and forge ahead in adapting it with a contemporary sensibility.


TV to film: box-office gross for movies made from television series
 YearAustraliaBrazilFranceGermanyItalyJapanMexicoSpainUKIntl CumeNorth America
The A-Team*20107,101,7131,845,1746,039,76412-Aug2,044,20520-Aug1,950,90530-Jul30-Jul47,111,51663,047,432
Sex and the City 2*201018,877,5983,165,02910,686,63921,652,0398,124,33014,840,3632,580,5314,804,79430,611,169177,923,70693,072,615
Star Trek200912,810,3861,791,6696,409,18213,327,4753,082,9065,905,4323,304,7543,847,35033,051,999125,937,444257,807,784
Land of the Lost20093,297,809dnp184,753133,12384,3941,450,5393,104,255507,7732,911,27919,332,80049,654,768
Get Smart200814,783,8264,804,4193,980,3845,488,8173,320,7771,904,62810,400,6115,002,5798,945,20898,423,705130,335,095
Sex and the City200825,608,3104,408,55018,805,59526,960,58711,499,56014,552,0743,541,4899,372,10852,197,155258,037,466152,647,258
The Simpsons Movie200726,654,3698,862,24229,711,50236,289,25023,872,009371,61815,295,86825,325,12978,429,130343,421,303183,135,014
Miami Vice20065,196,6862,266,05012,429,8779,633,0504,370,5697,694,4562,999,9294,417,67213,994,361100,308,10963,450,470
The Dukes of Hazzard20057,482,619267,0561,256,6701,703,1931,146,472dnp1,798,650758,6148,167,21130,723,66880,304,556
Starsky and Hutch20049,206,574125,08110,263,4267,153,6498,855,968dnp1,617,2383,249,70522,653,44282,020,00088,608,431
I Spy20022,432,328211,1151,187,5372,313,783385,2941,588,0331,985,7891,447,5273,556,31726,718,68533,915,728
Charlie’s Angels20009,849,3633,416,0459,427,25011,935,3913,424,94614,954,2205,500,2917,687,75219,200,567134,430,545108,656,067
The Mod Squad1999232,81568,873443,765dnp102,783dnp189,699126,89031,4492,155,31113,269,301
The Wild Wild West19994,153,0101,636,56817,726,24714,983,9802,697,9008,285,5053,757,1776,375,92011,041,182107,423,654113,814,117
The X-Files19984,359,7824,028,02111,307,34115,449,7303,637,3248,648,7673,682,0805,910,40514,006,788105,278,11083,898,313
Lost in Space19986,029,5551,624,8585,498,3936,718,6613,731,8644,839,8122,173,2583,220,86717,478,63966,929,68869,117,629
Mission: Impossible199612,123,7836,691,37729,058,61723,630,02611,580,18153,987,9074,690,86114,351,72229,293,045276,716,108180,874,264
The Fugitive19937,909,8362,296,08918,214,71312,025,21515,558,37229,294,4833,758,5989,453,26620,936,068169,839,557179,257,409

* Still on release in several territories. Figures correct to June 27.