Lost in Translation has looked at the difficulties inherent in adapting a television series to a movie before. However, challenges exist to be met. Let’s take a look at one of the challenges, expanding the audience to pull in more than just the core fandom.
Movies are expensive to make, with the 2015 Jem and the Holograms being an outlier at only US$5 million to make and today’s blockbusters regularly exceeding US$200 million. An adaptation cannot afford to turn away potential audiences, but word of mouth by fans can also break a movie. This is one reason why superhero movies start at the origin; while fans are well aware of how a character got his or her abilities, the average person might not.
Television deals with the problem of getting new viewers up to speed every week. Continuity lockout harms a TV series, preventing new audiences from jumping into the show. Streaming can help, with older episodes available on the network’s website, but that’s a recent technology. In the past, streaming and even video tapes weren’t available to the general audience. Television worked around that, with characters painted with broad strokes and creative use of opening credits. With the broad strokes, characters can be described using short phrases, such as the angry guy, the jokester sidekick, and the long-suffering spouse, all of which is easy to portray in a two-minute clip.
Opening credits, though, can set up the situation faster. While not in use as much today, the expository opening theme outright states what’s going on. Classic examples of such opening credits include Gilligan’s Island, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Powerpuff Girls. Handy, efficient, and not used much in film since the Sixties* as technology progressed enough to overlay titles on action sequences, allowing the film to get to the plot right away.
At the same time, if opening credits aren’t going to be used, how can a film get a new audience up to speed without having fans yawn at old information? Time is limited in a film; few people will sit through a five hour movie. For this analysis, let’s take a look at Mystery Science Theatre 3000. MST3K had a ten year run with three different broadcasters, starting at KTMA in Minneapolis, then moving to Comedy Central and ending at the SciFi/SyFy Channel. During its run, the show used an expository theme song to let audiences know what its premise was. The opening theme was flexible enough to account for a cast change, going from Joel to Mike and even adjusting for a network required ongoing plot. The short version – evil mad scientist inflicts terrible movies on a victim trapped on an orbiting station; the victim builds friends out of spare parts to help make fun of the terrible movies.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie, released in 1996 and riffing on This Island Earth, didn’t make use of the opening theme the TV series had. Instead, the movie opened in Deep 13 with Dr. Clayton Forrester, played by Trace Beaulieu outright telling the audience what will happen. Normally, the adage is “Show, don’t tell,” but this time, the telling was just part of the equation. It’s what is going on while Dr. F is telling the audience what to expect that shows what the movie will be about. As Dr. F monologues, he’s walking through his lab, showing that he’s not all that effective at being an evil mad scientist. Up on the movie-budget upgraded Satelite of Love, Mike Nelson, played by Michael J. Nelson, is in the middle of a 2001: A Space Odyssey parody, running on a giant hamster wheel with Gypsy(Jim Mallon) and Cambot observing when Tom Servo(Kevin Murphy) arrives to warn him about the latest nutty thing Crow T. Robot(Trace Beaulieu). Crow, who has seen one too many World War II prison camp movies, has decided the best way to escape the SOL is to tunnel out. In these two scenes alone, the situation is introduced, the characters are shown for they are, and the movie has started. It took a little longer than the TV series’ opening credits, but here, the audience is brought into the movie, ready to put aside any suspension of disbelief and establishing the film as a comedy.
Given the nature of the series, MST3K has some extra challenges most TV shows don’t have. Most shows use commercial breaks to generate revenue and drop in a minor cliffhanger. When adapted, the show changes to match the format of the big screen, keeping the plot moving through the beat structure of film. MST3K, though, used commercial breaks in part to have the characters react via skit to what they saw and in part to give the audience a respite from the featured movie**. A feature film, though, doesn’t have real commercial breaks; audiences would riot. MST3K: The Movie had to use other means to get to the skits, including a broken film and Mike and the bots just walking out of the theatre to find Servo’s interociter. The result was the same, a break from the film to let the characters react to what they saw and a break for the movie audience from This Island Earth, a slow-paced film that had far too much telling and too little showing, with the alleged main character just along for the ride.
