Television Stories Go to the Movies: Strategies of Adaptation

While the American film industry has long been centered on adaptation of novels, biographies, Broadway musicals, comic-book heroes, and other movies, recent decades have seen a rise in movies adapting television shows. Conversely, numerous television shows in recent years have adapted popular movies. But if the old (and highly problematic) adage, meme-ified throughout the Web, is that “the book was better than the film,” what relationship are such adaptations and their promoters constructing between television and film? What is deemed possible in a film that wasn’t in a television show, and vice versa? What is seemingly expected in one medium while not in the other? What do adapters need to add or subtract to ensure their adaptation thrives in a new media environment, and what does this tell us about their understanding of that environment? This chapter addresses these questions.

Cross-media adaptations are rich sites for exploring what is deemed possible and/or most appropriate in either medium, and hence for probing discursive constructions of what a medium “can,” “cannot,” or “should” do. Quite practically, a lot of decisions to adapt a television show into a film or vice versa will have been made with a desire to squeeze more cash out of a successful story. But the decision to change media is relevant: if a show was beloved on television, why not just produce more of that show, or reboot it as another television show; and given how many reboots populate cinematic culture in the 21st century— many of them wildly successful—if a film is beloved, why not just make another film? While in some cases the decision to cross over may have been made precisely with a desire to work around a former obstacle (such as a network that had tired of a show), the extra labor and challenges required to shift media beg the question of what the creative team hoped they would gain from the change. Admittedly, that question is hard to answer, requiring us to listen to creators’ discussions about their work and somehow divine what was “really” intended versus what is simply being proposed for public relations strategy. An easier and more interesting question to answer is what do cross-media adaptations themselves suggest about perceived capacities and specialties of each medium? What can a show “finally” do now that it is a film? What has clearly been perceived necessary of the process of adapting film to television, or television to film?

We should avoid concluding too much from any single adaptation, for a whole host of large or mundane considerations may actually stand behind a decision to change this or that about a story, to focus on this or that element, and so forth. But recent years have delivered many television-to-film adaptations, and numerous film-to-television adaptations, thereby allowing us to look for patterns across them. In an effort to scour for such patterns, we watched the films and at least the pilots, often more, of television shows from many television-to-film adaptations of the last two decades:

Television Program


21 Jump Street (1987-1991)

21 Jump Street (2012)

The A-Team (1983-1987)

The A-Team (2010)

Da AH G Show (2000)

AH C Indahouse (2002)

The Alvin Show (1961-1962) & Alvin and the

Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)

Chipmunks (1983-1990)

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)

The Last Airbender (2010)

Baywatch (1989-2001)

Baywatch (2017)

Bewitched (1964-1972)

Bewitched (2005)

Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)

Charlie’s Angels (2000)

Dark Shadows (1966-1971)

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dora the Explorer (2000-2014)

Dora and the Lost City of Cold (2019)

The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985)

The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

Entourage (2004-2011)

Entourage (2015)

The Equalizer (1985-1989)

The Equalizer (2014)

Firefly (2002)

Serenity (2005)

Get Smart (1965-1970)

Get Smart (2008)

GI Joe: A Real American Hero (1983-1986)

CI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

Hannah Montana (2005-2007)

Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009)

The Honeymooners (1955-1956)

The Honeymooners (2005)

Inspector Gadget (1982-1986)

Inspector Gadget (1999)

I Spy (1965-1968)

I Spy (2002)

Land of the Lost (1974-1976)

Land of the Lost (2009)

Lizzie McGuire (2001-2004)

The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003)

The Man from UNCLE (1964-1968)

The Man from UNCLE (2015)

Miami Vice (1984-1990)

Miami Vice (2006)

Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)

Mission: Impossible (1996)

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (2010-)

My Little Pony: The Movie (2017)

Scooby-Doo (1969-1976)

Scooby-Doo (2002)

Sex and the City (1998-2004)

Sex and the City (2008)


Television Program


The Simpsons (1989-)

South Park (1997-)

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)

The Smurfs (1981-1989)

Star Trek (1966-1969)

Starsky ami Hutch (1975-1979)

Teen Titans Co! (2012-)

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!


Transformers (1984-1987)

Veronica Mars (2004-2007, 2019)

The Smurfs (2011)

Star Trek (2009)

Starsky and Hutch (2004)

Teen Titans Co! To the Movies (2018)

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie


Transformers (2007)

Veronica Mars (2014)

However, we wanted to be sure we weren’t simply documenting changes made to all adaptations, and thus we found it important to watch and similarly document film-to-television adaptations, too. We found in the process that a two-part focus provided a more dynamic picture of what is deemed possible in each media environment, allowing us to examine not only how television shows go to the movies but how television goes to the movies for inspiration. As such, we also watched:


Television Program

12 Monkeys (1995)

About a Boy (2002)

Psycho (1960)

Black Dynamite (2009)

Clerks (1994)

The Dark Crystal (1982)

12 Monkeys (2015-2018)

About a Boy (2014-2015)

Bates Motel (2013-2017)

Black Dynamite (2011-2015)

Clerks: The Animated Series (2000-2001)

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance


Legion (2010)

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

The Exorcist (1973)

Fargo (1996)

Friday Night Lights (2004)

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Dominion (2014-2015)

Dreamworks Dragons (2012-2018)

The Exorcist (2016-2018)

Fargo (2014-)

Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)

From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series (2014-2016)

Manhunter (1986) and Silence of the

Lambs (1991)

Hotel Transylvania (2012)

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Hannibal (2013-2015)

Hotel Transylvania: The Series (2017-)

Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness


The Lion King (1994)

Minority Report (2002)

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

The Lion Guard (2016-) Minority Report (2015) Napoleon Dynamite (2012)


