A Brief History of Movies Based on Television Programs

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These days it seems like almost any fondly-remembered television show can become a candidate for a feature-length film adaptation. This is a look at how the trend first began and what has caused it to become more popular over time. 

The advantages of basing a feature film on a television show are similar to the advantages of basing a film on a book or other sort of written media. For starters, you already have an established audience. Part of the challenge to making a film is of course convincing people to go and see it. Having a film based on a pre-established media allows some of the audience to already have some familiarity with the characters or the story. It takes less convincing for them to be interested in seeing the film. The more popular the original inspiration, the larger the potential audience. 

And yet, despite the commercial appeal of a film based on television, it actually took a while for them to become as commonplace as they are today. Part of the reason for this, is of course the proliferation of television itself and the time it took for television to become popular. Commercial televisions were only available after 1938, which was about 50 years after the release of what we would consider the motion picture. Without television shows, early films took their inspirations from other popular pastimes of the era. This includes popular books, but also classic stories, plays, and forms of entertainment (dance, vaudeville, circus, etc.). Some feature length films were based on previous short films which had been released, and proven popular. 

Not until the 1950’s after WWII did television really begin to catch on. Until then, radio had been the primary format of in-home electronic family entertainment. The benefits of television were not yet realized. The technology at the time made television screens very small and difficult to view. Details were almost impossible to see, and so television became mostly an extension of radio in those days – relying on sound more than vision. 

Not only was adaptation of the actual in-home television equipment necessary for the technology’s growth, but also the studios and broadcast towers to support it. Early television adopters had to first live within the limited broadcast range of the few stations which first began transmissions. Programming was also very limited. Most early television programs followed the formats of popular radio shows at the time. By 1955, broadcast companies such as ABC, NBC, and CBS had all began to make profits with television thanks to new hit shows they had developed specifically for the format of television. 

News shows, talk shows, family programs, and dramas were among the most popular of this first wave of television programs. With the explosion in popularity of television during those years it was only a matter of time before a feature film was based on a television show. That honor goes to 1954’s Dragnet, but not without a caveat. Dragnet made its debut on television in 1951, but it had actually been a popular radio program beginning two years prior. The radio program was in turn created by Jack Webb based on a small role he had played in a 1948 film called He Walked by Night. Dragnet the radio program became a big hit, which is what had been the inspiration behind the feature length film, more so than the television program. 

(Note: 1951 did see the theatrical release of a 12-part serial film from Columbia Pictures called Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere, based on a television program which began in 1949. However, because it was released in serial format it is not exactly a fore bearer to today’s feature-length films based on television shows.)

For the first official feature-length film based on a television show, I look towards 1955’s It’s a Great Day. This film was a british comedy based on a soap opera called The Grove Family, which began in 1954. What makes this film important despite not being all that memorable or otherwise notable is the fact that it was essentially an extension of the television program. It cast the same actors in the same roles and was produced quickly and inexpensively by the BBC. This would be a format other popular television shows would later try to use to take advantage of their popularity on the big screen. Other 1950’s feature length films based on television include 1956’s Our Mrs. Brooks, and 1957’s Zero Hour

Despite the popularity of television through the 1950’s the number of feature films based on television programs was very limited, as you can see. For the 1960’s there wasn’t much of an improvement. Television-based feature films just did not find much support at television or film production studios. Part of the reason for this was a marked shift in television programming towards the end of the 50’s. By that time, most television programming was controlled by the three major broadcasters who were in bitter competition with each other. They began to look for programming which appealed to larger audiences. Television became a place for simple comedies, game shows, and news coverage (such as the captivating escalation of the Cold War). Very few of the most popular television shows of the day were suitable for translation to the big screen. 

Exceptions were animations and more adventurous programming aimed at kids. Hannah Barbara released their first feature length animation, Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear(1964) was based on the popular animated cartoon The Yogi Bear Show. Hannah Barbara also released a movie based on The Flintstones, 1966’s The Man Called Flintstone. Similarly, we saw the release of two Thunderbirds films (1966’s Thunderbirds Are Go, and 1968’s Thunderbird 6). In a similar vein we have 1966’s Batman and Munster, Go Home! (based on The Munsters, of course). The common thread for all of these films was the idea that they were essentially longer versions of the original television programs themselves. It did not require significant additional resources to produce them beyond what was already in place for normal syndication. 

