The 8 Best Ways to Turn a Movie into an Amazing TV Series

Whether it's a faithful companion series like What We Do in the Shadows, a complete reinterpretation like Fargo, or a corrective do-over like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, here are the best ways to adapt a movie for TV.

by | May 15, 2020 | Comments

Poster for TNT's Snowpiercer

(Photo by TNT)

On May 17, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer will become a TNT television series starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs. It’s not the first property to jump from the big screen to the small one (it was technically a French graphic novel first), and it certainly won’t be the last. For decades now, television producers have been going to the movies and asking themselves if they could make what they’re watching work in an episodic format. Who needs writers to come up with ideas when the movies can do it for you?

The resulting series have been all over the map critically, from projects that were canceled early to ones that ran for years, nearly obliterating the original film from viewers’ minds. It got us thinking about the variety of approaches that creative voices have taken when they try to sing a cinematic song on TV. The jury is still out on whether or not the futuristic vision of Snowpiercer will translate into a multi-season hit, but here are the eight approaches that have worked in the past with an example from the top tier of the film-to-TV canon for each.

Make It Your Own: Fargo

Ewan McGregor in Season 3 of Fargo

(Photo by ©FX)

When Noah Hawley entered the world of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1995 masterpiece, he knew a literal approach wouldn’t work (and not just because it had already been attempted in 2003 with Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson in a failed TV pilot). He decided to use the atmosphere and language of the Coen-verse to tell his own stories, and the result became an award-winning critical darling. The best singers don’t just cover a song, they make it their own, reworking it in a way that redefines it. Fargo wouldn’t exist without the work of the Coen brothers, but no one would argue that it’s a direct interpretation of their creativity either. As much as Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal stands alongside both the Thomas Harris books and films, these shows use their cinematic sources as inspirations instead of a template waiting to be copied.

Make It a Prequel: Bates Motel

Freddie Highmore in Season 5 of Bates Motel

(Photo by Sergei Bachlakov/©A&E)

Sometimes the best way to adapt a cinematic property is to go back to the beginning. On paper, a young adult version of Norman Bates in contemporary times sounded like a horrible idea; it could have ended up just another teen drama like Gossip Girl, but with a little more murder. But the creators of Bates Motel deftly balanced nods to the Robert Bloch book and influential Alfred Hitchcock film throughout, culminating in a stellar final season that really tied it all together in unexpectedly moving ways. By going the prequel route, the creators had the freedom to tell a new story, even if it ultimately led to a familiar set of stairs.

Make It a Corrective: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

(Photo by © 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

It may have a cult following now, but writer Joss Whedon notoriously disliked the way his 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer was altered from his original intention. And so he convinced a fledgling network called The WB to give him a second shot at the character in weekly form, and the rest is TV history. It’s funny to watch the film now and see echoes of it in the series, which is darker, denser and more nuanced in ways that Whedon wasn’t allowed to be on the big screen. It’s a case in which the film probably should have been a TV series from the very beginning.

Make It Fun: Ash vs. Evil Dead

Lucy Lawless, Bruce Campbell, Dana DeLorenzo, and Ray Santiago in Ash vs. Evil Dead

(Photo by Matt Klitscher/©Starz)

Twenty-three years after Army of Darkness, no one expected to return to the world of Ash and the Deadites, but along came Starz’s gloriously gory Ash vs. Evil Dead, which carries in every frame an air of “can you believe we’re doing this?” Much like the Netflix reboot of Wet Hot American Summer, this show recognizes the fact that most people involved never thought they’d get the chance to make it, and so they’re going to have as much fun as possible while they can. And that fun can be infectious. Not everything needs to be “Prestige TV;” sometimes fans of a film just want to rekindle that fun sensibility that made movies like Evil Dead 2 and Wet Hot into cult hits in the first place.

Make It Feel New: Westworld

Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld

(Photo by John P. Johnson/HBO)

One wonders how many people trying to decipher the current season of Westworld have any idea it’s even based on a movie. While some adaptations exist to call back to their cinematic fan bases (see previous entry), others barely acknowledge the existence of the original property. The back story of a show like Teen Wolf doesn’t depend on knowing the Michael J. Fox original, and you don’t need to have seen the 1973 Yul Brynner film (or its truly dire 1976 sequel, Futureworld) to be invested in the saga of Dolores Abernathy and the Man in Black. And that’s just the way HBO likes it.

