As mentioned during the History of Adaptations series, the Eighties were a strange decade for entertainment. Music videos entered their hey day. Music ran the gamut of genres. From New Wave to Heavy Metal, from Rockabilly to Hip Hop, Top 40 charts had a mix of them all.
Popular music filtered into other areas. Television shows, while never one to discount pop music, adopted more as characters listened to their radios. This wasn’t new; even older series like Peter Gunn worked in music. In the case of Peter Gunn, jazz music at a jazz club where some of the action occurred weekly was a natural fit. But most shows used a variation of their theme song for background music when a radio wasn’t in the scene. That changed thanks to one show, Miami Vice.
In 1984, the head of NBC wanted to get in on the popularity of music videos, not just the videos themselves but the esthetics. To this end, Anthony Yerkovic created and Michael Mann produced Miami Vice. Set in, naturally, Miami, the look reflected the scene there, with pastels and neons dominating. However, for the focus of the show, the nascent War on Drugs came into play. Miami was and is a natural port for bringing in illicit and illegal drugs from Central and South America into the US. Drug dealers and drug smugglers could make in a week as much as a vice cop made in a year*. The difference between what a vice detective could live on and the high life of people in the illegal drug industry made for a easily exploitable conflict.
With Don Johnson as Miami native Detective James “Sonny” Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as New York transplant Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs, the series delved into the Miami underground, the seamier side of the city. However, Crockett is seen with a boat, a fancy car, and an alligator. How can he afford that on his salary? Thanks to the War on Drugs, civil forfeiture and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 allowed law enforcement agencies to make use of items impounded as a result of a criminal investigation. Crockett’s boat and car belong to the Metro-Dade Police Department; one early episode involved an departmental auditor questioning his use of the equipment and threatening to take it all away.
Once the early episode oddities, including comedic elements, settled down, the series became a police drama. Popular music was used not just for radio but as background music, to set the mood of a scene. The pilot episode made good use of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight“, setting the mood for the climax in a way that a variation of the main theme couldn’t. One song, Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues“, was adapted into the episode of the same name, with Frey himself guest starring as a pilot smuggling drugs from Central and South America.
Miami Vice made its mark on television, lasting until 1989. Other series began to use techniques pioneered by the show, like using popular music to set the mood of a scene. Many singers and groups got a boost by being featured on the show. Having a song on Miami Vice was a sign of a singer making it big. Anytime a visual cue to the Eighties is needed in a movie or TV show, the fashion comes from Miami Vice.
Fast forward a bit to 2006. The War on Drugs has led to the militarization of American police departments. Drug dealers countered by getting their own heavier weapons. Miami is still a conduit for drugs into the US. Illicit drugs are big money makers at all levels. In this climate, Michael Mann brought Miami Vice to the big screen. The film version of the show starred Colin Farrell as Crocket and Jamie Foxx as Tubbs.
The film opens with Crockett and Tubbs getting a call from a former informant, now informing for the FBI, that he’s in trouble. One of the cartels threatened to kill the informant’s wife if he didn’t confess to the killing of Russian agents that tried to infiltrate the organization. Tubbs races off to try to help the wife, but is too late. The informant takes his own life by stepping out in front of a semi with Crockett watching. The detectives head to the murder scene, only to be called off by Lieutenant Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), which just piques their curiosity. The investigation leads to Crockett and Tubbs infiltrating the cartel to find who was responsible.
The movie version could fit in as a two-part episode of the original series, or a series of episodes spread out over the series’ run, much like the Calderone saga, which began in the pilot and appeared through to the third season. The difference is what could be filmed. Even in the watershed time slot of 10pm, television can only go so far. The MPAA rating of R allowed for sex, violence, and language that could not appear on even the most lenient broadcaster in the Eighties. However, the movie didn’t get self-indulgent with the freedom the rating provided. Michael Mann had a distinct vision in mind.
Mann realized there was a difference in how digital cameras picked up light compared to traditional film. Knowing the difference, he came in with an eye to how things would look when shot on location. The result is that Miami can be dramatic all on its own, with colours that would put the original series’ pastels to shame. The skies above the city added to the mood in ways even the soundtrack could not, and there was no way to plan for such ideal conditions yet they occurred. Mann shot on location; there was no way Vancouver or Toronto could be a stunt double for Miami.
