Quiz Show, Slumdog Millionaire and game shows on film

The portrayal of the TV game show on film has varied over the years. We take a look at some of the more notable moments...

Although they have always fit into the evergreen bracket of ‘non-scripted television’, quiz shows are remarkably dramatic by their very nature. In story terms, we meet a person, or sometimes a team of people, who comes up against challenges and competition from other people. They overcome these challenges with their intellect and are ultimately rewarded for their efforts.

At its most basic, that’s what any game show should be about and it can easily be mapped onto any traditional story structure in fiction. It’s no surprise that some storytellers have sought to adapt that subject for other mediums, because any episode of a game show is already basically a story, but the characters change every week. But in fiction, there’s typically a lot more room for exaggeration.

To take a popular example, The Hunger Games starts its quadrilogy-spanning polemic on media effects and ‘bread and circuses’ politics with a game show in which the game is a televised death match. Especially since the films came out, this has drawn endless comparisons with the dystopian set-ups of The Running Man and Battle Royale, but all three films, produced at different stages in the evolution of the genre, present the same dark mirror of how audiences consume these shows.

It also happens that all of the aforementioned films are based on books, which again shows how the story of a game show can be applied in mediums other than television. Some films on the subject have even picked up Oscar nominations or wins, including 1994’s Quiz Show and 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. These are two films set on different sides of the Atlantic, where one is based on a true story and one is based on a novel. How did these films portray the TV game show differently? And how have game shows changed between them, and since they were made?

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Q. Which film was nominated for Best Picture at the 1995 Academy Awards along with Forrest Gump, Four Weddings & A Funeral, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption?

“It is silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows.” – Charles Van Doren, 1958

So said the most famous contestant on NBC’s quiz show Twenty One, reigning as champion for 14 weeks and winning $129,000 in 1957. In 1994, Robert Redford directed Quiz Show, a film about Van Doren’s record-breaking run, which was based on Congressional investigator Richard Goodwin’s book Remembering America: A Voice From The Sixties.

The film follows Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow) as he looks into claims that Twenty One is fixed. The main plaintiff is New York resident Herb Stempel, (John Turturro) who accuses the contestant who defeated him, telegenic Columbia University professor Van Doren, (Ralph Fiennes) of knowing what the answers will be before the questions are asked on the show.

Over the course of the film, the question posed to the characters (and by extension, the audience) is whether or not they would really say no if such a fix existed, if they could expect fame and fortune as a result. In so doing, Redford contextualises any such immorality as the start of a decline in American values.

The film is less appreciated than other, more iconic films in the Best Picture field, but Quiz Show is as scathing and relevant to today’s business of show as it ever was. Goodwin is initially intrigued by the case because it would be a landmark in legislative oversight over television practices. In a telling scene with corporate sponsor Martin Rittenhome, (played marvellously in an extended cameo by Martin Scorsese) the film’s conceit about the corruption of the quiz show is rammed home.

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“The audience doesn’t want to see the contestants,��� Scorsese’s corporate boss tells Goodwin, “they want to see the money.” It’s a rather cynical way of describing the aspirational needs that are fulfilled by quiz shows, but not wholly inaccurate. The idea of winning a life-changing amount of money based on what you know is a factor in the appeal of the format, but NBC’s crime, as depicted in the film, is to create instant celebrities who keep the ratings afloat from their contestants and then dispose of them as easily.

In dramatising this particular chapter in broadcasting history, Redford and writer Paul Attanasio have the luxury of focusing on the contestants and the people involved rather than the money. Admitting to dramatic licence in a 1994 interview with The New Yorker, Redford said his objective was “to elevate something so that people can see it … otherwise, you might as well have a documentary.”

Truth being stranger than fiction, they also had the licence to add further steps to that basic game show story in the telling. We meet people, they overcome challenges and win, but the film is about what comes after. It becomes about living with having cheated to win and how that affects Turturro and Fiennes’ characters in different ways and so a superficial story becomes more complex.

Q. Which film won eight Academy Awards in 2009, including Best Picture?

On the other hand, Slumdog Millionaire is not based on a true story, which inarguably gives it even greater licence to exaggerate. Inspired by Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A, Danny Boyle’s film tells the story of Jamal, (Dev Patel) a young man from the slums of Mumbai who (spoiler alert) wins the top prize on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. If you haven’t seen it, you can surmise that it’s a tiny bit more positive about TV game shows than Quiz Show.

In its original form, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire added plateaus at certain prize points in the game (£1,000 and £32,000 in the UK edition) that wouldn’t be out of place as turning points in a script outline, to guarantee contestants one reward while egging them on further (remember Chris Tarrant’s “but we don’t wanna give you that” moments) to either win or lose bigger. As a quiz format, it’s riper than most for adaptation to fiction in other mediums.

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But as it was observed in the oft-repeated line that BBC Radio 5 Live’s Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo adopted from a listener’s email at the time of Slumdog‘s release, “there’s a whole lot of Slumdog before you get to the Millionaire.” The film covers Jamal’s fraught childhood as we discover how his experiences gave him the knowledge he needs to answer the all-important 15 questions opposite genial host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) in a bid to reunite with the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto.)

