Noel: One of the big surprises of the television season so far has been how good the FX series Fargo is. It’s surprising mainly because there was no reason to expect that such a self-contained, stylistically distinctive movie could be translated into a TV show—even though one of the most popular series of all time, M*A*S*H, was also based on a movie that was seemingly one of a kind. M*A*S*H, however, is a major exception. Over the long history of television producers adapting movies, there are far more washouts than winners. And even given the current mini-trend of movie-based TV series that exhibit actual quality—a trend that also encompasses NBC’s Hannibal and arguably A&E’s Bates Motel—the default expectation for any kind of project like Fargo is that it’s going to suck. And Fargo doesn’t suck at all; it’s an entertaining, unnerving spin on the source material, using the snowy American Upper Midwest as a staging ground for a story about dark urges and how the local law enforcement struggles to contain them.
I want to get into some of the other TV shows based on movies later—including Hannibal and Bates Motel—but first I’m curious to hear what you all think of Fargo. Do the overt imitations of the Coen brothers’ deadpan “Minnesota nice” accents throw you off? Or is Billy Bob Thornton’s snaky performance as a traveling troublemaker enough to set the series apart from its source? (And does anyone else get as much of a Twin Peaks vibe from this show as a Fargo one?)
Scott: Inconsistent accents aside—Martin Freeman’s seems to come and go scene-to-scene, though his performance is superb otherwise—the only thing that’s throwing me off about the TV Fargo is the clunky facsimile of Carter Burwell’s score. And that one failure is illustrative of why the rest of the show succeeds: Rather than trying to out-Coen the Coens, which would result in an entire show of second-rate Carter Burwells, creator Noah Hawley complements and ingeniously plays off our memories of the film. Though none of the characters carry over from movie to show, Hawley invites us to find analogs: Freeman’s Lester Nygaard, the ineffectual salesman with the orange jacket, must be a stand-in for William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard; as for Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, that would have to be Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle), a steady, decent small-town detective who’s expecting his first child. The first episode then pulls out the rug by having its Lundegaard murder his wife, rather than leave her fate to the criminal kind, and by killing its Gunderson when he turns up at the Nygaard house for questioning. Those twists really knocked me flat, and affirmed this Fargo as a worthy supplement to the film, an expansion of its web of intrigue, its moral underpinnings, and its sense of local color.
As many have noted elsewhere, the TV Fargo is more or less what would happen if Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men were dropped into the movie Fargo. Here played by a brilliantly affectless Billy Bob Thornton, this chaos agent exerts an almost supernatural ability to bend the world to his will. What he does to Colin Hanks’ Gus Grimly is like some evil Jedi mind trick: He doesn’t even have to show him a weapon to get him to back off. He just has to suggest with supreme confidence that Grimly’s daughter stands to lose a second parent should he press the matter any further. (In that moment, the show creates a contrast to Lester Nygaard: Another man of diminished masculinity who will seek an opportunity to assert himself, albeit likely in a much nobler fashion.) The additions necessary to sustain a TV series, even a finite run like the 10-episodes-and-out Fargo, give Hawley the opportunity to create more memorable characters (Adam Goldberg is a casting masterstroke) and allow more plot threads to intertwine, which makes Fargo addictive television, even if it lacks the elegance and snap of the Coen brothers movie. What did you think, Matt?
Matt: I’ve enjoyed the show overall, but I don’t think I’m quite as high on it as you guys. The second half of the pilot is very strong, but the first half was making me a little nervous. The Coens have certainly written their fair share of abrasive characters, but they’ve never written any as simplistically despicable as bully Sam Hess and his two obnoxious sons, or Lester’s shrewish wife Pearl. In the early going, TV’s Fargo felt like all the harshest criticisms of the Coens’ movies—their contempt for their audience, their presumed superiority over their characters—come to life. Toss in Thornton’s Chigurh-esque assassin and a couple of ill-conceived Coens Easter eggs like the sign at the diner advertising a special on White Russians, and Fargo starts to look like bad Coen brothers fan fiction. (Also: What kind of Minnesota diner sells White Russians?!? They’re not even from the right Coens movie!) The prospect of nine more episodes of that was not an enticing one.
Things improve considerably after several of the weaker characters are killed, not just because they open up additional screen time for the more intriguing members of the ensemble, but also because they signal that Fargo is moving far afield from its source material. One of the more frustrating aspects of watching this new batch of film-to-TV adaptations is the way they have to establish unfamiliar versions of familiar fictional worlds. They’re tied to these iconic movies, but they can’t stay too tied to them, lest they bore their audience with predictable plot twists. I find those early moments of these shows, as they tease and reference themselves, distracting. In the case of Fargo, I kept trying to figure out which characters were analogs for which cast members from the movie, and was waiting impatiently for Lester to ask Thornton’s Lorne Malvo to kidnap his wife. When that definitively doesn’t happen, and Fargo begins to blaze its own path through the ice and snow of the Upper Midwest, was when it finally hooked me.