Of course, the movie wasn’t only for new audiences. Long-time viewers could find in-jokes throughout the film, including the use of “Torgo’s Theme” from Manos, The Hands of Fate as Mike uses the external graspers. The movie didn’t rely as much on callbacks as the TV show did, making it a good introduction to new viewers. Any callbacks in the movie, such as “Torgo’s Theme” can give a veteran fan an in to circulate the tapes*** to a new fan. Continuity is important, but a new viewer, especially watching the movie of the TV series, needs to be able to understand what’s going on without needing a ten-page synopsis of the show.
Other movies adapted from a TV series reviewed here at Lost in Translation made an effort to introduce the characters to a new audience. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made sure that the audience knew that Kirk and McCoy were still friends, despite whatever had happened prior to the movie, and that Kirk and Spock were friends, but something happened to the latter before he rejoined the crew of the Enterprise. Likewise, with Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the opening scenes establish who Eddy and Patsy are, two women who refuse to grow up, with Eddy rolling out of her car drunk after a fashion event.
Introducing the characters and situation isn’t a problem for just TV series adapted into film. Other media have the same problem, letting the audience know what’s going on and who the main characters are. With television, though, the medium is similar to film, both being visual, that it can be too easy to forget that the characters need to be re-introduced. Failure to do so locks out a portion of the potential audience, leaving them outside and not watching. Without the extra audience, the film could flop at the box office.
* There are exceptions, such as the entire 007 film run, and even Die Another Day turned the traditional Bond titles into a plot-relevant sequence.
** The series riffed on older B-movies, serials, and shorts, where the quality of the featured film was guaranteed to be bad but with hooks for the riffs. Alien from L.A. was but one film, but represented the type of work found on MST3K, bad but watchable with people having fun with it.
*** The series encouraged fans to circulate tapes of the episodes because of the limited access early audiences had. Not all cable companies carried Comedy Central at the time, and international audiences had to deal with a complex web of rights and licenses that the MST3K crew didn’t have to worry about.
As a source of adaptations, sitcoms are rare. They are often too tied to the time they aired and are considered to be fluff. Over the course of Lost in Translation, only two adaptations based on a television comedy have been reviewed, The Naked Gun and The Beverly Hillbillies. The rest of the adaptations, barring the animated series, have a focus on action and drama, from Doctor Who to The Equalizer. Action series and dramas provide more conflict that works on the silver screen. The Naked Gun added bigger budget action sequences to the comedy, taking advantage of the medium.
That’s not to say that a popular series won’t have fans clamouring for a movie, even if the series isn’t known for action, more so if the TV show reaches cult status. Welcome to Absolutely Fabulous, a British series about two women, Eddy and Patsy, who aren’t so much trying to recapture their youth as continue it. AbFab first aired in 1992 on the BBC and was based on a sketch two years prior on French & Saunders, starring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, who plays Eddy.
Eddy runs her own public relations firm, representing an eclectic group of clients. Her best friend, Patsy (played by Joanna Lumley), works as a magazine editor and enables much of Eddy’s behavior. Eddy’s daughter, the long suffering Saffron (Julie Sawalha), is the reality anchor Eddy needs. Too bad Saffy is still in high school when the series starts. Saffy does get some support from her grandmother, Eddy’s mother (June Whitfield). Rounding out the core cast is Eddy’s assistant, Bubble (Jane Horrocks), who tends to be in her own world most of the time, most likely without the chemical aide that Eddy and Pasty prefer.
The core of the series was Eddy and Pasty misbehaving, breaking the taboos on what women were expected to do, and their stubborn refusal to learn a lesson. Patsy is a long-time party girl who lives on air, alcohol, and cigarettes. Eddy does eat, but allows herself to be encouraged by Patsy. Somehow, they get out of their scrapes, but Eddy and Patsy are not role models.
Twenty-five years after the original French & Saunders sketch, Absolutely Fabulous: The Move began filming. The movie opened in the United Kingdom in July 2016 and reunited the core cast. To get the script written, Dawn French made a bet with Jennifer Saunders that a script wouldn’t be ready by the end of 2014. Saunders won the bet.
