TV Series That Were Better Than the Films That Inspired Them

Yeah, there have been some. Rilly.

Don’t believe us? Check this:

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Clear eyes, full hearts, eh, I’ll just wait for the TV show: 14 TV series that usurped their original film versions
by Jason HellerJoel KellerNoel MurrayNathan RabinTasha Robinson, And Scott Tobias

1. What’s Happening!! (1976-79)
In the hierarchy of entertainment, television adaptations are generally considered poor relations of the films that spawned them. Oftentimes adaptations of films never make it past the pilot stage, like an ill-fated 1997 television version of Fargo starring Edie Falco. Even when television adaptations do make it onto a network schedule, they seldom make it past a single season. But every once in a while, a television adaptation—official, loose, or otherwise—usurps its big-screen version in the public’s imagination. That’s what happened toWhat’s Happening!!, a ’70s black sitcom loosely inspired by the classic coming-of-age comedy Cooley High. What’s Happening!!traded in the grittiness of Cooley High for a lighter, goofier approach as it chronicled the growing pains of brainy teenager Ernest Thomas, his family, and his pals, most notably a rotund beret enthusiast with incongruously smooth dance moves played by Fred Berry, who quickly emerged as the show’s breakout star, along with a sassy waitress played by Shirley Hemphill. Like Good Times, which aired around the same time, What’s Happening!! was plagued by allegations of stereotyping and wracked with production problems, but it was nevertheless a modest hit, landing in the top 30 two of the three seasons it ran on ABC. As befits a program whose most popular character is nicknamed “Rerun,” the show took off in syndication. Old episodes of the show proved so popular that the show was resurrected in 1985 as What’s Happening Now!! and ran for three seasons in syndication with much of the original cast in tow, along with newcomers like a young Martin Lawrence.

2. Alien Nation (1989-90)
Alien Nation has all the cornerstones of a television adaptation fated to usurp its big-screen inspiration. The 1988 film version of Alien Nation, a science-fiction buddy-cop movie about a human cop (James Caan) partnered with an alien (Mandy Patinkin) was a solid success but not exactly a zeitgeist-capturing blockbuster, and the premise of aliens living and working in the United States as another class of immigrants is rich and open-ended enough to lend itself to weekly television more than a standalone film. Sure enough, the television version of Alien Nation, with Gary Graham and Eric Pierpoint in the roles originated by Caan and Patinkin respectively, garnered good reviews and quickly attracted a serious cult following that was drawn to its metaphorically rich take on racism and the immigrant experience. But the struggling Fox network canceled all of its drama series in the 1990-1991 season in spite of the fact that the first season of Alien Nation ended on a clear cliffhanger. Cultists were unwilling to give up on Alien Nation so easily, however, and the show was brought back for five television movies featuring the original cast, as well as a series of novels and comic-book adaptations.

3. Mr. Belvedere (1985-90)
Mr. Belvedere belongs to a curious subsection of prominent television adaptations many fans didn’t even realize were adaptations. The story of a dapper English butler who comes to America to clean up the manners and fix the lives of a crass American family originated in Gwen Davenport’s 1947 novel Belvedere, which was adapted to cinema the following year in Sitting Pretty, with Clifton Webb in the role of the freakishly efficient butler. Webb scored an Oscar nomination for his lead performance, and the film was such a smash it inspired two sequels. But multiple generations know Belvedere not as Webb, but as Christopher Hewitt of The Producers fame, who played the wry super-servant in an ’80s sitcom adaptation that paired him with baseball announcer, beer pitchman, author, retired catcher, and all-around character Bob Uecker as the head of a rambunctious American clan. Though never a ratings titan, Mr. Belvedere proved strangely resilient and enduring, lasting six seasons and 117 episodes and inspiring a classic Saturday Night Live sketch in “The Guy Who PlaysMr. Belvedere Fan Club.” For many Gen-Xers who grew up on Mr. Belvedere reruns, merely hearing the opening strains of Leon Redbone’s iconic theme song, “According To Our New Arrivals,” is enough to engender intense nostalgia.