Make It Unexpected: The Girlfriend Experience

Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience

(Photo by Kerry Hayes/©Starz)

Sometimes the best shows are developed from films that no one involved ever thought would become a TV show (Snowpiercer might fall into this category). Steven Soderbergh’s drama about a high-priced escort didn’t exactly scream weekly drama, but the Starz adaptation found new stories to tell within this concept. Sometimes TV shows can even build on their source in ways that make them feel more creatively accomplished, such as Netflix’s Dear White People, which unexpectedly turned a good film into a great series. Going the blockbuster-to-show route can often lead to mediocre product, but shows like The Girlfriend Experience prove that there’s no specific “type” of movie that will succeed as a series.

Make It the Same: What We Do in the Shadows

The cast of What We Do in the Shadows

(Photo by )

The most common creative tenet of film-to-TV adaptations seems to be “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After all, if people liked it on the big screen, they’re bound to like it on the small screen, right? While this often produces faded carbon copies of creative ideas, it also just works sometimes. The dynamic between Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple that went from stage to screen to TV didn’t need to change. The movie Fame practically played like a pilot for the show. And the Taika Waititi hit that blended reality TV filmmaking with vampire lore was a perfect fit for the series, now on FX, without much alteration to the formula other than dividing the storytelling into bloody chunks and a change in location from New Zealand to Staten Island.

Make It Emotional: Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights

(Photo by ©NBC)

The main thing the best TV adaptations do is provide a recurring emotional connection that usually naturally dissipates after the credits have rolled on a film. Millions of people spent years with the families on shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, two programs that are arguably on the Mt. Rushmore of film-to-TV because they treated the source material as something not just to copy but to emotionally enrich. The format allowed the creators of these shows to go deeper and make these characters a part of viewers’ families for multiple seasons. People may have first checked out FNL because of the movie, but they hung around because of their emotional connection to the show. If only more film-to-TV adaptations were this good.

