If we’ve not said it before, then we’ll definitely say it again in the future; we’re in the golden age of TV.
From series like Twin Peaks, through Oz, The Sopranos, Sienfeld, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and The Wire, there are now more insightful and though-provoking dramas produced by and for US audiences than there are by Hollywood. By some considerable margin.
Season one of The Wire. The best thing ever to appear on TV.
We’ve seen the big movie (intentional use of the word) studios hedging their bets more and more often. In 2007 AMC debuted Mad Men, BBC launched The Tudors, HBO premiered Flight of the Conchords, ABC had Pushing Daisies, Showtime had Californication, while FX had Damages. These were the biggest stations in the world, taking chances away from the mainstream, hoping to find intelligent audiences.
At the same time, the highest grossing films released by the Big Six studios weren’t exactly challenging. The third installments of Pirates of the Caribbean, Spiderman and Shrek didn’t live up to their originals, Transformers was one big ad-break, while I am Legend stripped out everything that made the book sacred in the name of a happy ending. We won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but needless to say, the title of the book is less important in the film.
One constant has been the willingness to transfer successful comic books onto the silver screen. This has been done with an increasing level of sophistication, from Nolan’s Batman to Whedon’s Avengers to Jon Favreau (or should we say, Robert Downey Jnr’s) Iron Man. Even Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300 were given effective cinema treatment, while Watchmen was one god-awful sex scene from being a very fair treatment.
So why, in the golden age of television, aren’t we getting more TV adaptations of what are almost always episodic stories? The Walking Dead has been a semi-successful take on Robert Kirkman’s usually-excellent comic, but we’ve yet to see the subtlety and breathing space that television affords combined with comic characters.
AMC’s adaptation of The Walking Dead is almost really good.
When you think about it, the two mediums are perfect for each other, particularly for the less flamboyant tales. Great TV is about unveiling characters over hours, maybe even days, of revealing insights, while comic stories can play with the luxury of time and pace within interlocking story arcs.
With this in mind, we’ve thought about some stories that would be perfect for small screen adaptations. First, our disclaimers!
There’s no point in having a small screen adaptation of Batman, or Hulk, or Superman anymore. These characters are legitimately Big Screen. TV budgets couldn’t do what they’d need to do to make these the spectacles they should be.
Likewise, if there’s ever a screen version of The Invisibles it needs to be Big. Transmetropolitan would make a great film (or maybe that’s just wishful thinking). After much consideration, we also came to the same conclusion about Sandman. A series of films would/could do it justice, with the possibility of a spin-off Endless TV series? What we’re needing is something a bit more subtle.
Secondly, we do need to be aware of what would and wouldn’t work on television. As much as we’d love to see a version of The Boys created by HBO, we just don’t think the world is ready for that. The fact a film version is being suggested seems ludicrous, unless Hollywood really is ready for paedophile superheroes, a protagonist who needs breast milk to survive and a Russian hero called Love Sausage. No? Didn’t think so.
So, on to the list…
Chew follows the (mis)adventures of cibopathic detective Tony Chu, who has the powers to feel the last moments of whatever he eats. While this is incredible useful, not to mention stomach churning, for his work in solving crimes, it also means that his diet is pretty much restricted to beetroot so as to avoid the wracking pain of consuming flesh or the taste of pesticides.
Tony Chu, created by John Layman and Rob Guillory.
Set in a world where avian flu caused millions of deaths and the eventual ban on chicken produce, Chew is a sci-fi detective story filtered through a Ren and Stimpy lens.
A television version of Chew (surely starring Ken Leung from Lost?) could focus on him solving an individual crime each week, with each revealing something of a bigger picture. Think of it as being Murder She Wrote with teeth.
Without giving too much away in spoilers, there are significant events which would anchor each series, and occasional characters that pop-up with equally bizarre “super” powers.
If that’s not enough of a sales pitch, Chew also features vampires, cannibalism, aliens, lots of heaving bosoms and a sexually opportunistic android.
