When Jem and the Holograms makes its truly outrageous way into theaters this weekend, it’ll add another entry to the long list of successful television shows that have been adapted for the big screen. Of course, just because a concept works as a series doesn’t mean it’ll pay off as a film — and although all of us here certainly wish nothing but the best for Jem and her pals on their cinematic adventures, we’re willing to concede the possibility that this will end up being another instance where a few things will be lost in translation. In that spirit, we’ve decided to dedicate this feature to some of the bumpier journeys hit shows have experienced on the way to the cineplex, so don’t touch that dial — it’s time for Total Recall!
Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, and dinosaurs — plus a loose creative affiliation with one of the most beloved live-action Saturday morning serials of the 1970s. It’s a can’t-miss proposition, right? Universal certainly seemed to think so, given that the studio ponied up $100 million and a plum June release date for 2009’s Land of the Lost. Sadly, the result — which starred Ferrell as a nincompoop paleontologist who triggers a time warp and finds himself trapped in the distant past with a college student (Anna Friel) and a gift shop owner (McBride) — didn’t even try to recapture the low-budget magic of the original series, opting instead for a satirical approach that failed to resound with filmgoers and critics alike. “With his belligerent blankness and gawky aplomb, Ferrell has made me laugh as much as any comic of his generation, but he’s not doing anything fresh in Land of the Lost,” opined a disappointed Peter Rainer for the Christian Science Monitor.
Bewitched was an undeniably silly show, but its high-concept premise — about a witch who falls for an ordinary guy and tries to fit in with his suburban existence — was used to address a wide variety of themes and topics during its eight-season run. Updating the show for the 21st century really could have been a good idea, particularly with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell in the lead and Nora Ephron writing, directing, and producing, but this is one case of the road to cinematic hell being paved with good intentions — not to mention a convoluted script that added an unnecessary meta layer to the whole thing. In this version of Bewitched, Ferrell plays a washed-up actor approached to star in a film adaptation of Bewitched… whose vain attempt to secure a nobody for a co-star leads him to unwittingly cast an actual witch. It’s the kind of self-consciously aware stuff that really needs to be clever in order to work; alas, cleverness proved to be in exceedingly short supply. “If it lost every bad idea, miscast actor, wasted performance, and botched scene,” predicted the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, “nothing would be left but the end credits.”
A number of long-gone television shows were adapted for the big screen in the early 1990s, with wildly varying results; for every critical and commercial hit like The Brady Bunch Movie, there were a number of duds like… well, a few of the other films on this list, actually. Somewhere in the middle sat 1993’s The Beverly Hillbillies, director Penelope Spheeris’ rather inexplicable follow-up to her triumph with Wayne’s World the previous year — although the movie made money, it was a critical disaster, with review after review rejecting the film’s aggressive attempt to update the barn-broad cornpone humor of the hit series. While Spheeris enlisted a talented cast to portray the oil-rich Clampett clan, building a roster of stars that included Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Dabney Coleman, and Jim Varney, and the movie even worked in a clever cameo from original Beverly Hillbillies star Buddy Ebsen as his other iconic TV character, Barnaby Jones, it simply wasn’t enough to overcome the movie’s many creative flaws. “Four writers worked on the script,” noted the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum. “They all should hang their heads in shame.”
Starting with 1995’s Bad Boys, Will Smith pretty much owned the box office for the back half of the decade, toplining an impressive string of hits that included Independence Day, Men in Black, and Enemy of the State. By 1999, he had nowhere to go but down — although no one expected him to take a tumble as fast and steep as the infamous Wild Wild West, a woeful would-be Western steampunk action-comedy that entered theaters positioned as the hit of the summer and instantly revealed itself to be just as ludicrously ungainly as the mechanized spider thing piloted by Kenneth Branagh in the final act. Based on the hit CBS series that was described as “James Bond on horseback” during its 1965-’69 run, the big-screen West aped some of the form of its predecessor (including its flights of technological fancy), but neglected to include a sensible storyline, memorable characters, or interesting dialogue; the result was one of the least-loved major releases of the year. He’d certainly go on to enjoy further cinematic successes, but after this, Hollywood understood it needed more than Will Smith and some killer special effects to cook up a hit. “Wild Wild West is a comedy dead zone,” decreed Roger Ebert. “You stare in disbelief as scenes flop and die. The movie is all concept and no content; the elaborate special effects are like watching money burn on the screen.”