4. Peyton Place (1964-69)
Grace Metalious’ 1956 novel Peyton Place spawned a hit movie, a book sequel, a movie sequel, and controversy across the country from those who found Metalious’ frank description of small-town vice—from child sexual abuse to abortion to rampant adultery—a bit too spicy for the Eisenhower era. By the time Peyton Place became a prime-time soap in 1964, the title alone had entered the pop-culture lexicon as shorthand for “shocking.” And while the TV series was relatively tame—keeping the routine adultery but losing the more extreme perversion—it had an intense, potboiler quality that makes it compelling even now. (It helps that the show features a young Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow, as teenage lovers torn apart by parental pressure and a chain of circumstance.) Peyton Place aired multiple times a week and never repeated, so by the time it ended its run in 1969, 514 half-hour episodes had been completed. The show looks like a 1964 TV series—all backlot-y and Main Street idyllic—except that the characters are all sleeping around and trying to kill each other. It’s like the dark side of Mayberry.

Read it all (complete with video samples)

Peer Production: The SUPERMAN Film That Didn’t Happen


You remember it, right? Sure. You must. SUPERMAN LIVES, written by Kevin Smith, directed by Tim Burton, and starring Nic Cage.


Outrageous. Absurd. A travesty.

And yet…we admit it. We would’ve watched. Paid to watch even. (Just not retail, you know?)


Well, the bottom line here is that such a film was indeed planned in 1998 and then scrapped. And if you’d like to know who, what, where, when, how, and – maybe because we know how secretive (read, “full of shit”) Hollywood types are – why, you have your best chance so far at getting the answers from:

Don’t click here. This isn’t live. But if you look down a couple lines, all will be – hehe – revealed.

Jon Schnepp’s looking for a shade under $100,000 to make the film that will fill all of us in. We say we should all jump on this project now. So clasp your mouse, close your eyes, and CLICK HERE!

What do you mean, we didn’t click? Shit, you opened your eyes, didn’t you? You aren’t supposed to do that. Talk about having no honor…

Vladimir Nabokov on Literature and Life: A Rare 1969 BBC Interview

You do know who Nabokov is, right?

Guy who wrote Lolita?

Lolita, yeah. And a bunch of other stuff that now would be categorized as “literary fiction” but back in the day was just “fiction.”

But things haven’t gotten dumbed down. No sirree. We’re all still as sharp as a…a…erm…pin? Tack? Pine cone? Lightsabre?



Maria Popova

“The arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my ‘self-assurance.’”

In the fall of 1969, British broadcaster and journalist James Mossman submitted 58 questions on literature and life for celebrated author Vladimir Nabokov — butterfly-lover,master of melancholy, frequenter of ideal bookshelves — for an episode of BBC-2?s Review. Nabokov ended up answering 40 of them in what is best described as part interview, part performance art, eventually published in Strong Opinions (UKpublic library) — a 1973 collection of Nabokov’s finest interviews, articles and editorials. Some of the conversation is preserved in this rare original audio, with highlights transcribed below:


JM: Is writing your novels pleasure or drudgery?

VN: Pleasure and agony while composing the book in my mind; harrowing irritation when struggling with my tools and viscera — the pencil that needs resharpening, the card that has to be rewritten, the bladder that has to be drained, the word that I always misspell and always have to look up. Then the labor of reading the typescript prepared by a secretary, the correction of my major mistakes and her minor ones, transferring corrections to other copies, misplacing pages, trying to remember something that had to be crossed out or inserted. Repeating the process when proofreading. Unpacking the radiant, beautiful, plump advance copy, opening it — and discovering a stupid oversight committed by me, allowed by me to survive. After a month or so, I get used to the book’s final stage, to its having been weaned from my brain. I now regard it with a kind of amused tenderness as a man regards not his son, but the young wife of his son.

JM: Does the aristocrat in you despise the fictionist, or is it only English aristocrats who feel queasy about men of letters?