60’s feature length films based on television shows did have one unique advantage which would disappear in the next decade. The films themselves would be in color, even if the original television shows were not generally viewed by audiences in color. Color broadcasting began in 1964, but all existing televisions were not compatible. It would take some time for a majority of viewers to purchase new television sets. Furthermore, many programs did not adapt color production because of the additional equipment costs associated. For this reason, many programs were either still seen in black and white or still produced in black in white – even until the end of the decade. 

As far as I can tell, only one television program took advantage of this opportunity; Dr. Who. 1965’s Dr. Who and the Daleks was the first iteration of the series to be shown in color. In addition to the use of color as a method to enhance the production, the film’s producers took the opportunity to make other changes to the original source material. This started with a plot which was not meant to be a connection with the existing television series. Although some characters and ideas are re-used, the producers took the opportunity to “re-imagine” the show for the big screen. This allowed them additional creative freedom to at least allow for audiences who may not have seen the original show. A sequel was released the following year, Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 AD

This was an important first in television-based feature films. Until now, these types of films had essentially been extended episodes of their original shows. By making changes to the source material, television-based films would be able to appeal to wider audiences. Studios did not have to rely on an audience to be familiar with the source material, and production was not constrained to repeat exactly what had been done before. 

This became especially important as television-based movies could be released years after the end of the television programs they were based on. They did not require existing sets or actors from the television shows. This did increase production costs of these types of films, but it made them commercially more viable. It also allowed them to escape the potentially limited appeal of the source material. Television-based movies became more about translating ideas from the source material to the big screen rather than trying to transplant the source material itself. 

Still, the 1970’s was mostly void of memorable television-based films. Notable exceptions included the three Monty Python films released in 1971, 1975, and 1979 respectively (And Now for Something Completely Different, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Life of Brian). The Muppet Movie was released in 1979, starting a complete series of films based on television characters which would find much success in the 80’s and 90’s. 

1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a bit of an anomaly. Originally produced as a pilot for a new television series, it was rewritten as a feature film to try and compete with Star Wars. However, it does carry on in the tradition of the Dr. Who films by separating itself by somewhat reimagining the source material. The style and design of the original series was “reimagined” for the big screen. Production values were amped up, and even if the original cast did return, this was a film intended to appeal to people who may not have seen the original series. It was also the first television-based movie released well after the end of the original television show. 

In these ways, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first “modern” television-based feature film. It was reliant on the source material, but was also something new. As a major film production, it also created a blueprint for other studios to follow. The film ended up being somewhat of a dud with critics and audiences, but nonetheless showed an opportunity for similar films to adapt from television in new and creative ways. The 80’s saw the release of other television-based feature films which did not simply repeat the approach of their source materials. Consider The Blues Brothers, The Twilight Zone Movie, The Naked Gun, and Masters of the Universe

However, television-based films didn’t really come into their own until the 1990’s. 1989’s Batman was a very important film because it showed how a successful modern blockbuster could be based on pre-existing material. Hollywood began to look for the next big movie idea, and television was a prime candidate to provide the necessary inspiration.  One of the reasons Batman proved to be so popular is that its audience was familiar with the source material from comics and cartoons. Hollywood essentially took what was widely considered as something which appealed to children, and made it appeal to adults. Of course it helped that many of the children who had grown up reading Batman and watching him on TV were now grown up with their own families to take to the movies. Hollywood struck the rich vein called nostalgia appeal. 

So instead of looking at contemporary television for ideas, film studios began looking into the past for the first time (It also helped that TV viewership was in decline at the time). We ended up with a whole slew of films based on 1960’s television programs to appeal to the people who had grown up watching them. Examples include The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), Car 54, Where Are you? (1994), The Addams Family (1991), The Avengers (1998), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), The Flintstones(1994), Leave it to Beaver(1997), Mission: Impossible (1996), Lost in Space (1998), and Dudley Do-Right (1999). In the 2000’s and into this decade the number of television-based films has only increased. 

The rise of television-based feature films over the last 30 years is not just a matter of studios trying to take advantage of the audience’s fond memories from growing up. It is also a reflection of the massive impact television has had on pop culture in general. Prior to the 1980’s, the people in charge of making films had not lived their entire lives with television. Only with those people born in the 50’s and 60’s had television been a constant impact in their lives and an influence on their growth during childhood. For this reason, Hollywood has only more recently reached a point where someone in charge has been able to convince others why it is a good idea to create a television-based movie in the first place.