Casting worked for the most part. The main quibble would be Henley as Lt. Martin Castillo, a role that Edward James Olmos owned. In the original, in a squad wearing pastels, Castillo wore simple black and white. He stood apart from his detectives. Henley’s Castillo may have been better as Gregory Sierra’s Lt. Lou Rodriguez, though that character survived only four episodes. This is more to the credit of Olmos, who brought an intensity to the character, then anything that Hanley did or did not do.
One thing Mann wanted to do was to separate the film from the original. Not even the original theme made an appearance. However, one song made a return. Mann used a cover of “In the Air Tonight” performed by Nonpoint. In the film released to theatres, the song is played over the end credits. However, the director’s cut moves it to just before the climax, where it fits in to set the mood of the characters, much like how the original Collins version of the song did.
The movie made its budget thanks to the international release. It came out strong in 2006, bumping Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man’s Chest out of the top spot at the box office, but faded away. The film was an update to the TV series, moving it to then-modern times where the War on Drugs was entrenched. However, the movie is now becoming a cult favourite thanks to Mann’s cinematography. It’s not the TV series from the Eighties because it wasn’t made in the Eighties, it was made with the sensitivities of 2006.
* This was an issue during Prohibition in the Roaring Twenties. The high rate of corruption among Prohibition agents came about because bootleggers could slip them $50 or $100 and not feel the loss while giving the agents a large bonus. Eliot Ness and his team were called the Untouchables because they weren’t susceptible to bribes, making them rare agents.
Since the dawn of television, the medium has been seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Film was seen as more prestigious. Today, though, the situation has reversed. While film adaptations are still desired by fans, television may be the better medium, allowing for greater depth. What happened?
In the US, television became dominated by three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. While there were other options, including the public broadcaster PBS, those three networks aired the bulk of TV series. The nature of ratings meant that, on average, a network could expect a third of the viewing audience for any given time slot. To attract a broader audience, the network would need a show with broad appeal, something that attracted families during the early evening and something that brought in adults later in the night. An inexpensive family drama could survive longer than an expensive high-brow science fiction series that needed special effects and dedicated sets. Broadcasters also could let a series find an audience. Even a 20 share meant that the network could sell the show to sponsors.
Film, however, was where the glamour was. Movies had an edge on television just on relative longevity alone. In the Fifties, colour was the norm for film, shown on a large screen. The stars were larger than life, thanks to the Hollywood glam machine. Even as televisions became more affordable, a weekly night out at the movies wasn’t a hardship. Studios still had limitations, though. The “voluntary” Hays Code, taking effect in 1930, put limits on what could be shown, leading to writers leaving what happened off-screen to the audience’s imagination. Beginning in the late Fifties, with Some Like it Hot, directors and studios started ignoring the Code, or, in the case of foreign film makers, weren’t bound by it in the first place. As a result, the MPAA introduced a classification system in 1968 that would let audiences decide for themselves what they were comfortable with.
Early television couldn’t compete with film. Television sets were small, with grainy black and white pictures, and very dependent on the strength of the broadcast signal. Movies were backed by studios with a good distribution system, shown on large screens that directors took full use of. Actors used television as a stepping stone towards a career in film. Better televisions were available, and colour became the standard for TV in the Sixties, but film still got the lion’s share of attention.
Then came the 500-channel universe. As cable grew, the choices available went from local and nearby broadcast stations to specialty channels available through subscription. Audiences could find a niche they wanted. Advertisers could target their market with more precision. Sports fans had several channels available to them, as did lovers of classic films and science fiction aficionados. With the expanded range available, specialty channels didn’t have to worry about the lowest common denominator. Networks, though, took time to learn the lesson. With the expanded competition, though, the quality of even the lowest of the low still had to improve. Add in time-shifting technologies as video cassette recorders and digital recording, viewers no longer had to plan around their favourite shows.
Film ran into new problems. The competition in television meant that there was less time for the weekly movie outing. The economic woes meant that nights out became rarer, especially after the Great Recession of 2007. Coupled with rising ticket and popcorn costs at theatres, who were trying to find ways to stay afloat despite record blockbusters, a movie night became a luxury. Not helping was the ballooning costs of making movies. Comedies were starting to cost as much as special effects laden science fiction movies; The Hangover 3 cost as much to make as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Studios now need films to be popular not just in the US, but also around the world. This need means aiming for the lowest common denominator, one that transcends international borders.
In contrast, televisions main problem is filling all the hours. Stations, broadcast and specialty alike, will still fill time by airing old programming. Sports stations will show classic games of the past; science fiction stations show older series that still have a following, like Star Trek; movie channels will show classic films of yesteryear. The stations will also create new programming as well. The quality may not be great, but even Sharktopus brings in an audience. Budget is a concern, but specialty channels can create TV series that brings in subscribers.