VN: Pushkin, professional poet and Russian nobleman, used to shock the beau monde by declaring that he wrote for his own pleasure but published for the sake of money. I do likewise, but have never shocked anybody — except, perhaps, a former publisher of mine, who used to counter my indignant requests by saying that I’m much too good a writer to need extravagant advances.

JM: You say you are not interested in what critics say, yet you got very angry with Edmund Wilson once for commenting on you, and let off some heavy field guns at him, not to say multiple rockets. You must have cared.

VN: I never retaliate when my works of art are concerned. There the arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my “self-assurance.” But I do reach for my heaviest dictionary when my scholarship is questioned, as was the case with my old friend Edmund Wilson, and I do get annoyed when people I never met impinge on my privacy with false and vulgar assumptions — as for example Mr. Updike, who in an otherwise clever article absurdly suggests that my fictional character, bitchy and lewd Ada, is, I quote, “in a dimension or two, Nabokov’s wife.” I might add that I collect clippings — for information and entertainment.

JM: Have you ever experienced hallucinations or heard voices or had visions, and if so, have they been illuminating?

VN: When about to fall asleep after a good deal of writing or reading, I often enjoy, if that is the right word, what some drug addicts experience — a continuous series of extraordinary bright, fluidly changing pictures. Their type is different nightly, but on a given night it remains the same: one night it may be a banal kaleidoscope of endlessly recombined and reshaped stained-window designs; next time comes a subhuman or superhuman face with a formidably growing blue eye; or — and this is the most striking type — I see in realistic detail a long-dead friend turning toward me and melting into another remembered figure against the black velvet of my eyelids’ inner side. As to voices, I have described in Speak, Memory the snatches of telephone talk which now and then vibrate in my pillowed ear. Reports on those enigmatic phenomena can be found in the case histories collected by psychiatrists but no satisfying interpretation has come my way. Freudians, keep out, please!

On October 23 the same year, The Listener adapted the interview in an article titled “To Be Kind, To Be Proud, To be Fearless: Vladimir Nabokov in conversation with James Mossman,” the version that appears in Strong Opinions. The title is based on Mossman’s final questions for Nabokov, not included in the audio above:

JM: Which is the worst thing men do?

VN: To stink, to cheat, to torture.

JM: Which is the best?

To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.

Strong Opinions is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.

Fundamentals of Fiction

One of the web’s most thoughtful writers writes about fiction on her way cool Wordstrumpet.Com blog:


by Charlotte Rains Dixon (Wordstrumpet.Com)

Novel writing is much on my mind these days.  If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that my debut novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior, is due out February 12.  Not only that, but next week I’ll be in Nashville to talk to a local writer’s group and give a workshop about Scene and Structure in fiction.  And, to top it all off, I will be once again offering my teleclass, Get Your Novel Written Now, in March (though early-bird registration is open).

So, yeah, novel writing is on my mind, big time.  And as I proof the final copy for Emma Jean, as well as continue to work on my next novel, I’m reminded of what it takes to actually write a novel.  Which, let it be known, is a lot.  Even though its about the most fun you can have, ever, it is a lot.  But the actual writing of every novel has a starting point.

Fundamentals of Fiction

And that starting point is the fundamentals of fiction.  A writer desirous of penning a novel could do no better than to begin with the basics.

So what are the fundamentals of fiction?

You can get all kinds of answers to this question. I was in a workshop in Nashville last September  and when a fellow instructor asked this question, we got about a dozen definitions. But, and this is a big but, it is possible to winnow the fundamentals down to five main areas, and these are the areas I’m going to consider today:

A. Story

B. Character

C. Setting

D. Style

E. Theme

Let’s look at them each briefly.  (Briefly because this is a blog post, not a class or an Ebook.  And one could write volumes about each fundamental.) Here goes:

Story. An editor recently told me that story is the basis of fiction. I know, a no-brainer. Except I argued that character is the basis of fiction, because I believe that all stories grow out of character.  But all this is really a chicken and egg thing.  Suffice it to say that without story, you don’t have a novel.