But maybe that’s just my own fault for bringing too much baggage about a movie I love to the table. I recently started watching NBC’s Hannibal and so far, I’m definitely a fan; but it’s been years since I watched either Michael Mann’s Manhunter or Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, so I’ve had less to compare Hannibal to than Fargo or Bates Motel. Do you guys find that friction between film and television universes similarly intrusive?
Noel: Well, I think you’re right, Matt, that Fargo gets better once it begins to diverge from the movie. (By the way, as long as we’re noting the Coens nods, how about the direct Fargo: The Movie reference of “Norm’s Pizza?”) What I’ll be curious to see as the series continues is whether it works in more of the elements of sweetness that make the film so rich. There are some signs of that early on, in the character of Deputy Molly and her relationship with her dad; and I suspect that Officer Grimly’s relationship with his daughter is going to add some heart, too. Without that lighter side, the show runs the risk of becoming just another aggressively violent, dark, and ironic cable show—which isn’t exactly something the world is lacking.
You mention Hannibal and Bates Motel. What I find most interesting about the latter (besides Vera Farmiga giving one of the best performances on TV every week, with very little fanfare) is how little it has to do with Psycho, beyond the location and the character names. Fargo at least feels like Fargo, even with the new storylines; but Bates Motel feels more like Picket Fences, or, again, Twin Peaks. I think that may be the best way for a TV show based on a movie to set itself apart from its source material and avoid that “friction” you speak of. Alice thrived on TV for years by not being much like Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The TV version of In The Heat Of The Night turned a racially charged thriller into a fairly conventional case-of-the-week cop show with the occasional episode about bigotry. And I don’t think people even remember that Parenthood used to be a movie.
On the other hand, the Friday Night Lights TV series borrowed a lot of the style of the film; and while Hannibal has a style all its own, the emphasis on the twisted, symbiotic relationship between Will Graham and the serial killers he chases is very much in the spirit of Manhunter et al. Scott, where do you come down on this? Faithfulness or free interpretation?
Scott: My stance on film-to-TV adaptations is probably similar to my stance on book-to-film adaptations: Better to capture the spirit more than the letter of the source material. (Though of the two, free interpretation is nearly always preferable to faithfulness, because I think some interpretation is necessary beyond merely illustrating the source.) Fargo serves as a nice example. Matt does a great job articulating the show’s early struggles—having watched the first four episodes, however, I can say with great relief that they don’t persist—and all of that is tied to the effort to make what he dubbed “Coen brothers fan fiction.” To my mind, Fargo is about as close to perfect as movies get: The characters, the plotting, the dialogue, the scene-setting, the big themes, the dark comedy, the suspense, etc., are all so precisely calibrated that a “faithful” TV version sounds like a recipe for disaster. (Indeed, the announcement of a Fargo show, even by the reliable wizards at FX, sounded like a certain folly to me.) But as the show has unfolded and more characters and plot elements have been introduced, it’s carved out its own space within the universe of the Coens’ film. Not having any overlap between specific characters from TV to film is key here, because it allows the show to diverge as much as it wants without drawing comparison to the film, which would not be beneficial to it.
Friday Night Lights is a favorite, too, because again, it takes only the most basic DNA from Buzz Bissinger’s book—a football-crazy small town in Texas, a head coach under intense scrutiny, players who are gods on the field but uncertain off it—and uses that as the foundation for the show. There’s no point in telling Bissinger’s story again: One, because he told it; two, because it was told again in the film version of Friday Night Lights; and three, because an open-ended run of network TV needs a lot more grist for the mill. What I loved about the show is that its bittersweet tone never wavered from the start: Just those first few guitar plucks from the opening theme and you’re right there with those kids and those families, living for Friday night and sorting through some intense personal drama in the meantime. The driving force behind that show, Jason Katims, is responsible for Parenthood, too, and in both cases the TV version is far superior to the films, and for similar reasons. He knows where the strength in these concepts lies and what to lose. What do you think, Matt?
Matt: I think Friday Night Lights is the best show we’ve mentioned so far—and maybe the weakest movie of the bunch as well. (Forget for the moment that I brought up Red Dragon.) That may not be a coincidence. Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights isn’t a bad film, but there are so many more facets to the world of Texas high-school football than could be explored in a two-hour movie. Five seasons of network television gave Berg and Katims the space they needed to flesh that world out in a way they never could on the big screen (and also to get further and further away from the movie version of FNL).
Some stories and subjects may be best suited to a one-and-done film. Others might be better served by television, where they can be explored for months or even years. The problem with some of these series is that they take stories that were conceived and designed specifically for one medium and then force them into another. Witnessing that awkward conversion process over the course of a rocky first season can be like watching someone jam a square peg into a round hole 10 or 13 or 22 times. With enough time and care, those edges get sanded down, and the show finds its footing. But those early episodes can be really rough.
What I’ve enjoyed about Hannibal so far (and I’m currently halfway through season one) is the fact that it hasn’t tried to stretch out the story of Red Dragon over 13 hours. Although there are lingering plot threads, each episode is driven by a sort of “serial killer of the week.” That may not be the hippest approach in this era of densely serialized television, and I’ve read a fair number of complaints about the procedural aspects, but I’ve found it to be an effective way to take some recognizable characters from a film (and before that, a novel) and adapt them to the television medium—and to take a recognizable crime-show format and breathe some new life into it.