For adaptations, this reversal of roles means that television is the better medium, especially for long form works like novels. HBO’s success with A Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and AMC’s similar success with The Walking Dead, based on the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, showed that it is possible to create a series that resonates with audiences. Naturally, there were follow-the-leader adaptations, especially in fantasy with MTV adapting Terry Brooks’ Shannara series as The Shannara Chronicles. Television allows for greater depth over a season than possible in a two hour film, allowing the adaptation to take the time it needs to present the characters properly.
Film still has its glamour, though. Movies have budgets that television can only dream of. The same budgets, though, mean that most studios aren’t going to take huge risks. Deadpool, an R-rated superhero raunchy comedy, would never have been made if the X-Men franchise didn’t get past the first movie. With television’s lower budgets, a failed pilot isn’t as much of a loss as a blockbuster dud, and the expectation of TV pilots is lower.
The reversal of roles between film and television is recent and the root is economic. Adaptations of longer works, including series of novels, television has become the medium of choice. Film’s competitive edge has eroded, and television is coming into its own.
[Normally I do Worldbuilding advice here, but when my friend Scott did an analysis of Super Mario Brothers films, I wanted to put in my own two cents on why the film was awful. Because I care. And because the film was bad. Previously posted at Muse Hack.]
I did not see the Super Mario Brothers film until Riffftrax released it. I had heard it was terrible. I know some people still remember it fondly, especially for the late and truly great Bob Hoskins’ performance, but agree the film wasn’t good. So my first encounter with it was with the talented Rifftrax comedians giving their take, which was mainly wall-to-wall sarcasm with intermittent horror at shirtless John Leguzamo.
At the end I could really only say that despite the truly marvelous commentary, this was one of the worst films I’ve seen. If you know anything about me, you know that is a terrifying statement.
I mean I’ve watched some seriously bad films without commentary. I’m not sure I could handle this one without sarcastic assistance. I can’t imagine the braveness of my friend Scott who viewed it raw for his analysis.
But this got me thinking – why was my reaction so visceral? What was going on in my head? Why would I rather watch, say “Plan 9” (which is bad, but there’s much worse) than this?
So, oddly, inspired by this debacle of a film, I began asking why it was so bad, and what I found surprised me.
Let’s go ask: what makes a film bad? (more…)
Cracked looks at movies being remade.
The article is a month old, but the list has Point Break, Day of the Dead, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and two separate Jungle Book adaptations. Point Break will remove the surfing element, replacing it with extreme sport, thus making the title an artifact. League is being developed as a TV series, which may fit the original comic better. Yes, that will make League a remake of an adaptation.
Another adaptation coming: The Exorcist.
The Exorcist, originally a book but adapted as a movie where it is better known, may be returning as a TV series. The idea is still being shopped around, but networks and cable stations are at least intrigued.
Five hundred new fairytales discovered.
Disney now has even more stories to animate. The tales were found in a German archive. Franz von Schönwerth collected the tales in Bavaria around the same time the Brothers Grimm were. One of the formerly lost tales, “The Turnip Princess” is now online at the Guardian’s site.
Steven Spielberg negotiating rights for The Grapes of Wrath.
The Steinbeck novel turns 75 next year and many producers and directors are trying to get the rights to film it. The book was adapted once before, by John Ford in 1939.
The Hollywood Meltdown continues. Spike Lee talks with John Berman on CNN on why originals aren’t being made and the future of movie making.
The big issue is that Hollywood studios now need the international market to turn a profit on big budget blockbusters. In China, audiences don’t go out to original movies but will flock to characters they already know. Thus, major comic book movies (except R.I.P.D.) and sequels do better there than unknown characters. Lee is also turning to Kickstarter to fund his next movie, seeing crowdsourcing as not that much different as raising money for his first joints, except he doesn’t have to lick as many stamps this time.
The question the studios have to consider is, “Is this movie worth the money being spent on it?” If The Hangover III cost US$103 million while The Phantom Menance cost US$115 million, there’s something wrong. (For comparison, the first Hangover only cost US$35 million to make and performed better in theatres compared to the third movie in the trilogy.)
Spielberg, who has noted the oncoming implosion, is predicting that it may cost more to see movies like Iron Man than to see Lincoln after the meltdown, with filmmakers Lee and George Lucas agreeing.
Next week, Blade Runner