Technological progress has a way of making older works show their age. In many adaptations, updating the technology to modern ideas of the near future doesn’t harm the work. But what happens when an iconic item becomes outdated?
Case in point, the 1965-70 TV series, Get Smart. Created by Mel Brooks with Buck Henry, Get Smart was a parody of the spy thrillers of the time, including 007 and The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and featured outlandish gadgets that never quite worked properly. The series starred Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99, two agents of CONTROL who fought against the machinations of KAOS, run by Siegfried, played by Bernie Kopell, and his right-hand man, Shtarker, played by King Moody. Max’s boss, the Chief of CONTROL, played by Edward Platt, suffered as Max investigated nefarious schemes, but admitted that CONTROL wouldn’t be half as effective without 86. The opening of the first episode provides a perfect example of how technology changes the intent of a scene. As a stage production is about to start, a phone begins to ring, and Max excuses himself to go to the lobby to answer his shoe. In 1965, this is an unusual situation, something that is absurd. Today, even with warnings and request to turn off all phones, someone in the audience will still take a call.
Get Smart, though, was more than the gadgets. Like many good parodies, like Airplane!, the characters took the situations seriously. That’s part of the humour, the dichotomy between the absurdity of the situation and the seriousness of the characters. With a TV series, the characters also have to be engaging enough for people to keep watching week after week. Max knew his spycraft, even if there were times he stumbled into saving the world or times that 99 came through in the clutch.
As the series progressed, the relationship between Max and 99 grew closer, resulting in a wedding and adding a domestic side to the series. Still, even with the domestic episodes, the series was still a spy spoof, with all the comedic aspects of the core coming through. The in-laws are in town? Great time for KAOS to wreak havoc, just to see how Max and 99 handle both.
There were several attempts at revivals. The first was the theatrical release, The Nude Bomb, with Don Adams returning as Max and 99. Edward Platt’s death in 1974 meant that a new actor, Dana Elcar, had to be brought in as the Chief. The movie took advantage of not being on television and went risque. A second made-for-TV movie, Get Smart, Again reunited Adams and Feldon. A short-lived revival TV series in 1995, also called Get Smart, brought back Adams and Feldon, with Max now the Chief of CONTROL and his son Zack, played by Andy Dick, a field agent. Even Inspector Gadget could be seen as Get Smart aimed at children, with Adams voicing the eponymous character, who was a walking gadget malfunction, who bumbled around while his niece Penny did the hard work.
In 2008, Warner Bros. released Get Smart, a remake/reboot starring Steve Carell as Max, Anne Hathaway as 99, and Alan Arkin as the Chief of CONTROL. Instead of being a period piece, the movie was set in the current era. The movie changed things up, with Max being a very thorough analyst who wants to be a field agent. His briefings run 600+ pages and gets down into what the subjects of investigation like to eat. In a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, his notes on one potential threat is shown on screen; “The Claw” was another villain from the TV series.
Max’s arrival at work takes him through a museum dedicated to espionage, with one section set aside for CONTROL. In the section, several of the old gadgets from the TV series are on display, including the old cone of silence, Max’s car, and the shoe phone. The entrance to CONTROL itself is through a set of doors, much like the opening credits to the TV series, complete with the classic theme song playing. The gags through the doors change, as should be expected, but the sequence does hammer home the idea of being in CONTROL’s headquarters. Max’s briefing is dry but thorough, but that thoroughness prevents him from becoming a field agent; the Chief needs him as an analyst.
KAOS escalates its total war against CONTROL, first bombing CONTROL’s HQ then going after field agents. Max and 99 are the first to respond after the bombing, investigating the ruins of the headquarters to find the perpetrators. Max’s quick thinking and knowledge of the fire suppression systems lets 99 go deeper into the headquarters, but that same quick thinking and knowledge leaves the Chief with a dent in his forehead. Because of the shortage of field agents, Max’s request to become one is approved, with the idea that KAOS won’t know who he is.
The Chief pairs rookie 86 with experience field agent 99 and sends them to Russia to investigate Ladislas Krstic (David S. Lee), the munitions supplier for KAOS. The flight to Russia, though, has Siegfried’s heavy, Dalip, played by Dalip Singh aka the Great Khali. Max and 99 use a hidden escape from the plane, though Max wasn’t able to get his chute on in time. Dalip follows, taking the now spare chute. Agent 99 does what she can to get rid of Dalip and prevent Max from plummeting to his death.