Showtime have done an excellent job on the creation of Dexter, keeping what is essentially a ridiculous notion rooted in reality. They’ve managed to keep a firm grip on the dark humour of the series, without it becoming farcical. Equally, the frequent violence is handled in an almost-comic, semi-surrealist fashion anyway. If they could apply the same rules to Chew they’d be on to a winner.
Set in modern-day New York, Fables tells the story of fugitive fairy-tales, who have had to leave their own lands for the relative safety of the USA, after their worlds were conquered by The Adversary.
Fables: Legends in Exile. Compiling issues 1-5.
If all of this sounds a little childish, then it’s worth pointing out the layers of subtext in the stories and the not-so-subtle political allegories in later books. Each character is transposed into a real-life version of their fairy-tale selves; Pinocchio is a sexually frustrated adolescent, cursed by never being able to grow old; Prince Charming is a womanising sleaze with three failed marriages; the Big Bad Wolf (aka Bigbie Wolf) is re-imagined as a film noir sleuth, watching out for the inhabitants of Fable town.
Key to Fables’ hugely successful run (118 issues and counting, not including spin-offs) has been the number of characters they can call on and explore. Key to the jeopardy of the drama is the over-arching threat that The Adversary will find their new hiding place, but it is the intricate way the characters work together, live together, love together and die together that makes the series compelling.
This is perfect for TV. Michael Madsen as Bigbie Wolf? Here’s the pitch… The opening scene of the pilot shows an animated tapestry depiction of the fairy-tale world we are all familiar with, with a baroque string section playing something quaint and peaceful. From there the sky darkens and we see the violent (really violent) deaths of Fables at the hands of a monstrous invading army.
Then the music skews and we go “through the clouds” and Googlemap zoom right into modern Manhattan, following the worn soles of a male protagonist. Our happy-ever-after music replaced by something like this…
…illusion shattered? We’re not in Kansas any more. We follow the feet into a building, then into a lift, then along a decrepit corridor to a door. The door opens, our protagonist enters, and we pan up to reveal the name on the glass: Bigby Wolf, Sheriff.
HBO successfully lured viewers into the world of Dungeons and Dragons with Game of Thrones, and could surely do the same trick again with Fables? This isn’t a series that is big on laughs, but it requires the skill of successful characterisation and development. There aren’t any better in the business.
We’ve already established that Batman is now far too big for the small screen, but what’s to say we get a spin-off from the caped crusader? There were plans in place to make a TV version of Gotham Central, the Gotham police department, almost a decade ago, but nothing ever came to fruition.
Gotham Central #1, cover by Michael Lark
Now is surely the time to revisit the idea? The world of Gotham meets The Wire? Not only would a TV series be able to give some time over to the huge rogues gallery of the DC universe (maybe even get some knowing cameos from Tommy Monaghan or Jean-Paul Valley?), but it’d be able to further explore the complex nature of morality in Gotham. How do the police feel about a vigilante doing their jobs? Is the city a safer place for having a guardian angel? What happens when you find the body of a man who laughed himself to death? What happens to police officers who think they too can take justice into their own hands too?
Key to this working would be to keep both Batman and the more fantastical elements of the comics away from the TV series. Take a series like The Shield, which took traditional police dramas and ramped everything up to eleven. That would be the model to play with.
Gotham has numerous Crime Lords, lesser criminals and familiar faces that would serve as exceptional linking devices for a detailed analysis of the world of Batman. A really clever scriptwriter could also incorporate some of the deconstructive elements of the superhero work of Alan Moore or Mark Miller.
One of the great modern leaps in Batman mythology was the release of the Arkham Asylum and Arkham City games, which portrayed the locations as living, breathing places, where things happened other than just for the benefit of Batman. This would be an exceptional premise for a TV show.
Fancy an explore?
Not only would this play to the gallery of Batman fans, but it’d offer a far bigger exploration of one of the great unsung characters in the Batman universe, Gotham City itself. This is a town of millions, which has been under the grip of various terrorist activities and campaigns of fear. What better time than now to explore that relationship between a perceived threat and the real dangers of American living? Do citizens feel safer at night knowing there’s an all-powerful mystery-man watching them for wrong-doing?
