With popular television shows such as Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad soon releasing a feature film version, we take a look at how television-based movies have fared when using the same cast as the original program.
When examining feature-length films based on television programs you will notice they are financially successful more often than not. However, they are rarely the types of films we find ourselves talking about years after their release. Television-based films tend to be easily forgettable. This seems to be especially true for feature films which have the same casts as the television programs they are based upon.
Sure, a few of them have become classics, but most of them have not made a lasting impact. Part of the reason for this is that they simply were unable to transcend their original inspirations. By bringing the same cast into the film, it further alienates some audiences who are not familiar with the original show in the first place. Fans of the original shows will certainly have a better appreciation of these films, which is why they have found some financial success. But for most audiences these films don’t have as much appeal compared to other television-based films which start fresh with a new cast.
When examining theatrical-release films which shared the majority of their casts with the television program they were based upon, I found that these types of films tended to fit into one of four categories.
1. Extended Episodes
One of the easiest things for a production studio to do is to take a popular television show in production, create a lengthened episode, and slap a poster together for release as a feature film. Indeed, this is the approach many studios took for producing feature films based on television shows. These types of films are less an adaptation for the big screen as they are a ploy to make you pay money to see something you can easily stay at home and see for free.
The appeal, of course, is the low low production costs. With a cast and film set already in place, it just takes a bit more effort to yield a feature film. Sometimes, production companies will release a feature film version of a television show in order to increase awareness of the television show currently in syndication. This is exactly what happened with McHale’s Navy (1964), and Dragnet (1954). The creators behind the live-action Batman television show attempted to do the same, but couldn’t secure the funding and so the feature film version (Batman, 1966) had to be delayed until after the series had concluded.
If one of these types of films isn’t produced during the syndication of the TV show, they are often released afterwards as a special or finale to the series. That is the case with The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003) and Entourage (2015). A notable exception is And Now For Something Completely Different (1971), which was released during the production run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This film recreated many of the sketches which had been shown in the show, and then assembled them into feature film format. The film was intended to show to American audiences, who had not seen the television show. This way it was used as a promotional tool, but also could be considered a “greatest hits” reel.
Television-based films in the “spinoffs” category are those films which took many ideas from the original show, but move in a different direction for the big screen. Since these films also feature the same cast as the original television show, they are not different enough to count as “reimaginings”. Instead, think of them as different flavors of the original show. They take the source material in a different direction than what is possible on television.
The Gong Show Movie (1980) is a great example. If you are familiar with the format of The Gong Show, you would know it would not work well as a feature film. Creator/star Chuck Barris knew this, and so for the film’s big screen adaptation, he goes in a different direction. Rather than repeating the format of the show, the film is instead a satirical look at Chuck’s life as the shows’ creator and host.
Head (1968) is also a film which eschews the format of its source material. This film is based on the television show The Monkees, which starred the band of the same name. The show followed the band through various adventures and challenges as they tried to make a name for themselves. The film is instead an avant-garde trippy comedy. It carries forward the same type of New Wave approach as the show, but in a more freeform and surreal manner.
Finally, this category should also include films like Man About the House (1974), Nearest and Dearest (1973), That’s Your Funeral (1973). These were a series of films produced by Hammer Films from 1972-1974, towards the end of the production studio’s most active period. These films were all based on british comedy series popular at the time, and were produced by Hammer Films as quick and cheap attempts to turn a profit. Unfortunately, they all failed to find much success, leading to the production company’s hiatus after 1979.
The rarest of the four categories. These are films which nearly became “reimaginings” of the original television shows, except for one thing: they kept the original cast. “Reimaginings” of classic television shows are more common these days (think Mission: Impossible, The Smurfs, or The A-Team). But “reimaginings” usually end up only carrying over a few big ideas from the original show, and as far as I could tell, have never brought over the same cast as the television show.
To belong to this category, a film has to maintain the cast of the original television show on which it is based, but also be changed enough so that no knowledge of the original television show is required to either want to see the film in the first place, or understand it while watching.
In fact, I could only come up with a few examples of films sharing the same casts as the shows they are based on, but don’t actually require you to know anything about the show to enjoy the film. Blues Brothers (1980), for example, doesn’t require its audience to know anything about how the main characters were invented for an SNL sketch. Likewise, Serenity (2005) got a glossy make-over for its big-screen opportunity, with a story which doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the television show to make sense (although prior knowledge certainly enhances it).
There are hybrids too, such as Space Jam (1996), which technically has characters/cast brought in from television shows, but that is really the only connection to the original television-based inspiration. Finally, I would have to include Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1981) in this category. As a sketch comedy show, Monty Python had plenty of characters, but these feature films did not include any which were previously invented in a sketch. Neither film is a series of sketches like the original show, but instead feature a (mostly) standard feature-length film plot. Instead, they both have a carryover of the actors, who are essentially the ‘characters’ of the show.
4. Animated Films
These are films which could have been included in any of the above three categories, but I have decided to group them in their own category for a few reasons. First, the technique to bring an animated show to life is very similar to what it takes to bring an animated film to the big screen. Therefore, there isn’t much of a jump from the television screen to the big screen for these films, except for the increased run time. Therefore, almost all of these animated films can be considered as extended versions of their original television programs.
And yet, simply extending a cartoon to theatrical length does not make a great movie. There has to be more to it than that, or else it would just be a straight-to-video release. Animated feature films based on television shows tend to have extra gimmicks. They almost always have the main characters go on a grand adventure. Often times there are famous musicians involved or celebrity cameos. Or the plot of the film may relate more to current events than the show had in the past. So in a way, animated movies based on television shows tend to be more than just extended versions of their television counterparts, but not quite enough to count them as “spinoffs”.
Despite the additional efforts, animated movies based on television shows are rarely extraordinary. They tend to check all the boxes for a special outing of the original television program, but they don’t often exceed the creative or narrative boundaries already established on that program. As animated films, they are mostly geared towards children, and may be better appreciated by them as well.
Animated films like The Simpsons Movie (2007) tried to cash in on nostalgic love of an animated series well past its prime, while movies like Pokemon The Movie (1998) were released during the height of the popularity of their original source material. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, Aqua teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, and Beavis and Butthead do America are examples of animated films not geared towards children. Movies like The Care Bears Movie, or Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie clearly are. Films like Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear or Jetsons: The Movie seemed more like extended versions of the original television shows, while movies like The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water or My Little Pony: The Movie did things a bit differently.