Several years ago, Yahoo polled 1,000 TV viewers and asked them what classic show they’d like to see revived. The surprise winner was a program that had ended its run nearly 20 years earlier, and was probably best known for one of it stars, a Mohawked black man wearing enough jewelry to pay off the national debt, whose favorite catchphrase was the iconic “I pity the fool!”
Yep, Mr. T and “The A-Team” remained favorites long after their supposed sell-by dates, which is a major reason why, after almost a decade in development, a big-screen version of the series opens Friday. And, as “A-Team” director Joe Carnahan told the Los Angeles Times, this is not “the easy, breezy Cover Girl version of ‘The A-Team.’ We’re not making an homage to ‘The A-Team.’ We’re taking the base story of four guys wrongfully convicted of a crime. That’s the point of departure.”
So what else is new? When it comes to source material, Hollywood has been looking to TV since the boob tube became a mass medium. The Oscar-winning 1955 film “Marty” was based on a TV drama, as was the classic 1957 film “12 Angry Men.” From “Maverick” to “The X-Files,” “The Untouchables” to “The Twilight Zone,” the film industry has continued to raid TV for ideas. (And TV has reworked film. Hence, “M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H.”) This summer alone, three TV adaptations will be in the nation’s multiplexes: “The A-Team,” “Sex and the City 2” and “MacGruber” (from the “Saturday Night Live” parody of the TV series “MacGyver”).
The reasons for this love affair are obvious. “Executives are always afraid of spending money on an unknown quantity,” says film critic Marshall Fine of Hollywoodandfine.com. “That’s why movies based on old TV shows are so popular — because there’s a huge audience who knows exactly what you’re talking about when you mention the title.”
“If people know the title, that saves the marketing department millions of dollars,” adds TV critic David Bianculli of TVworthwatching.com.
But given the number of truly awful TV adaptations, the journey from small to large screen can be perilous. “You have to look at the movie as a reinvention,” says “A-Team” producer Jules Daly. “If you think you have to replicate the show, you’re going to lose. And sometimes the cheesier the show, it gives you more to go with. You embrace the cheese, or find what was solid within.”
“If something has been a series already, there are a certain number of elements that people got to know each week, so you have to know what people tuned in for, and keep those elements going,” says veteran screenwriter Steven E. de Souza (“Die Hard,” “The Flintstones”). “But you have to edit and filter, because if a show has been on for years, there are dozens of characters, and there are cast changes. Does (a certain) character come back?”
For “A-Team” director Carnahan, that filtering process wasn’t especially difficult, although the film has updated certain aspects of the series. In the original, which ran from 1983 to 1987, George Peppard (John “Hannibal” Smith), Dirk Benedict (“Face” Peck), Dwight Schultz (“Howlin’ Mad” Murdock) and the inimitable Mr. T (B.A. Baracus) starred as Vietnam-era Army Special Forces soldiers who were ordered to rob the bank of Hanoi as a means to end the war. But the officer who issued the order was later murdered, so those in the A-Team were branded as criminals and sent to prison. They eventually escaped, and took on jobs as soldiers of fortune while running from the military.
In the new version, which features Liam Neeson as Hannibal, Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”) as Face, Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) as Murdock and mixed martial arts fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as B.A., the men are Iraq War covert operatives framed for a crime they didn’t commit. They escape from a military prison and try to find out who took them down.
In addition to the major characters, a few of the program’s old touchstones remain, such as when team leader Hannibal Smith utters his classic line, “I love it when a plan comes together.” But other aspects, like the Iraq war time frame, have been updated. No longer in the mix is B.A.‘s bejeweled accessorizing, nor does he utter, “I pity the fool.” And certifiable wild man “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock has also been reconfigured.
“It’s more technically (with Murdock),” says Daly. “Whatever they were doing then was more physical. Now the stakes are much higher, like they’re flying a tank in the air, and he’s operating everything. Joe amped him up to a ‘realer’ person.”
No matter how the film plays out, however, fans of the show will be able to wallow in a double dose of “A-Team” nostalgia. Hitting video stores on Tuesday is the 25-disc complete series on DVD, packaged in a replica of the van the boys traveled in. And if nothing else, there’s hope that Carnahan’s project will feature what de Souza says he feels is a key aspect of TV-to-movie success. Think more explosions, more stunts and way more computer-generated imagery.
“The bigger-than-life franchises, where the bigger budgets can give you much more,” tend to work best, de Souza says. “The audience knows it will get a bigger experience than watching the TV show.”
FROM TV TO FILM, FOR BETTER OR WORSE
Filmmakers have been trying to translate boob tube success to the big screen for decades. Some have succeeded; many have failed. Here are some of the best and worst TV-to-film adaptations.
“The Untouchables” (1987) — A stylish TV series becomes a stylish film, thanks to director Brian De Palma and stars Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro and Sean Connery.
“The Addams Family” (1991) — Technically, this film is based on a series of New Yorker cartoons, but most people are probably familiar with the ‘60s TV series, so why quibble? A smart, funny screenplay, tight direction (by Barry Sonnenfeld), great casting (Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester, Christina Ricci as Wednesday) and the joyous chemistry between Raul Julia and Angelica Huston (as Gomez and Morticia Addams) make this one of the very best small- to-big-screen crossovers.
“The Brady Bunch Movie” (1995) — Take a clean-cut, early-‘70s family show. Update it by placing the square bunch in the ‘90s. It’s a camp parody that is respectful to the source material. And in Shelley Long and Gary Cole it has two terrific Brady parents.
“South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” (1999). Everything that Trey Parker and Matt Stone couldn’t get away with on basic cable they got to do in this filthy, funny and R-rated masterpiece.
“Star Trek: First Contact” (1996) — Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) fights off sexy Borg queen Alice Krige while the crew attempts to get a drunken inventor to make his first faster-than-light flight. Easily one of the best entries in the long-running series.
“Lost in Space” (1998) — Take a family-friendly, campy series, then turn it into a mega-budgeted, post-apocalyptic adventure story with Joey from “Friends” (Matt LeBlanc) as an action hero. “Danger, Will Robinson,” this movie stinks.
“The Avengers” (1998) — One of the best, and sexiest, series in TV history morphed into another example of Hollywood’s “if it’s bigger, it must be better” mentality. No Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee (Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman couldn’t match up with them). No droll British sense of humor. Can you say critical and box-office dud?
“The Mod Squad” (1999) — A lame attempt to update the hip, late-‘60s cop show. A decent cast — Claire Danes, Omar Epps, Giovanni Ribisi — could not overcome a paint-by-numbers screenplay and poor direction. And nothing could compete with Clarence Williams III’s ‘fro from the original series.
“The Wild, Wild West” (1999) — Someone should have told the makers of this travesty that less is more. Too much gunplay, too many special effects, way too much snarky posturing made this reworking of the classic — and delightfully small-scale — 1960s Western an overblown bore.
“The Dukes of Hazzard” (2005) — Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott as Luke and Bo Duke. Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke. Casting doesn’t get any worse than this.