It broke new racial ground, but in terms of its concept, I Spy was pretty standard stuff — the secret agent adventures of an undercover tennis player (Robert Culp) and his trainer (Bill Cosby) as they traipsed around the world stopping bad guys. The secret of its Emmy-winning success was the abundant chemistry between Culp and Cosby — not to mention the sharp writing. All of the above was lost in translation when the show made its way to theaters in 2002, despite a small army of screenwriters and the star power of Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy. The problem, according to Ed Park of the Village Voice: “Though ample time is spent mingling Murphy’s jabberjaw locutions and Wilson’s curveball spaciness, the film leaves only the bitter reek of a botched chemistry experiment.”
A thinly disguised spinoff of the 1975 film Moonrunners, the hit CBS series The Dukes of Hazzard was never regarded as, shall we say, particularly intelligent entertainment. It was harmlessly cheesy fun, the rootin’ tootin’ adventures of some good ol’ boys who never meant no harm and were just makin’ their way the only way they knew how — which was, unfortunately just a little bit more than the law would allow. In other words, it should have been relatively easy to make an entertaining Dukes movie in 2005, especially with an eclectic cast that included Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, Burt Reynolds, and an exuberantly short-shorted Jessica Simpson. Alas, although it broke $100 million at the box office, the Dukes movie was lambasted by critics like Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post, who lamented it as “So loud, so long, so dumb.”
Super-producer Jerry Weintraub has blockbuster powers beyond most mere mortals, but not even his magic box-office touch was enough to take a big-budget adaptation of the ‘60s British series The Avengers and turn it into a hit movie nearly 30 years after the show’s final airdate. It definitely wasn’t for lack of effort: Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman signed on to play secret agents John Steed and Emma Peel, while Sean Connery co-starred as the villainous weather-controlling madman Sir August de Wynter. But not even the finest cast could have altered the public’s indifference toward a movie based on a property many filmgoers were barely familiar with, and the project was also a fairly odd fit for director Jeremiah Chechik, whose previous credits included National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The result was a bruising flop whose failure helped speed Connery’s looming retirement and prompted David Bianculli of the New York Daily News to moan, “This Avengers film is so horrendously, painfully and thoroughly awful, it gives other cinematic clunkers like Ishtar and Howard the Duck a good name.”
During its 1968-73 run on ABC, The Mod Squad was not only a moderate hit, it could be argued that the show was actually important: with its hippies-solving-crimes formula and a focus on multicultural storylines, it helped make the counterculture safe for mainstream American audiences. But it was also very much a product of its time (example: the cringeworthy promo tagline “One White, One Black, One Blonde”), and when MGM decided to give the Squad a new look with 1999’s Scott Silver-directed movie, the results were disastrous. Despite an attractive cast led by Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi, and Omar Epps, the updated Mod Squad petered out at 4 percent on the Tomatometer, thanks to what the Palo Alto Weekly’s Jim Shelby called “a pristine example of incoherent storyline mixed with poor editing and limp writing.”
The McHale’s Navy TV series was so successful that midway through its run, it spawned a 1964 theatrical effort that managed to sell tickets despite the obvious fact that it was little more than a 90-minute episode of the show. Thirty years later, none of the above should have indicated to any rational person that the world was waiting for a goofy McHale’s update starring Tom Arnold, Tim Curry, and David Alan Grier, but that’s still what we got in 1997. Fresh off the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers movie and in the midst of a banner year that also included the Tim Allen/Kirstie Alley vehicle For Richer or Poorer, director Bryan Spicer assembled an alleged comedy following the exploits of the original McHale’s son (played by Arnold) who’s drawn out of retirement in order to combat the world’s second-best terrorist (Curry). The finished product, as Liam Lacy decreed for the Globe and Mail, was “A useless movie. Not funny, suspenseful, moving or even offensive enough to want to torpedo. Just devoid of any conceivable value.”
It’s hardly remembered as a TV classic today, but Car 54, Where Are You? was an Emmy-winning hit during its two-season run on NBC from 1961-’63, and its premise — centering on the goofy misadventures of a pair of Bronx cops (played by Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne) — should have been fairly easy to bring to the big screen. Unfortunately, something unfunny happened along the way, and Tapeheads director Bill Fishman’s adaptation was doomed well before it even arrived in theaters. In fact, the movie version of Car 54 — with David “Buster Poindexter” Johansen and future Scrubs star John C. McGinley subbing in for Ross and Gwynne — moldered in the studio’s vault for years before finally puttering into cineplexes in 1994. Ultimately, it needn’t have bothered; despite appearances from original stars Al Lews and Nipsey Russell, the results proved a thoroughly misbegotten effort to update the show’s campy laughs. “Some movies are so bad they warrant special attention,” warned the Chicago Tribune’s Jim Petrakis. “Car 54, Where Are You is one of them.”