Tag Cloud

Lionsgate Black Mirror FX Arrowverse deadpool godzilla Biopics Endgame Universal Pictures Crunchyroll Chernobyl Tubi nfl Masterpiece Box Office adenture HBO Go AMC Plus blaxploitation vs. Oscars adaptation Song of Ice and Fire Paramount Pictures Turner Pixar hispanic rt labs Best Actor Mindy Kaling gangster Holiday PBS 2021 Interview Stephen King Comic-Con@Home 2021 Holidays TruTV twilight San Diego Comic-Con nbcuniversal south america The Walt Disney Company RT21 women Fox Searchlight IMDb TV Countdown Summer video on demand Captain marvel Best Picture critic resources Brie Larson die hard Disney streaming service E3 legend Comedy Central Academy Awards Amazon Studios comiccon cancelled TV shows Best Director Elton John scary 2018 Crackle A24 zero dark thirty cancelled TV series GIFs Dark Horse Comics casting kids criterion venice indiana jones aapi The Academy Television Academy italian Star Trek E! Tumblr TV renewals Disney+ Disney Plus slasher Sundance TV Election psycho ITV Sundance Grammys space BET Comic Book movies Tomatazos Polls and Games finale Prime Video justice league cars sopranos zombie 79th Golden Globes Awards Winners Shudder ratings WGN Lifetime Christmas movies Western dogs 24 frames lord of the rings See It Skip It comedies Baby Yoda spanish First Reviews Black History Month Rocky parents TV One superman mission: impossible Sony Pictures BBC One DC streaming service dc TNT TCA Awards book adaptation RT History ID 90s Vudu reboot CBS 2015 Marvel Television Amazon young adult book Pop dexter summer preview zombies Hallmark historical drama supernatural emmy awards Trophy Talk ABC Signature Exclusive Video trailers richard e. Grant Epix franchise Marvel Horror unscripted Broadway Awards Tour APB TV serial killer technology ghosts breaking bad Bravo FXX The CW feel good diversity elevated horror high school YouTube Red 99% TCA Winter 2020 boxoffice 4/20 Toys a nightmare on elm street DGA Film Festival GLAAD OneApp Paramount Network 20th Century Fox Disney TCM stand-up comedy 007 A&E Logo binge Thanksgiving Pet Sematary HFPA teaser cats free movies Mystery Mudbound best werewolf crime Set visit Hallmark Christmas movies Apple TV+ DC Universe heist movie 71st Emmy Awards Character Guide wonder woman adventure WarnerMedia Showtime Quiz Sundance Now comic stoner Spike nature Netflix disaster quibi Oscar 2016 Hulu kong AMC universal monsters japan jamie lee curtis First Look LGBTQ The Walking Dead USA robots genre witnail MTV TIFF versus Star Wars Fargo Premiere Dates festivals harry potter TV movies Starz hispanic heritage month ABC Family streamig prank Ovation latino docudrama Women's History Month 2017 DC Comics pirates of the caribbean mockumentary Syfy Columbia Pictures Focus Features TBS Music Super Bowl CNN mob international 72 Emmy Awards scene in color Best and Worst Photos vampires strong female leads singing competition sequel Trivia television halloween action-comedy game of thrones Pacific Islander razzies biography rotten movies we love leaderboard MCU Spectrum Originals National Geographic New York Comic Con Fox News batman james bond target composers canceled TV shows golden globe awards cinemax marvel cinematic universe Musicals critics new star wars movies broadcast FOX popular social media news dragons Pirates Paramount cooking Tags: Comedy SXSW 2022 Walt Disney Pictures reviews Superheroe satire series Calendar NYCC streaming discovery streaming movies dreamworks Disney Plus Disney Channel Funimation Reality Competition rt labs critics edition medical drama facebook films Best Actress video anime blockbusters documentary Christmas Binge Guide TCA Netflix Christmas movies Cartoon Network toronto obi wan 93rd Oscars sequels 45 transformers slashers Sci-Fi archives marvel comics tv talk Cannes spider-man telelvision black comedy Animation Pop TV NBC king arthur chucky independent Valentine's Day Film El Rey Musical Infographic christmas movies comics award winner live action Sneak Peek rom-coms renewed TV shows cults child's play Spring TV Paramount Plus worst movies Marathons police drama 2020 mutant Superheroes cartoon Video Games fresh Hear Us Out Kids & Family documentaries spinoff royal family Awards halloween tv Rocketman sports docuseries SXSW crime drama American Society of Cinematographers Mary Tyler Moore king kong Discovery Channel Alien Mary Poppins Returns biopic rt archives summer TV Image Comics australia hidden camera NBA blockbuster asian-american ViacomCBS laika fast and furious Shondaland toy story Lifetime Tarantino Country Drama TV Land Esquire Marvel Studios 73rd Emmy Awards BET Awards Emmy Nominations crime thriller Rock children's TV The Arrangement Avengers HBO foreign Ghostbusters Turner Classic Movies concert obituary 94th Oscars sitcom Legendary Travel Channel live event joker superhero green book period drama directors CBS All Access hist Freeform Instagram Live HBO Max stop motion talk show classics PlayStation LGBT indie dark YouTube Premium Cosplay travel comic books spanish language screen actors guild BBC Emmys X-Men know your critic trophy aliens Family canceled USA Network spider-verse true crime VH1 debate DirecTV Pride Month boxing Tokyo Olympics BAFTA OWN BBC America theme song miniseries natural history MSNBC IFC Films Universal politics olympics Mary poppins MGM Wes Anderson Food Network cancelled Trailer Nickelodeon Teen ABC monster movies dceu Television Critics Association Amazon Prime Ellie Kemper GoT war Neflix Red Carpet VICE Amazon Prime Video Schedule based on movie 21st Century Fox ESPN Action mcc comic book movie Writers Guild of America basketball YA Comics on TV revenge romantic comedy Acorn TV Hollywood Foreign Press Association scorecard TCA 2017 all-time japanese animated game show 2019 suspense Reality Certified Fresh cops Peacock FX on Hulu President saw CMT SDCC TLC comic book movies Opinion kaiju political drama Creative Arts Emmys Anna Paquin Nominations Nat Geo romance name the review rotten black science fiction CW Seed thriller summer TV preview Podcast PaleyFest Martial Arts Heroines 1990s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Fantasy posters Classic Film golden globes VOD anthology Year in Review what to watch IFC YouTube scary movies Watching Series remakes The Witch spy thriller cancelled television dramedy hollywood french Comedy movie worst Britbox screenings doctor who sag awards Extras Apple The Purge Fall TV Chilling Adventures of Sabrina spain festival crossover Winter TV South by Southwest Film Festival Lucasfilm new zealand SundanceTV Warner Bros. History Apple TV Plus football psychological thriller Adult Swim new york jurassic park Rom-Com art house