Is ‘the movie’ the wrong move for good TV shows?

Matt wonders if the leap from small to big screen really is a logical one for Edge Of Darkness, or for any TV show...

Edge Of Darkness: Mel Gibson  to take Bob Peck's role from the original TV series.

So Mel Gibson is going to make a movie out of Edge Of Darkness. Let’s get this out of the way – I love Edge Of Darkness. I love it even more than I love The Singing Detective, which Mel also had a hand in remaking six years ago. Both series were produced by the BBC in the mid-1980s – just about the time when I was starting to appreciate staying up late and watching television that my parents might not approve of.

What is it with Mel? I can only assume that between starring in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Lethal Weapon, Gibson suspended his acting career for a year, came to the UK, and, like me, sat down of an evening and relaxed in front of the telly. So despite the fact that Martin Campbell (after directing the eye-poppingly fantastic Casino Royale) is returning to helm the film, the news of the Edge Of Darkness movie still causes me anxiety. But I’m not worried for the reasons you might expect.

I’m not particularly worried about the potential ‘Americanisation’ of Edge Of Darkness. For me, the British setting of the television series wasn’t particularly integral to its success, and I’m not someone who thinks that transplanting a story in the States automatically spoils it – for example State of Play has just undergone a highly satisfactory transfer to the big screen.

What I am really concerned about is the potential loss of a quality of intimacy from the narrative of Darkness. The original series contained a tension between the quest of a policeman, Ronald Craven played by Bob Peck, to find the killer of his daughter, with a wider, national conspiracy. The medium of television assisted this tension. The slow development of the story over six weeks encouraged an emotional bond between the viewer and Craven, while the space and time that the miniseries format gave to the epic journey of Craven through England made the revelation of a national conspiracy even more devastating.

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A similar tension can be seen in the television version of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective. Michael Gambon’s character’s slow physical and psychological decline is made all the more powerful and touching when played out over weeks rather than hours. Some stories work better on television.

For years, the study of film has struggled to be taken seriously as an academic discipline. Slowly over the last forty years it has gained serious recognition but with the study of television lagging behind. TV has always been perceived to be more disposable than film, somehow inferior. Whilst this discrepancy is gradually being corrected, the old attitude can still be seen in the ways in which some assume that a film remake is the next evolutionary stage in the life of a television series.

Hence the question ‘when are they going to make the movie?’ is repeatedly asked about recent successes such as Doctor Who and Primeval. This was especially prevalent during the 1990s when a rash of TV remakes of varying quality were produced including Mission: Impossible, Maverick (thanks Mel) and Wild Wild West.

This ‘upgrading’ is fine so long as the filmmaker recognises the differences in scope between a television series and a film. In many respects however, the television series is a more powerful setting for genre narratives.

Think about Joss Whedon’s two series Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly. The former began as a little seen and misconceived film, but developed into a series which combined the horror and spectacle of the film with a slow burning character development. Serenity, the film version of Firefly, is not nearly as bad as the film version of Buffy, but as a film it lost a lot of the humour and the enjoyable steampunkiness of the series.   

In short, television is not just a smaller version of the movies. It may be called the small-screen, but the emotional connection between the viewer and the characters that comes from a series that is stretched over weeks is unique and special.

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I’d go further, in fact, and suggest after the mixed successes of recent movies based on Alan Moore stories that the television miniseries may be a better format for graphic novel adaptations than the cinema. Imagine The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen or From Hell as a quality miniseries – Terry Gilliam may have been right when he suggested that the best place for Watchmen was the TV.

The upshot of this is that I’m wary about Edge Of Darkness being remade not because I think it will spoil the memory of the television series. Instead I worry that the original was good because it was a television series and not a movie.

Had it been a movie to start with it would not have had the special balance of scale and intimacy that made it such a powerful satire in the first place. I simply can’t get my head around the changes that Mel is going to need to make in order to ensure that Edge Of Darkness fit into two hours of narrative rather than six. I can’t see how I’m going to care as much about Ronald Craven looking for the killer of his daughter when his grief and anger and his quest for revenge is limited by the time constraints of a film.

My anxieties are also fuelled by the casting of Mel himself in the role of Craven. Just to be clear I think he’s is a good actor – I really like Lethal Weapon and Mad Max – but he comes with a star persona baggage that Bob Peck simply did not have at the time of the original series. This doesn’t mean I think the film version of Edge Of Darkness is going to be badly acted – but that the anonymity of Peck was part of the appeal of Craven: the viewer was able to emotionally engage with the policeman without the complication of preconceived memories of the actor’s previous roles or personal life getting in the way.  

Perhaps then my attitude towards film remakes is a little perverse. As the quality of visual and computer generated effects in film and television get ever closer, sometimes I wonder whether instead of craving the conversion of television series into film and losing the qualities that the small screen brings to the story, wouldn’t some films be immeasurably improved by being turned into television series?