Unlike a lot of film-to-television adaptations (and a lot of television in general), Hannibal also has a great, distinctive visual style. Even in its depictions of grotesque violence, it is a beautiful show; the pilot was directed by filmmaker David Slade, and he gave the series a smart, sleek look. A big reason I enjoy watching Hannibal is that I simply enjoy looking at it; the elegant constructions and compositions, the food-porn shots of Lecter’s meals, and the color-palette shifts around Graham’s empathic detective skills.
Noel: I definitely agree that Hannibal is one of the best-looking shows on TV, and whenever I watch it—which isn’t often enough, I’ll admit—it’s the visuals I’m drawn to as much as the excellent performances. Hannibal doesn’t look like Michael Mann, or Jonathan Demme, or Ridley Scott, or even Brett Ratner. It has its own style, which somehow fuses “feverish” and “icy.”
The reason I don’t watch Hannibal that much, though, is that our DVR is overstuffed with blood-soaked “adult” shows that my wife and I can only watch during that two-hour block every night between when our kids go to bed and when we do; and when it comes down to it, I’d rather spend time with the would-be kings of Westeros or the conflicted Soviet spies of The Americans than hang around with Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. One way that television is different from movies is that TV has more time to develop stories and to build characters, which means one of the primary functions of a TV show is to create a narrative and a community that’s welcoming enough for viewers to want to return week after week, just to hang out. And I don’t think Hannibal does that very well, whatever its many other virtues.
You know what TV-show-based-on-a-movie did do that, though? Buffy The Vampire Slayer. There’s an old theory that great novels don’t make great movies—only mediocre novels do. I wonder if the same is true for TV. M*A*S*H aside (and possibly Fargo), most of the really good TV series I can think of that came from movies used hugely imperfect films as their starting point. In Buffy’s case, Joss Whedon’s original concept of a reluctant, easily underestimated superheroine was one that was too easily turned into a lame joke with just a 90-minute runtime. Over seven seasons, though, Whedon and his collaborators were able to build out the mythology and develop an appealing ideology, in a way that caught people who’d initially shrugged off the movie—like me—completely by surprise.
Scott: Perhaps the main reason why mediocre novels made great movies is that there’s less of an obligation to stick to the text: Filmmakers just take whatever it is they need, buzzard-like, from the source, and expand from there. (Though I’d actually argue that simple, plot-driven novels are the ones that make the best movies, because they don’t cause as many translation hassles. But that’s another discussion.) In the case of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Whedon was a young writer who had the humbling experience of standing by while his script was butchered by people who didn’t have the right feel for the material. (It’s also possible that his work simply wasn’t as good as it would be later.) Whedon’s TV show made a crucial adjustment from the start: It took away the thin joke of a cheerleader named Buffy being the Chosen One type and took her seriously; the comedy was then shifted to verbal and visual wit, where it belonged, or eliminated altogether when she and her friends were in real crisis. Still, it took years for fans of the show to convince people that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was not an exercise in disposable frivolity, and it’s a triumph that when the title comes up today, many are surprised to learn that a movie version existed at all.
On the other hand, is there a downside to that? Television is a popular medium, and successful shows can reach much larger audiences than movies can. Would you consider Altman’s M*A*S*H comparable to Fran Rubel Kazui’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer in terms of cultural memory? In other words, is M*A*S*H understood more as a TV show than a movie? I think it is, despite being superior in every respect. I don’t think the same will be true of Fargo—and certainly not of Bates Motel—but it’s an ongoing concern of mine that the most recent example of a title will be the one that sticks in people’s minds, whether it’s the definitive version or not. Am I being too cynical here?
Matt: Maybe a little. Until Bates Motel, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was the most recent example of that property, and that didn’t exactly replace Alfred Hitchcock’s version in people’s minds, except perhaps during conversations about the least successful remakes in history. Similarly, Red Dragon hasn’t supplanted Manhunter as the most iconic version of that story, and there are plenty more examples of television shows that succeed classic films that have since been forgotten to the footnotes of history. (Ferris Bueller, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?)
Television’s M*A*S*H is remembered as much for its newness as its staying power. You might think Altman’s M*A*S*H was better than Alda’s (and I might agree with you), but it’s hard to argue that that show connected with millions of people, and did so over the course of an entire decade (and several more decades of reruns after that). It’s almost impossible for a single movie that might play once or twice a year on cable to compete with a show that airs twice a night, five times a week, for half a century.
My own cynical side is waiting for something else: the moment when a film-to-TV adaptation becomes so successful on the small screen that it inspires a big-screen reboot, creating a perpetual loop of cross-medium franchise exploitation. It seems inevitable at this point. Maybe it will happen with Friday The 13th; while we were writing this piece, it was announced that Jason Voorhees will be the next movie slasher to join Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates on TV. If crummy movies really do make better shows, I suggest they deliberately focus their adaptation on Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and use it to produce the greatest horror television series of all time.