Over the past half-year, I've looked at many adapations, most of which weren't as popular as the original. However, it's possible to have a remake be better known than the original work. This week's column looks at one famous instance of the phenomenom.
M*A*S*H started out as a novel, MASH: A Novel of Three Army Doctors by Robert Hooker, featuring Doctors "Hawkeye" Pierce, Duke Forrest, and "Trapper John" McIntyre. In 1970, the first book of the series was adapted by Robert Altman as a motion picture, called MASH, and starred Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye and Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips. MASH used the base story in the books, then went its own direction as an anti-war movie, using the Korean War as subtext for the Vietnam War.
Naturally, a success in theatres means a television exec wants to cash in on the popularity. In 1972, the movie was adapted as a TV series, this time called M*A*S*H (with the asterisks). Still working the protest angle, production staff bent to the requirements of the network, CBS, while working out some concessions. One major concession was the use of a laugh track. Laugh tracks were used in comedies to let viewers know when something was funny, implying that there was a live audience during the filming of an episode. With M*A*S*H being filmed out on a set instead at a studio, production staff argued that no one would be fooled. After some negotiations, staff managed to get a concession that there would be no laugh track during scenes in the operating room; the idea being that business in the OR would be too heavy. Dramatic scenes in the early season took place often in the OR, whether or not surgery was involved.
M*A*S*H, the TV series lasted far longer than the Korean War did*, and paved the way for TV series that had both comedic and dramatic elements.** The tone of the series changed, subtly, but comparing an episode from the 1974-5 season with the 1979-80 season shows a huge difference in the approach.
The success of M*A*S*H took time at first. The early ratings weren't stellar, and in today's TV marketplace, the show would have been cancelled during its first season. However, CBS took a chance on the series, letting it gather an audience, culminating in the largest even TV audience for the show's last episode. The series let its characters evolve; the Hawkeye of the last season was a more aged version of the Hawkeye of the first, having gone through the war. Again, respect plays a part; respect for the soldiers and the people who died during the conflict, a respect for the intelligence of the viewers. At the time it first aired, M*A*S*H was different from the competition, and managed to maintain its respect for the viewers over its seasons.
Next time, if you can find it, maybe you can read the remake.
* Korean War, 1950-1953. M*A*S*H*, 1972-1983
** The term "dramedy" didn't exist prior to M*A*S*H