The 15 Strangest Movies Based on TV Shows
If you prefer watching people sit on a beach to actually sitting on a beach for Memorial Day weekend, there’s a new Baywatch movie in theaters today, starring Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. Though Baywatch endured in syndication for over a decade, it’s not like there was a massive fanbase out there begging for a big-screen version; the film, directed by Seth Gordon, is mostly a lighthearted sendup of the old series about heroic lifeguards.
Baywatch was kind of a joke to begin with, and blowing it up to blockbuster size does the comedy no favors, which makes the whole project seem a little bit odd. Still, compared to some the 15 bizarre television-to-film adaptations below, Baywatch looks like a stroke of genius.
The movies on this list represent strange lapses in judgment or execution, or in some cases both. Most were bad, a few were actually pretty good, a handful were truly terrible. But they all sprung from the eternal impulse to take something popular on one medium and port it over to another. As many of these films show, that is a lot harder to do than it looks.
If you know the Monkees from their genial pop hits like “I’m a Believer,” wait until you see Head, a psychedelic spoof that has more to do with Woodstock than the “Last Train to Clarksville.” The movie was produced by the same company that later created Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show. If Head was made by an arty French director, it would already be pretty weird. The fact that this thing happens to star an extremely popular boy band, makes it downright deranged. And it’s even a part of the Criterion Collection.
The Gong Show Movie (1980)
It takes a certain amount of valor to try to turn a nonfiction TV show into movie; it takes a lunatic to make a movie version of a game show. But there really was a Gong Show Movie in 1980, starring, written, and directed by the show’s creator Chuck Barris. It essentially presents a backstage peek at the inner workings of The Gong Show, with Barris playing a fictionalized version of himself. Take a guess how it did in theaters.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
The Twilight Zone certainly had enough name recognition to justify a movie version, but it was always a poor fit for the silver screen. The television show was an anthology; it had no recurring characters or actors, and the only “star” of the show, if there was one at all, was creator Rod Serling — who was long dead by 1983. Even more strangely, the film was mostly comprised of remakes of old Twilight Zone episodes. Still, an all-star lineup of directors (Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller, and Steven Spielberg) helped make the film a modest hit. Sadly, it’s best remembered today for an on-set tragedy that cost three actors their lives.
Long before Baywatch or even 21 Jump Street hinged on the idea of taking a cheesy old TV show and turning it into an act of self-mockery on the big screen there was Dragnet, a comic version of the long-running cop show starring Jack Webb. Webb’s delivery as Detective Joe Friday was as dry as a freshly laundered towel; playing the original Friday’s nephew, Aykroyd parroted his famous performance to comedic effect, alongside Tom Hanks as “Pep Streebek.” (The 1980s were a strange decade in general.) Dragnet was not a hit with critics, but it made a decent amount of money, and its success did establish the formula that Baywatch, 21 Jump Street, and many others have followed.
The Beverly Hillbillies (1993)
On the flip side of things there was The Beverly Hillbillies movie, which basically replayed the TV version’s premise straight. (The TV show was already a comedy, about a bunch of hillbillies who strike it rich.) The show endured for nearly a decade on TV, but it had been canceled for over 20 years by the time the movies got ahold of the property, and the filmmakers didn’t really figure out a compelling way to update it. (Two years later, The Brady Bunch Movie successfully mined that friction as the main joke of one of the best TV-to-movie translations.)
Car 54, Where Are You? (1994)
This list isn’t ranked, but if it was, I’d put Car 54, Where Are You? at number one. This sitcom about a couple of cops lasted just a few years on NBC in the early 1960s. It came back into the public consciousness because of frequent airings in the early days of Nick at Nite, which is just about the only explanation for its cinematic revival 30 years later. The movie was delayed for years because of the bankruptcy of its original distributor, Orion Pictures, but this thing would have been a flop either way.