Character. What I said above. To me, all stories start with character.  Who is your protagonist?  Your antagonist? What are your character’s problems?  Their deepest desires?  What gets in the way of those deep desires?  How does one character’s deep desires confict with another?  And so on.

Setting. Where do your characters live and work? What’s their world? Do they live in the big city or the country?  Maybe an alternative world?  A different planet? Setting also comprises the things that surround your character, like their furnishing, their books, and so on. And don’t forget that setting also includes time.

Style. This is your voice. It’s the way you put words together in a sentence, the way you arrange sentences and so on.  My favorite quote about style is this, from editor Chris Roerden: “A writer’s voice gets buried in ineffective writing habits.” Much of this is last draft stuff, working with word choice, looking for active verbs, etc.

Theme. What’s it all about? What is the thematic statement you’re making? Too many would-be novelists over-think this. Start where you are and let the theme emerge as you write. Trust me, it will.  I have to admit, I’m a bit laissez-faire about this, because I’ve seen it emerge in the writing over and over again.

What do you think?  Do you agree with this definition of the fundamentals of fiction?  Or would you include something else?

Overthinking THE WEST WING Gives Us Insights Out the Wazoo

Some people who go just about anywhere to find the true meaning of their favorite TV show. For example:


Bartlet’s First Term: Graphed by Ben Adams

The election of 2012 saw an important shift in the way politics is conducted and in the way it is covered by the media. Whether we’re looking at President Obama’s team of number-crunchers or the rise of Nate Silver’s 538 Blog, politics is more quantitative than ever. For the most serious political thinkers, polls and numbers are one of the the most important tools of political analysis. But, this is Overthinking It, so we have to ask: can we use these tools to look at fictional Presidents? How does our most famous pop-culture Commander in Chief stack up against real-life Presidents?

For 7 years beginning in1999, “The West Wing” was the most prominent pop-culture portrayal of Presidential power and of politics. For fans of the show, President Bartlet was the kind of President we could only dream of having. The show was on for more than 100 episodes, and like any real-life POTUS, he guarded his approval rating jealously. With that much data out there, I set out to chart President Bartlet’s approval rating over this first term, and compare it to the modern era of U.S. Presidents.


Before I dive in, I’d like to discuss how I arrived at the data. First of all, I focused only on Bartlet’s first term in office, taking it through the half-way point of Season 4. Seasons 5-7 just didn’t have enough data to make much headway – mentions of approval rating disappeared almost entirely. I also made one major assumption: that any event significant enough to move the needle more than a few points would have been portrayed in an episode – it’s unlikely that we fought a major war or the administration suffered a major scandal that happened entirely off-screen.

I’ve got a more detailed description of my methodology below, but if you want to skip right to the graph, the basic process was:

  1. Find all explicit mentions of approval rating in the transcripts
  2. Make a subjective judgment for each episode whether the approval rating was like to go up or down following the events of the episode
  3. Interpolate between that data
  4. Add some noise to make it look more realistic

I used the “West Wing Transcripts” website  and scoured them for any mention of “Approval”, “Points”, “Percent”, etc. I am fairly certain that I got all explicit mentions of where the approval rating was, but it’s possible that it was discussed colloquially in a way that did not come up in my search – if you find one, please let me know in the comments. All told, I found 13 explicit mentions of the President’s approval rating, spread out over his first four years (there is also a flashback to the first few weeks in office that provided two data point.)


The fully interpolated data is in blue, with the data points based on actual episodes marked in red.


The graph is clearly dominated by three key events – the assassination attempt on the President (Season 1 Finale), the MS announcement (Season 2 Finale) and the campaign against Governor Ritchie (Season 4)….

Read it all (but prepare yourself; there’s a lot more)

We love that Ben Adams did this. We love that to him President Bartlett is as real as he is to us. But we admit to finding what we think to be one fatal flaw in this analysis: Adams treats the John Wells produced episodes as every bit as “real” as the Aaron Sorkin ones, when, plainly, the Wells shows are just fictional. Let’s face it, any true fan knows that Sorkin, at the top of his game, was the only True Chronicler of our much-missed Josiah.