Classic Films Don't Always Translate Into Must-See TV

Television has a long history of trying to make classic films work as a series. Some are successful — think M*A*S*H — while others are flops. Critic Eric Deggans reviews the latest attempts to turn successful movies into TV show: The Firm and Napolean Dynamite.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The television version of the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" premiered last night as a cartoon. Another new TV show based on a movie is "The Firm." Critic Eric Deggans says the two new offerings are part of an enduring and not necessarily proud TV tradition.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Remember when Jennifer Aniston wound up playing Ferris Bueller's sister in a sitcom? Or when Cornelius from the "Planet of the Apes" met Carol Burnett? Television has a long history of trying to make classic films work as a series.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "M*A*S*H: SUICIDE IS PAINLESS")

DEGGANS: Including what might be the most successful film-to-TV transplant of all time: CBS's "M*A*S*H."

So, with that success in the rear view, it's easy to see why NBC wanted to turn another movie into a TV series, "The Firm." In this version, earnest lawyer Mitch McDeere, played by Tom Cruise on the big screen, and Josh Lucas here, sent a major mobster to prison, and now wants to leave witness protection.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FIRM")

JOSH LUCAS: (as Mitch McDeere) It's been ten years, Louis. Denver, Scottsdale, Wichita. My family wants its name back.

PAULINO NUNES: (as Federal Marshal Louis Coleman) I don't know. If it was me, the guy who sent my dad to prison for life, he'd be right at the top of my list.

DEGGANS: "The Firm" commits what I consider a cardinal sin of ripping off - sorry, I mean, adapting - movies to the small screen. It makes carbon copies of the film's characters, from Lucas's perpetually in-motion lawyer to Juliette Lewis recreating Holly Hunter's sex kitten of a receptionist. My preferred movie adaptations treat the movie like a guideline - "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Nikita," "Friday Night Lights" and my current favorite, NBC's "Parenthood."

Peter Krause's Adam Braverman is a version of the high-strung husband and father Steve Martin played in the 1989 film. But Krause's Braverman is less brittle, less funny and a bit deeper. When a drunk employee kisses him after a party, he tells his wife about it, causing the biggest crisis their marriage has seen yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARENTHOOD")

PETER KRAUSE: (as Adam Braverman) She kissed me. OK. I stopped the kiss. I came home.

MONICA POTTER: (as Kristina Braverman) Adam, tell me the truth. Are you attracted to her?

KRAUSE: (as Adam Braverman) No, I am not attracted to her.

DEGGANS: TV loves movie adaptations for one reason; successful films offer established brands audiences already know. But it also seems the best adaptations get away from their film roots as soon as possible. That makes it tough to judge the latest movie to make the transition, 2004's oddball film about Idaho's most awkward teenager, Napoleon Dynamite.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NAPOLEON DYNAMITE")

AARON RUELL: (as Kip Dynamite) Grandma, will you buy me this tiny rolled-up horoscope?

JON HEDER: (as Napoleon Dynamite) Stop asking her to buy you stuff. Whoa, Grandma, will you buy me this lighter that's shaped like dice and says high roller?

DEGGANS: The movie is a tribute to teen tedium so quirky it already played like a cartoon, so Fox made it into an animated comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "NAPOLEON DYNAMITE")

HEDER: (as Napoleon Dynamite) Lucky.

DEGGANS: Regardless of how "The Firm" or "Napoleon Dynamite" fares, there'll be more of this, especially given recent news of the latest movie up for translation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GOODFELLAS")

RAY LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

DEGGANS: That's right. Cable giant AMC is recreating the mob classic "Goodfellas." And I only hope they learn from recent history. Because sitting through a series filled with bad Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci impressions is an offer I plan on refusing.

MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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