In one major plot point, Kumar attempts to feed Jamal an incorrect answer to catch him out and then hands him over to the police because he suspects him of cheating. In real life, the UK Millionaire had its very own Van Doren-like scandal in Major Charles Ingram, who made international headlines for cheating his way to the jackpot with the help of a coughing accomplice.

Funnily enough, Ingram and his wife have since appeared on celebrity editions of The Weakest Link, Hell’s Kitchen and Wife Swap, because sometimes our media rewards people with celebrity like that. Heck, at a certain point, it wouldn’t have been too surprising to see him back for the celebrity version of Millionaire.

But as the title suggests, Jamal gets the chance to clear his name and wins the top prize. And as you might expect with Celador (the production company that owns Millionaire) amongst the producers of Slumdog, the show is seldom ever represented as anything other than his passport to freedom and happiness.

The misery of his childhood servitude, the trials of trying to reconcile with his gangster brother and life-long love and tedium of working in a call centre can all be answered by winning lots of money on a quiz show and specifically, using his ‘Phone A Friend’ lifeline to call Latika. And as in Quiz Show, the whole nation is watching, but the outcome is significantly happier.

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All of this is not to drub what stands up as an undeniably powerful feel-good movie, in which writer Simon Beaufoy adapts the sympathetic human story of Swarup’s novel first and the integrated branding never distracts. It’s inevitable that the film has an unabashedly more fantastical approach to the quiz show format than you could reasonably expect of a real episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Indeed, it gives them the licence to place more emotional heft in how the win completes Jamal as a person rather than as a newly minted millionaire.

Q. Are game shows also adopting more dramatic techniques?

The global success of Slumdog coincided with waning interest in Millionaire on TV (the original UK edition ended in 2014) and the rise of quiz formats that are more concentrated on personality. Quiz shows like Pointless or The Chase have expanded from the half hour spot that shows like these would previously occupy, to 45 minutes or a full hour.

The banter between hosts and contestants has become more intimate than it used to be and contestants might appear in more than one episode, more closely echoing formats like Twenty One. Shows like Deal Or No Deal phased out the trivia element altogether, to the point where you could watch an episode for the first time with the sound off and think Noel Edmonds had joined some sort of box-based, phone-centric cult.

But just as films have evolved away from necessarily audience-pleasing beats like a happy ending, quiz shows have increasingly adopted downer endings. A winning contestant or team might not win any money after all, even though we’ve gotten to know them better than contestants of previous years. In some cases, they might have the 1p box or a coveted Pointless trophy, but there are plenty of shows where players go home empty-handed for one reason or another.

The most insidious of these, which almost makes the kind of moral shiftiness that Quiz Show decried into another part of the game, involves contestants stealing money from one another or otherwise getting an equal amount of the prize while acting as dead weight on their team. If you’ve never been ready to put your boot through the TV when someone on The Chase accepts a negative amount of money in order to stay in the game, you’ve probably got the ice-cool temperament they want in contestants these days.

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Plus, there’s scarcely a game show on UK television at the moment that hasn’t had a celebrity spin-off. Pointless Celebrities is the most tongue-in-cheek of the bunch, but shows like Family Fortunes and Catchphrase have been revived on ITV exclusively with celebrities playing for charity. Famous faces would be one key feature of film and scripted television that never used to appear in game shows until audience interest shifted.

Attanasio’s script for Quiz Show was cognisant of how his subject was the start of a dumbing down of TV game shows and slackening of standards that persists to this day. As Roger Ebert noted in his original review of the film in 1994, “people on TV make money by playing games a clever child can master. The message is that it’s not necessary to know anything, because you can be ignorant and still get lucky.”

For a recent, wildly ridiculous example of such games from our side of the pond, look no further than ITV’s 2015 (toe) curling gameshow Freeze Out, hosted by Mark Durden-Smith and former Premier League referee Uriah Rennie. Positioned as a summer replacement for The Chase, the show skewed closely to the channel’s arcade-like coin drop game Tipping Point, but with contestants competing for sliders to fling across an enlarged air hockey table while ‘Ice Judge’ Rennie stands by and calls out the scores.

Freeze Out often bears similarities to some kind of hysterical cutaway from 30 Rock or Idiocracy, but it’s still a quiz-based format. It’s not that quiz shows have entirely dumbed down, or that there aren’t good game shows out there, but overwhelmingly, they do usually have darkened sets, foreboding music cues, plot twists, betrayals and even some sort of external adversary to the contestants. Even before you consider the old favourites that are being remade in the current style, (or remounted with celebrities) they’ve become more like scripted media in their staging.

From the friendly banter of Pointless to the endless celebrity editions of established formats for worthy charitable causes, the equal and opposite effect of game shows on film seems to be that real game shows are becoming more dramatic and complex with more famous faces. Fictionalised treatments are inevitably more cinematic, but that’s still a quality that TV producers seem eager to replicate in any number of competing game show formats.

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But as films like Quiz Show and Slumdog Millionaire showed so effortlessly, game shows are inherently dramatic in themselves, perhaps more so than any other form of non-scripted television. These two films could scarcely be more different in their portrayals of the stage-managed Twenty One and the life-changing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, but both focus on character in order to capitalise upon a good quiz show’s real lasting appeal- the people who take part, rather than the reward they may or may not earn.