The movie picks up with Eddy and Patsy attending a fashion show and over-indulging; nothing having changed except them being older. Saffron has married and since divorced, and, with her thirteen year old daughter, Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), is visiting her mother’s oversized home. Saffron is still cynical about her mother and still doesn’t get along with Patsy. Lola is indifferent to the undercurrants happening. Eddy has a problem; her income isn’t matching her outgo. Her ex-husband, Marshall (Christopher Ryan), has decided to transition to being a woman* and needs the money. Eddy is pinning her hopes on selling her memoir, but the meeting at the publisher reveals that the book is filled with “blah blah blah” thanks to Bubble, who was supposed to transpose what Eddy dictated.
Patsy, while assisting with the setup of a fashion show, makes a discovery that could help Eddy. Kate Moss needs a new PR rep. What should be a simple insider secret becomes a well known, thanks to Eddy having trouble with her smartphone. When Kate Moss arrives at the fashion gala, there’s a race between Eddy and rival PR person, Claudia Bing (Celia Imrie), to get to her. The result is Kate being knocked into the Thames, disappearing into the water.
Eddy is blamed for Kate’s death as the world goes into mourning over the loss of the supermodel. Paparazzi camp outside Eddy’s house, hoping to get a photo of the killer. With some help, Eddy and Patsy escape the cameras and start their own investigation into what happened to Kate. They realize that things float, so they find a boat, find Bubble, and go back to the scene of the crime. To trace where Kate’s body went, Eddy and Patsy push Bubble into the Thames, but lose her in the dark.
Now responsible for the apparent deaths of two people, Eddy and Patsy do what they think best – flee the country. Without money, though, they need a way to pay for their flight from justice. Fortunately for them, Lola has a credit card from her father. Eddy and Patsy take Lola with them to Cannes. Once in southern France, Eddy and Patsy work out a way to get the money they need and start looking for one of Patsy’s old flames, Charlie (Barry Humphries).
In London, Saffron discovers that Lola has disappeared. With the help of her new boyfriend, police inspector Nick (Robert Webb), she starts trying to trace where her daughter has gone. Her investigation leads her to a drag queen karaoke night** to find Christopher (Glee‘s Chris Colfer), Eddy’s stylist. Christopher gives up Eddy’s location.
In Cannes, Charlie’s a bust, but Eddy finds a different way to get the money they need. Duchess Lubliana (Marcia Warren), the richest woman in the world, is alone and has bad eyesight. The new plan is put into effect; Patsy, as Pat Stone, marries the Duchess to gain access to her money.
However, the police discover where Eddy and Patsy have escaped to. Because of the enormity of the crime, even the French police are willing to assist their British counterparts, leading to a car chase that ends in Bubble’s pool. Bubble is alive, having floated to France after being pushed into the Thames by Eddy and Patsy, and has been staying in her home. The police and Saffron catch up to Eddy and Patsy. Eddy gives a soulful confession to Saffron. Then Bubble reveals that Kate is still alive.
Watching AbFab: The Movie is like returning to family; a dysfunctional family, but one that is familiar. With Jennifer Saunders writing the script and the return of most of the original cast, the stage is set. With most characters, growth is expected. Edina is not most characters. The entire point of Eddy is that she is stuck in her 20s and refuses to mature while the normal people around her – mostly consisting of her daughter, Saffron – do grow up. The plot is very much something that Eddy and Patsy would get themselves into. Eddy and Patsy still have not learned from their mistakes. Saffron has changed, but dealing with her mother has left her cynical and trying not to make the same mistakes with her own daughter. The movie is more than just an extended episode of AbFab, but doesn’t lose what made the TV series a cult favourite.
* This makes Marshall the second regular character to be transgender. The first is Patsy, who has a bit of jealousy because Marshall will at least find shoes in his size.
** The drag queens in the scene are real and brought their own costumes and make up. One was dressed as Patsy, and had her mannerisms down pat.