At Krstic’s manor, the pair discover the location of stolen nuclear material and bomb-making facility, a bakery in Moscow. Max and 99 head directly there, sneaking in and looking for the yellow cake uranium. Max finds it plus actual yellow cake at a birthday celebration, and plants explosives. During this, though, Siegfried, played by Terrance Stamp, finds him and takes him prisoner. The two men try to get the details of what each other know, with Max getting details about Siegfried’s plans to bomb the president. Siegfried leaves Shtarker, played by Ken Davitan, in charge to finalized preparations, which gives Max a chance to escape.
The bakery explodes. During the chaos, Max and 99 run into Dalip again. Fighting the KAOS heavy gets nowhere, so Max uses his knowledge from analysing tape after tape to convince Dalip to stop fighting and help them escape. He’s mostly successful, but he and 99 do get away from the exploding bomb factory/bakery and return to Washington to report in. The Chief sends Agent 23, Max’s idol played by Dwayne Johnson, to make sure that the facility is gone. Problem is, Agent 23 reports that there’s no sign of the uranium. All evidence that there’s a cover up points to Max, who is taken into custody. While in his cell, he hears a coded message for him relayed through Ryan Seacrest; the bomb is in Los Angeles.
Max executes an escape from CONTROL’s prison cells. The escape leads through the espionage museum. Max takes the suit, the gun, the shoe phone, and the car. The roaring escape ends not far from the museum as the car runs out of gas. He tries to commandeer a car, driven by Bernie Kopell in a cameo, but that car is rear-ended. Max does find a car and heads to L.A, where he finds the Chief, 99, and 23. Agent 86 works out who the double agent is and reveals his identity. In the process, he prevents the bomb from exploding and ends the KAOS plot to kill the president.
In a Get Smart adaptation, several elements are expected. The gadgets, as mentioned above, are important, not only in being used but not working correctly. The cone of silence received an upgrade but still didn’t work properly. The shoe phone, though, is outdated thanks to cell phones. Yet, the movie managed to work it in, thanks to call forwarding. Even the new gadgets, like Max’s Swiss Army knife, don’t work right.
Casting was also key. Steve Carell played Max much as Don Adams had, straight, allowing the absurdity of what was happening carry the comedy. Anne Hathaway has a more-than-passing resemblance to Barbara Feldon, and there are several scenes where Hathaway is a dead ringer for Feldon. Terrance Stamp took a darker tone to Siegfried, but Ken Davitan’s Shtarker blunted the darkness by being a comedic sidekick and punch-clock villain. Even Fang, Agent K-13, had a counterpart in the remake – a puppy that Max wanted to adopt but only if he became a field agent.
The writers were able to work with the original material well. The original series had a number of catch phrases that would recur, most of them Max’s but some from 99 and even Siegfried. It’d be easy to just have Max spout them; instead, the script worked the catch phrases in organically. Siegfried did get his, “This is KAOS. We don’t ‘ka-fricking-boom’ here,” thanks to Shtarker. Max had, “Missed it by that much,” “Would you believe?” and “Sorry about that Chief,” in situations where it made sense. The last phrase came up after Max hit the Chief with a fire extinguisher. Even 99 got in a, “Oh, Max.” Anyone not familiar with the lines wouldn’t have seen these shoehorned in while fans of the original series could laugh.
Even some of the TV series’ gags were reused. Along with the malfunctioning gadgets, other staples that appeared included Agent 13. In the TV series, the agent, played by Dave Ketchum, would appear in the oddest, tightest locations. Bill Murray played 13 in the film, appearing inside a tree near CONTROL’s safe house near the Washington Memorial, his complaints about his assignment and the problems of being stuck in the tree echoing Ketchum’s 13 and his issues. The movie is also book-ended by scenes of Max arriving and leaving CONTROL, much like the opening and closing credits.
Updating Get Smart meant having to change update the sensibilities of the times. The nature of spy thrillers has changed since 1965, with the tone turning darker as the nature of the business and the tools of the trade became more known to the general audience. Adding to the difficulty, Get Smart was a comedy set at work, where work was a top secret organization dedicated to the security of the US. Overlooking that aspect would have lost part of the nature of the series. The movie, though, kept both the spy spoof and the work-com aspects, with enough scenes showing how dysfunctional CONTROL’s office is and still making fun of bureaucracy at all levels. Inter-agency rivalries were added, with the Chief butting heads with the directors of the other agencies, including the CIA and the Secret Service.
The movie remake of Get Smart had a difficult task in front of it; paying homage to a series and a character that is iconic. The result, though, shows that the challenge was met. Get Smart was a well done adaptation that managed to update the setting without losing the core of the original TV series.