Sgt. Bilko (1996)
Now we’re getting into really obscure shows. Yes, Phil Silvers was a comedy legend, even in the mid-’90s. But Sgt. Bilko (which was actually called The Phil Silvers Show when it was on the air) didn’t have the same second life on syndication and cable that some of these other shows had, and it finished its initial run way back in 1959. You know how people accuse Hollywood of chasing young audiences at the expense of everything else? Sgt. Bilko is like from a Bizarro Universe where Hollywood is only interested in catering to the whims of retirees in Florida.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)
Every episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a feature-length movie with sarcastic comments from a guy and his robot friends. So it seems like a bit of a stretch to ask people to schlep to the theater and spend money on something they already get each week at home for free. Even more bizarre, the MST3K movie is actually shorter than the standard episode of the show; just 73 minutes compared to the typical two hours (with commercials). Paying more for less than you get for nothing on cable? This idea would not have made it through the Invention Exchange.
A Night at the Roxbury (1998)
Watching the properties that Saturday Night Live decides to spin off into feature-length films often produces some major head scratches. But of all the questionable sketches to make the jump to the big screen, none was more questionable than “The Roxbury Guys,” a trio of party dudes who perpetually bob their heads to Haddaway’s “What Is Love.” There were all kinds of red flags here: The fact that the third member of the Roxbury Guys was always played by different actors (generally each show’s host) and the minor detail of the men almost never speaking. But the pure star power of Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan could not be denied in the late ’90s, and thus a very bad SNL movie was born.
Wild Wild West (1999)
It’s one thing to take a beloved TV show and turn it into a movie. It’s another thing to take a relatively obscure show and bank a reported $170 million bucks on its success. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s over $250 million.) Admittedly, the show was more of a vehicle than anything else in this case; the studio was banking on Will Smith and his Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld delivering another action comedy blockbuster. Things didn’t work out how they planned.
Dudley Do-Right (1999)
At the end of the ’90s, Brendan Fraser became a big star right at the time live-action versions of old cartoons started to take off. He had a surprising hit with George of the Jungle, and so they tried to duplicate that success with Dudley Do-Right, a character from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, who got their own movie in the year 2000 with Robert De Niro. (The 1990s were a weird decade in general.) Features based on shorts are always tough; Dudley Do-Right clocked in at less than 80 minutes, and it wound up making about $10 million against a $70 budget. There’s a joke in here somewhere about the character’s name and his financial performance, but I’m too much of a gentleman to make it.
The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002)
Before his death in 2006, “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin became a huge celebrity as the host of his series The Crocodile Hunter, where he’d interact with wild animals with enormous enthusiasm. It was a pleasant show, but it was essentially a high-energy nature documentary, which made it all the stranger when the big-screen version, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course was a fiction feature, starring Irwin and his wife Terri as themselves on an adventure involving crocodiles, the CIA, and even then-President George W. Bush (played by Timothy Bottoms).
Here’s a case where the thing a show is known for is totally incompatible with the movie the producers wanted to make. Thunderbirds was an adventure show starring a cast of marionettes; its low-fi analog style was exactly its appeal. A big-budget version with computer effects kills the whole thing. Series creator Gerry Anderson agreed; he called the live-action Thunderbirds “the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Miami Vice (2006)
Miami Vice made a huge impact on the fashion and style of the 1980s. Suits with T-shirts, pastels, sockless loafers; they all came to define part of that decade. So naturally Michael Mann took Miami Vice and made a Michael Mann movie out of it, with slick action, and almost nothing (other than a pair of Miami vice cops) that people associated with the television show. The movie has its merits, but it’s a strange case of trying to piggyback on an established brand while fundamentally altering that brand, almost beyond recognition. Its reception would almost surely have been better if Mann had called his movie Florida Cops or something.
Dark Shadows (2012)
What happens when you take a cult show from 45 years ago and try to turn it into a big mainstream horror comedy starring Johnny Depp? You get this messy mix of supernatural soap opera, spoof, and monster movie. It’s one of the most recent examples (at least until this weekend) of why turning a television show into a movie, even when that show has a big devoted fanbase, isn’t always a great idea.