TV adaptations of movies prove smaller can be better

As a US network gears up a Silence of the Lambs prequel, Oliver Good looks at other film-to-TV adaptations.

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He was named the greatest villain in the history of the silver screen by the American Film Institute, but it seems Dr Hannibal Lecter - famed for a penchant for human flesh - is now determined to terrify audiences on the small screen, too. Earlier this month, the US network NBC revealed its forthcoming series, Hannibal, will become the latest in a long and varied line of film properties to make the jump to television, with the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen donning the famous metal mask.

The series is expected to be loosely based on Thomas Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon, in which the eminent psychiatrist and serial killer makes his debut. The story has already been adapted for film twice, first featuring Brian Cox in 1986's Manhunter, then in 2002 with Anthony Hopkins, who had previously won an Oscar portraying Lecter in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.

Mikkelsen is best known for depicting Hollywood baddies in Casino Royale and Clash of the Titans, but also won the best actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, giving his most naturalistic performance to date in The Hunt, as a shy kindergarten teacher whose life is torn apart when he is falsely accused of sexual abuse.

The Danish actor will co-star opposite the previously announced Hugh Dancy as the FBI agent Will Graham, with the pair's close working relationship destined to become complicated by Lecter's fondness for eating people. News of Mikkelsen's casting was well-received by fans of Harris's psychopath, particularly after Lecter's most recent appearance in the 2007 prequel Hannibal Rising (played by Gaspard Ulliel), was panned by critics.

The series, set to debut in the autumn, is being developed by Bryan Fuller, best known for his work on the now-defunct Heroes and Pushing Daisies. With the exception of a short-lived 2002 adaptation of Stephen King classic Carrie, this will be Fuller's first attempt at bringing a major film property to the small screen - a task that has proved notoriously difficult to pull off in the past.

But among the dozens of poorly handled movie-to-TV adaptations, a handful of successful examples have stood out. Following on from the hit 1970 film M*A*S*H, the TV show that arrived two years later with an all-new cast managed to clock up an impressive 11 seasons. Set in an army hospital during the Korean War (but famously satirising the Vietnam conflict), the show's final episode became the most-viewed television event in US history at the time of broadcast.

Another of the few TV shows agreed to have surpassed the film that spawned it is 1997's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The movie, which had passed by five years earlier, starred Kirsty Swanson in the role that Sarah Michelle Gellar eventually made her own, as well as an appearance from Donald Sutherland and the on-screen debut of Hilary Swank. The Buffy creator Joss Whedon has distanced himself from the film, claiming his darkly comedic script was rewritten and watered down against his wishes.

Perhaps the most highly acclaimed film-to-TV adaptation of recent years was the drama Friday Night Lights, which told the story of the 1988 American football team the Permian High School Panthers. The 2002 film, starring Billy Bob Thornton, attempted to be more than a simple sports movie, shining a light on social issues in small-town America. Although a critical and box-office success, the film's director Peter Berg felt more could be done to explore the issues raised (including school funding, racism, drugs and the lack of economic opportunities for students), and quickly set about creating the TV show. Audiences were small, but Friday Night Lights chalked up five seasons and was showered with awards.

Science fiction films have proved particularly worthy candidates for small-screen adaptations. Stargate SG-1 (adapted from the 1994 blockbuster) didn't suffer when its A-list cast was replaced and went on to become one of the longest-running TV series in recent history. From 1989's Alien Nation (based on the extraterrestrials-as-foreign-migrants parable of the previous year) to 2008's under-appreciated Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, thought-provoking ideas are sometimes best delivered in weekly instalments, even if budgets aren't always up to the challenge of delivering them.

Five of the worst

Casablanca (1955 and 1983)
It's hard to imagine anyone filling Humphrey Bogart's shoes in the 1942 movie, but that didn't stop TV networks from trying ... twice. Both shows were set prior to the events of the Hollywood classic, with Charles McGraw (Spartacus) and David Soul (Starsky and Hutch) playing the nightclub-owning anti-hero. The former survived for 10 episodes, the latter just five.

Delta House (1979)
Recreating the provocative and anarchic feel of the frat comedy Animal House for prime-time audiences was never going to be easy, particularly without the one-man hurricane John Belushi at the story's centre. The writing team, and they included the soon-to-be famous scribe John Hughes (Pretty in Pink), did their best, but the task proved too great.

Bates Motel (1987)
Alfred Hitchcock's proto-slasher Psycho may end with Norman Bates incarcerated in a mental hospital, but the writers of this short-lived series opted against bringing back the infamous killer. Instead, his motel is bequeathed to an asylum pal who takes over the story. Viewers just couldn't see the point and the pilot was never picked up for a series.

Dirty Dancing (1988)
After giving audiences the time of their lives with the 1987 coming-of-age story, CBS opted to feed it to them again, only this time in 30-minute chunks and with the movie's much-loved cast replaced. Doing little more than stepping on the toes of the original, the show lasted just 11 episodes.

Ferris Bueller (1990)
There was no reason why the adventures of America's most loveable teenage prankster wouldn't work as a TV show, so four years after the Matthew Broderick movie debuted, NBC took it out for a spin. But despite a young Jennifer Aniston appearing alongside the new lead Charlie Schlatter, the show never found its feet and the network decided Ferris wasn't worth saving.