NYPD have 35,000 serving police officers. Presumably Gotham would have something similar. That’s a lot of stories.
Warner Brothers TV was interested in making a version of this a decade ago, but opted out. Presumably the rights to this would now fall to The CW TV network, which isn’t exactly a blessing. Although they had fairly sympathetic treatments of the Superman universe in Smallville, the majority of shows they produce are the likes of Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural. It wouldn’t be impossible for them to take Gotham Central and turn it into a success, but it’d be very different to what they make just now.
In an ideal world, and this isn’t ever going to happen, we’d want FX to take this on. They already did police corruption taken to extreme levels, morally dubious police characters and vigilante justice in The Shield. Add in some DC characters and we’d be sold.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
In a history of cinematic abominations created from the fantastic world of Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was easily the worst. Stripping out all subtlety, self-referential humour and nuances of the comic, we were left with a mess of a film, which didn’t really have any reason for existence.
What the film-makers failed to realise is that without the references to books, characters, art, culture and fiction “of the time”, there was no point in creating the series at all. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is all about the references. As with much of Moore’s other work, it is a story about stories.
Where the film failed, a television series could succeed. One of the main reasons for the successes of the comic story is that it can play subtle tribute to – for example – the penny dreadful, or a promotional flyer from the 1850s, or a house-of-ill-repute mentioned in a work of 1909, without being screamingly obvious.
Drawing characters from great works of literary fiction – Alan Quartermain, Mina Murray, Jekyll/Hyde, Captain Nemo – only works if you yourself are writing literary fiction. To fully engage with the true genius of the comic, we have to know exactly who Mycroft Holmes is and why the invaders from Mars look the way they do. To get the joke we need to have done our homework.
This isn’t possible in a two-hour film, where explanations eat up valuable editing time. On TV, it would be far more feasible to create the world in which The League exists, and explain just who Jack the Ripper is, why Emma Frost is culturally important or the significance of Orlando.
The BBC. Imagine what the BBC could do with their archives, their record of producing period drama and – perhaps most importantly – their existing talent pool. Need to establish Mycroft Holmes in The League? Simply drop in Mark Gatiss (who would be brilliant at adapting this!). Steven Moffat has already had success with his take on Jekyll, another key component. Need vintage Emma Peel? You’ve got the archive.
Let the literary references sit comfortably in a literary work. Instead, create your televisual League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the world of television. There’s already been numerous adaptations of the classics, so set the scene for each series with what we collectively identify with in the realms of television.
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s masterpiece has been suggested for cinematic adaptations for years – Colombia currently own the rights – with little or no sign of progress. The Big Screen is the wrong medium to properly explore this world. Why? Well…
Hollywood has a problem when it comes to questioning religious faith. Despite making well over $200m at the box office, The Golden Compass was never given the sequel it needed because financiers were nervy about the atheistic message in Philip Pullman’s books.
Preacher is all about a holy-man who becomes the vessel for a supernatural spirit known as Genesis, created by the union of an angel and a demon. When the arrival of this spirit kills his flock, Jesse Custer – the title character – sets out to find God, who has abandoned his post in fear of Genesis/Jesse, and get some answers. This isn’t going to sell well in the mega-plex in Arkansas on a Sunday afternoon.
TV is the natural place for Preacher, which is essentially a road movie across the USA. Taking the chaotic style of a film like Natural Born Killers and transferring it to the small screen would perfectly fit with much of the extremity of the comic.
Part of the problem with simply making one Preacher film (and hoping that there’ll be another one) is that it’d miss so much of the mythology of a series which tackles The American Dream, religious corruption and Bill Hicks. Look at the above cover and tell me you don’t want to know the story of every one of those characters?
It’s HBO or nothing. Timothy Olyphant as Jesse, Yvonne Strahovski as Tulip, Aiden Turner as Cassidy. Make it happen.