Television Program

Nikita (1990)

Tangled (2010)

Stargate (1994)

Star Wars saga (1977+)

Teen TFo/f (1985)

Terminator (1984)

Nikita (2010-2013)

Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure (2017-2020)

Stargate SC-1 (1997-2007)

Star Wars: Clone Wars (2008-2020)

Teen Wolf (2011-2017)

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles


Westworld (1973)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Westworld (2016-)

What We Do in the Shadows (2019-)

As these lists might suggest, we use the term “adaptation” somewhat loosely to allow room for reboots, reimaginings, and continuations that involve the same cast and many other creative personnel. The movement of stories from film to television and vice versa cannot be accounted for via theories of adaptation alone, demanding broader consideration as a process of media franchising in which intellectual properties travel and multiply across different markets and contexts of production over long periods of time (Johnson 2013). However, the concept of adaptation continues to prove useful in research oriented around media franchising, helping us to focus on the formal, narrative, and stylistic affordances perceived to be inherent to the individual media that share these complex and ongoing industry relationships. Adaptation can help us perceive some of the discursive boundary work that unfolds within media franchising. Slightly adapting Linda Hutcheon’s definition of adaptations, then, we consider them as “deliberate, announced, and extended revisitations or continuations of prior works” (2006, xiv, words in italics added). These are not exhaustive lists, but were constructed to feature many of the more prominent adaptations of the last two decades. Some pairings both adapt a prior book (as with About a Boy, Hannibal, and Friday Night Lights, for instance), but whenever we saw ample evidence that the second adaptation was aware of and aimed also to adapt the first adaptation, we felt safe including it. And we should note that the watching and interpreting “we” here includes Nicholas Benson, who worked for two summers as a part-time research assistant for us. Benson watched many of these, highlighting specific elements for us to rewatch, and even suffering through Entourage for us. The authorial voice remains Derek’s and Jonathan’s, but we benefited remarkably from Benson’s astute, thoughtful, probing observations made as he watched.

The last two decades of American media history, though, offer another gift to anyone interested in adaptation and cross-media movements in the form of the many films and television shows that both adapt comic books, most notably from Marvel Comics and DC Comics. These add an interesting spin to questions about conversion and adaptation, given that the characters and often plot elements within such adaptations began in another medium altogether. Long before any Avenger or member of the Justice League of America graced the silver screen or held their look of noble determination in a paused freeze-frame on one’s television, they existed in Marvel and DC comic books. We could ask what the stories of their translation to film and television tell us about the discursive construction of distinction between comics and film, comics and television; but that is not our focus here, of course. Rather, we decided it would be productive to consider how Marvel and DC adaptations themselves spoke to what was possible in each medium, which were heroes and stories “best” for television, which for film, and how such stories “needed” to be told in each medium. Thus, we also examined the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its televisual counterparts of the 2000s and 2010s, some of Sony’s and Fox’s Marvel films and television shows, and DC’s films and television shows. Given the thousands of pages of source material that had already mapped out not only many potential storylines, but often many alternate versions and interpretations of characters, Marvel, DC, and their partners in film and television had a lot to work with. What did they decide to send to film and what to television? Conversely, what was taken up by those in film and those in television?

Marvel Studios’ films should be familiar to many readers of this book, as they have dominated the box office for the past decade. Beginning with Paramount Pictures’ Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and Universal Pictures’ The Incredible Hulk (2008), four of the key Avengers were given their own standalone films before uniting in Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures’ The Avengers (2012). Disney then took the reins for Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ant-Man (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Doctor Stranger (2016), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Black Panther (2018), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), Captain Marvel (2019), and Avengers: Endgame (2019), with Sony Pictures adding Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) along the way. Having let the spider out of the bag, we also considered Sony’s three Spider-Man films from 2002, 2004, and 2007, and its two Amazing Spider-Man films from 2012 and 2014 (none of which are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). In the same time frame, Marvel Television and ABC Studios added to the MCU franchise by producing Agents of SHIELD (2013—2020), Agent Carter (2015-2016), and Inhumans (2017) for ABC; Daredevil (2015-2018), Jessica Jones (2015-2019), Luke Cage (2016-2018), Iron Fist (2017-2018), The Defenders (2017), and The Punisher (2017-2019) for Netflix; Runaways (2017-2019) for Hulu; Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger (2018—2019) for Freeform; and more are in development for DisneyT as we write. Twentieth Century Fox, meanwhile, had sole rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four, producing its own healthy slate of films, of which we considered the X-Men films of 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009,

2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2019. For television, we considered their Legion (2017-2019) and The Gifted (2017-2019).

DC’s own adapted movies in the 21st century began with Catwoman in 2004, but we considered their DC Extended Universe (DCEU) titles, starting officially with Man of Steel (2013), and followed by Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), Aquaman (2018), Shazam! (2019), and Birds of Prey (2020). On television, following the successful Smalluille (2001-2011), came Birds of Prey (2002-2003), with both launching on the WB Network and the former shifting to the CW when WB merged with UPN. The CW then rolled out several more, including Arrow (2012-2020), The Flash (2014-), Legends of Tomorrow (2016-), Black Lightning (2018-), Swamp Thing (2019), and Batwoman (2019-), all of which exist in shared diegetic space, dubbed the Arrowverse, and joined by Supergirl after its initial season on CBS starting in 2015. DC has other titles, of course, but we capped our viewing there.

Alongside these many films and television shows, we also studied the US pre-release posters advertising for each. As paratexts, posters are central to the early framing of a text (Gray 2010). In the case of an adaptation, posters provide evidence both of how the studios are approaching the adaptation—which elements do they think matter most?—and of how they imagine audiences to be approaching the adaptation—what appeals do they think will matter most to us?

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