Fargo: how to make great TV from a great film

The spate of TV shows currently being adapted from films could learn a great deal from FX’s Fargo…

Twelve Monkeys. Scream. From Dusk Till Dawn. Fargo. US networks are steadily transforming the TV listings into the ‘New Releases’ shelf of a 1996 Blockbuster. We can either stamp our feet with ‘why aren’t there any new ideas?’ rage whenever a new film-to-TV adaptation is greenlit, or we can do what we’ve always done with new shows: sift through the pile to see what actually works.

Fargo, nearing the halfway point in its US and UK broadcasts, works.

Messing with a much-loved, much-respected film like Fargo was a risk. Screw up a TV version of Jingle All The Way and who’ll care, but screw up Fargo? You’d be the devil himself. NBC’s Warren Littlefield, now producing the FX series, passed on a Fargo TV pitch in 1997 for that very reason according to IndieWire, explaining “my fear is we would disappoint the audience.” CBS evidently feared the same when the network didn’t pick up the Kathy Bates-directed Fargo pilot starring Edie Falco in Frances McDormand’s role in the same year.

How then, did FX’s version, written by The Unusuals’ Noah Hawley, succeed where others failed? By doing the following…

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Invite the original creative team to keep an eye on things

Joel and Ethan Coen weren’t involved with either of the previous Fargo adaptations, but both have executive producer credits on the FX show. Hawley showed them the first script and, once it was ready, the first episode and convinced them that his take was the right one. Eschewing the sesquipedalian loquaciousness for which many of his characters are known, Ethan’s response was a simple ‘yeah, good’, which according to their mutual collaborator Billy Bob Thornton, is a ‘rave review, coming from him’. The brothers appear to have let Hawley and his team get on with creating their own show, but their presence has doubtless help maintain its fidelity to the original. Of course, securing the blessing of the Coens also lent the show a degree of credibility that has helped to elicit more than a few ‘yeah goods’ from armchair cynics as well.

Super! So you’ve got the nod from the originators. How do you make it your own? Well, you’d have to…

Rebuild the world

‘It’s not a TV series; it’s a ten hour movie’ says Hawley of his show. That extended running time; consolidated by the decision to make the first season (and presumably any subsequent ones) a self-contained narrative means that a different storytelling structure is required. It also creates an opportunity to build and explore a slightly different world than we could see in a couple of hours. Hawley’s Fargo is set largely between Bemidji and Duluth in Minnesota (like the original, Fargo itself earns little more than a passing mention). It’s the same rural snowscape, equal parts beautiful and deadly and half comfy-folksy, half coldly murderous but we get to see more of it. The presence of local business kingpins Sam Hess and Stavros Milos provides some of the aggressive commercial and economic background to the environment; we meet two separate police forces, each one with its own internal dynamic and even the smallest character feels fully formed and real.

Ok, so the world has been developed, so what’s there to link it to the film? Why, that’ll be your sensible insistence that you…

Maintain the tone

As with all their best work, the success of the Coen’s Fargo owes less to the world that it depicted than it does to the language and humour that it deployed. Over the past few decades they’ve built an oeuvre of distinctive movies that span different time periods, move across US states and cross genres (even blending them in the same picture) while managing to place their own unique stamp on each one and lending recognition to the word ‘Coenesque’. It’s such a strong imprint that, even with their limited involvement, the TV version of Fargo is unmistakably deserving of that adjective. As Hitfix’s Daniel Fienberg puts it, ‘the series feels similar, but never identical to the film’. It has borrowed wisely, giving characters their own witty asides and verbal tics (often delivered with a familiar Minnesotan twang) and making great play of visual jokes and funny background events, while the characters are the familiar mix of gutsy but unexpected heroes, malevolent agents of evil and utter idiots that we have come to expect from the movies.

So, it’s the same people then? Not if you follow the next rule which is to…

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Create new characters

The tone is the same and there are vestigial hints of the film’s plot, but Hawley’s masterstroke has been to completely repopulate his world with characters that feel familiar but remain distinctively his own. Coen alumnus Billy Bob Thornton portrays Lorne Malvo, a mysterious drifter who shares a little of the satanic hyper-competence of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh and mixes it with the suggestive qualities of a stage hypnotist. An evil stage hypnotist. His end-of-the-pier approach is shared by the brilliantly named Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) who work as a double-act, unafraid of deploying a little low-key showmanship in the pursuit of their goals.

Earnest and thoughtful Patrolman Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) also works in a pair, in this case with his young daughter who dispenses old-beyond-her-years moral advice as her father attempts to navigate the chaos created by the vividly villainous crew who wander into his beat. He is a necessarily less outlandish character who offers a quiet respite from the more extreme creatures that he pursues.

Despite these creations, this televisual apple hasn’t fallen too far from the cinematic tree. Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed that the nervous, way-out-of-his-depth everyloser Lester Nygaard shares more than just a double-vowelled surname with nervous, way-out-of-his-depth everyloser Jerry Lundegaard. Meanwhile, following the trail set by the aforementioned Joe Ordinaries, we have Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) whose very name sounds like a Simpsons parody of her movie counterpart Marge Gunderson.

The similarities are light enough to allow Freeman and Tolman to develop their characters in their own way while helping to anchor the show to its heritage and justifying the link to the movie. Overall, it gives the writers the scope to populate its roughly fivefold length with a battery of characters who could have plausibly shown up in the film if there had only been enough time.

But the characters are only half the story. It would help if you make sure to…

Cast the right people

The original film is beloved, and deservedly so. It’s a grimly violent story set against a funny and fond portrait of the Coens’ folksy home state. Its script is elegantly honed, its direction extremely handsome, but above all else, its cast is excellent.  Along with creators Joel and Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi all spent most of 1997 ducking while awards committees threw shiny statues at them.

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Next year’s Emmy Dodgeball finalists could well include the familiar faces of Freeman and Thornton plus newcomer Tolman, who has pulled off the admirable trick of not only working around the established names in the cast but also of taking on a role that is essentially an analogue of McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance and all that while having an IMDB entry that is currently shorter than a Minnesota summer.

So, there you have it. A simple and straightforward plan for turning a beloved film into an excellent TV show that remains anything but simple and straightforward. Take enough of the film to keep it honest, but add plenty of your own ideas to make it stand up on its own. An idiot could do it, though admittedly, perhaps not this well.

Fargo currently airs on Tuesdays on FX and on Sundays on Channel 4. Read our spoiler-filled reviews, here.

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