Tuned In: Why Do Film Adaptations Of TV Shows Always Suck So Hard?
Because they all do.
Tuned In is Junkee’s fortnightly TV column. This particular instalment has no spoilers, because nothing ever happens in Entourage.
If you re-watch the early episodes of Entourage, you’ll notice something striking. With predictable regularity, every couple of episodes, one of the characters says some version of this sentence to the other: “Whenever we roll the dice, it works out. It always does.” There’s Entourage in a nutshell: minor problems present themselves, before being easily resolved by stacks of cash and batted eyelashes.
But the weekend figures have dropped, and Entourage is officially a flop. It’s grossed a mere $17 million in the five days since its release, which is approximately the amount of money Vince spent on impulse luxury car purchases for his bros over the course of the HBO series’ eight seasons.
It’s not surprising. Entourage had lost its sheen – and most of its audience – long before they called it a day in 2011. The show began as a voyeuristic peek into the blessed but often grotesque lives of some sketchy yet charming kids from the block, who’d been given the golden key to Hollywood. Fifty three hours later, it was merely a mediation on how, if you’re exceptionally handsome, world-famous, filthy-stinking rich, hugely powerful, and a white dude, you probably don’t have the kind of problems that can sustain 28 minutes of dramedy. (If the show’s directors hadn’t been constantly challenging themselves to see how many boobs they could fit into the frame, one could almost argue that it’s actually a protest film about the profligacy of the one percent, designed to make the rest of us take to the streets and smash up Maseratis.)
This is the second time an HBO TV show has been declared a spectacular failure on the big screen. While the first Sex And The City movie managed to make money and largely avoid the unmitigated ire of critics by riding residual affection for its characters — affection which Entourage had well and truly spent by the end of its TV run – the sequel will go down in the history books as one of the biggest trainwrecks of all time. Like Entourage, SATC 2 depicted truly obscene wealth. And like Entourage, the ‘drama’ came from conflicts so minimal they could have been confidently handled in a cutaway elsewhere. Oh no! The girls have been thrown out of a hotel with only an hour to pack! Whatever will they do? (Sadly, the answer is not, “Leave the god-awful clothes, go home, and think about their life choices.”)
Scaling up the drama and conflict is always going to be difficult when you have to fill 120 minutes with half-hour storylines; the end result is often a slight plot stretched awfully thin, and filled out with more montages than every sport film put together.
Both of these problems – the abundance of style, and the paucity of substance – can be partly attributed to the fact that there was already an element of wish-fulfillment inbuilt into the worlds of both SATC and Entourage. We sat on the couch eating off our pyjama-panted laps, watching people who rocked multiple designer outfits a day, dined at restaurants serving things we hadn’t heard of yet, and went to clubs and parties filled with the impossibly beautiful, famous, and sexually available.
In making a filmic adaptation of a TV show, the creators might assume that the audience wants to watch the characters they’ve spent years with achieve all their wildest dreams, and to do so with in a manner befitting the larger screen (and entry price). But with a show like Entourage, particularly in a post-GFC world, the end result doesn’t feel so much like fantasy as it does the filmmakers gleefully rubbing the characters’ wealth and success in our faces. “You may have lost your job, but these dudes have never even had one, so you can relate, right? Let’s do some shots off these bypassing tits!”
Which brings us to the question: what makes a movie adaption of a TV show really work? The first X-Files movie was moderately well-received; the second a disaster which also fell into the trap of giving the audience what the showrunners thought they wanted: Mulder and Scully riding off into the sunset to a tropical island idyll. (I can only hope that said island was more bonkers than the one from Lost: the idea of the two of them clinking cocktail glasses with paper umbrellas in them is too tragic to be borne.)
The most recent success story that springs to mind is Veronica Mars, which was axed in 2007 after three critically acclaimed yet under-watched series, and whose loyal fanbase had been bravely battling to revive ever since. And after one of the first big crowd-funding successes, they got their wish: the film raised its budget in a matter of hours, and was made digitally available to its backers on the day of release in 2014.
Making a movie out of a show which routinely solved murders and conspiracies while addressing corruption, class conflict, racial conflict, and a genuinely complicated relationship is going to be a little easier than adapting one that is 40% shoes. But it’s not just that the grit of the TV show was better suited to long-form; it’s that, by and large, filmmaker Rob Thomas didn’t actually try to scale up his world to cinema size.
The mystery is bigger, the characters older and wiser, but everything else feels familiar; it’s Veronica putting her sleuth skills to work in her hometown Neptune, with the help of her friends. Had the makers of the SATC or Entourage adaptations had a crack at the script, we may well have seen two hours of Veronica Mars, CIA agent, getting to the bottom of a global conspiracy between Wall Street, big oil, the government and Facebook. And it would have been actually set on Neptune.
Veronica Mars succeeds because it stayed true to the heart of the show, its world, and its characters. If Sex And The City crammed its leads into the back of a grimy New York cab, or if the crew from Entourage were ever at risk of blowing it all and heading back to Queens, those movies might have been better too.
There is also one TV show which has consistently produced absolutely delightful movies. Let’s hear it for the Muppets; always charming on any screen size available.
Maddie Palmer is a writer, broadcaster, TV and digital producer. Her work has appears on The Feed on SBS2, and she talks about TV with Myf Warhurst on Double Jay. She tweets from @msmaddiep.