Marge Simpson's Negligee Revealed: Sex, "Pervasive Language," and Adultification
The ratings for many of the adapted films reflect not just a plethora of action, however, for another pattern in TV-to-film adaptations is to add raunchier, bawdier jokes and scenes, and to add more sex. The MPA A lists many of these films as including “crude and sexual content,” “pervasive language,” “partial nudity,” “innuendo and some sensuality/nudity,” and “rude humor.” Excluding AH G Indahouse, Entourage, and Sex and the City as originals rated for adults, six of these adaptations are R-rated, and 19 are PG-13-rated, many for the inclusion of rude humor and sexual humor and/or content.
Charlie's Angels is instructive here, for as the above-noted opening tracking shot plays out, our second snippet of overheard conversation hears a flight attendant tell a colleague that he told a woman, “look, lady, it’s not the seats that have gotten smaller, it’s your ass that’s gotten bigger,” and a few seconds later, we see a young couple sneak into the bathroom together. The film also announces its intentions to situate itself wholly within the male gaze when our second shot of Cameron Diaz in her bikini has her stretching out in a way unnecessary to the scene, but so as to render her body a spectacle, while our first views of Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore’s faces come with slo-mo hair shakes. The Dukes of Hazzard is also replete with sexual humor, making Uncle Jesse significantly cruder than in the television show, and largely usingjessica Simpson’s Daisy Duke for objectification—a point the airbrushing of her cleavage communicates in both of its posters, no less. Bo and Luke, meanwhile, shift from being clever troublemakers on television to being naive, dimwitted, and prone to saying rude things on film. And Land of the Lost borrows more from its star Will Ferrell’s history with rude humor than from its original, resulting in a film with significantly more adult content than the television show ever featured.
Thus, and curiously, adult humor suffuses many of these adaptations, even though their originals resided wholly within family television viewing blocks. Indeed, if we consider that many of the presumed viewers of adaptations of 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s television shows 21 Jump Street, The A-Team, Bewitched,
Charlie’s Angels, Dark Shadows, Dukes of Hazzard, The Equalizer, Get Smart, GI Joe, Inspector Gadget, I-Spy, Land of the Lost, The Man front UNCLE, Miami Vice, Mission: Impossible, Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs, Starsky and Hutch, and Transformers would have been young when the originals played, the common choice to “adultify” the humor, camerawork, and/or characterization is potentially risky, inasmuch as it takes the more “family-friendly” originals and transforms them for former fans. Even a show such as Baywatch, whose television original always peddled slomo shots of young people running in bathing suits, steps up to a film that includes, as the MPAA notes, “graphic nudity” and “crude sexual contact.” Or whereas Solo’s womanizing is subtly implied in The Man from UNCLE on television, his sexual encounters are more explicit in the film. And though the Star Trek continuation films that preceded the 2009 reboot often lacked the budget to transform television in terms of stars and visual scale, they too played along with this inexpensive means of communicating a cinematic graduation from the language restrictions of broadcast television; most notably, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) generated a running gag from Kirk and Spock’s experimentations with “colorful metaphors” like “double dumb-ass on you.” In other films, Scotty calls the Klingon head of state a “bitch” and Data exclaims “oh shit!” as the Enterprise collides with a planet. The rebooted Kirk calling “bullshit” on Spock in 2009 only extends this tradition.
The Simpsons Movie veers this direction too. Early on, Bart skateboards naked through town in a sight gag that sees various framings conveniently cover his private parts, until all of a sudden he skates behind two bushes that reverse this framing, showing only his penis and testicles. Simpson neighbor Ned Flanders is in a fast food restaurant leading his boys in saying grace when he sees Bart, moreover, leading to first Ned and then Rod and Todd invoking Bart’s “bountiful ... penis.” Later in the film, too, Marge and Homer lead into a sex scene, with Disney-esque animals surrounding them and disrobing them, a stag using his horns to rip off'Marge’s dress to reveal her negligee. Granted, everything in The Simpsons is played parodically and for laughs, but the joke in both cases is thus quite clearly that television-to-film adaptations are expected to be more crude, and to include more sex.
Also viewing the adaptive process with tongue firmly in cheek is South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, whose title alone mocks the expectations of television-to-film adaptations being bigger and more brazenly phallic, wrapped up in male bravado. South Park is a remarkably profane show already, thereby leaving seemingly few boundaries of rudeness and profanity left to cross, and yet the film gleefully and in self-aware fashion ups its ante with the musical number “Uncle Fucka,” which strings together multiple “fucks,” along with many other profanities in a song two best friends curse-sing to each other proposing they’re each eager practitioners of incest. The song comes from a diegetic television-to-film adaptation of The Terrance and Phillip Show that outrages South Park’s parents, setting off a moral panic, but in doing so it deftly makes fun of expectations that television shows—Terrance and Phillip and South Park alike—will find more edge when adapted to film.
By contrast, when films move to television, we see less ostensible infan-tilizing. Some darker threads were removed to make narratives safer for the whole family, as when About a Boy removes references to the mother’s suicide attempts and clinical depression. But for the most part, television shows based on films held tone: Fargo, for instance, is no less dark than its original, and Hannibal is considerably more graphic than Silence of the Lambs or Manhunter. The superhero films and television shows, meanwhile, flip their chasteness, as superhero films rarely include more than a passionate kiss, whereas Netflix’s Marvel shows include nudity and simulated sex, and even the broadcast CW network’s Arrowverse allows for steamier sex scenes, albeit without nudity. Television absolutely can handle darkness, sex, and rudeness, in short, even if the logic of adaptation often suggests that film can handle such issues better.
A healthy collection of superhero television shows illustrates another part of the adultification picture, though, namely that television can often be rendered as a space for teens. Almost all of the superhero films are aimed squarely at a large audience. But superhero television is often aimed at teens, as in Sntall-ville, Arrow, and the ensuing Arrowverse, all on teen-focused channel The CW, Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger on teen-focused channel Freeform, or in Runaways and The Gifted. And yet, across the many superhero films we considered, only Shazant! and Logan take an interest in children with powers, while the latter’s grim tone, violence, and K-rating signaled the film itself was definitely not for children. The X-Men franchise lends itself to telling more teen stories, given its potential setting at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and yet the films all focus on the guardian adults, introducing children only as wallpaper to scenes at the school, or as occasional troubled teens with poorly developed characters who exist for the adults to mentor. Spider-Man could also allow more storytelling for teens, given that Peter Parker is sometimes aged as a teen, yet the Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield Spideys were college age. Tom Holland’s turn as the webslinger finally activates the character more clearly for teen appeal and interest, yet since his key narrative purpose in the MCU seems to be to activate (surrogate) paternal feelings in Tony Stark/Iron Man, even he is written with the adult viewer carefully in mind. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse offers a bolder exception, and yet tellingly is animated and set outside the MCU, thereby already framing it as exceptional. In general, across their multiple production teams, superhero films have rarely seen themselves as exclusively talking to teens, as instead superhero stories for teens have been envisioned as television stories.