The Light from the TV Shows: The Prequelization Principle

You know you’re a real fan of “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, if your first reaction to hearing about A&E’s new series, “Bates Motel,” which premieres on March 18, was to grumble, “They’ve already done a TV show called ‘Bates Motel.’”

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True enough: in 1987, NBC aired a TV movie called “Bates Motel,” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, a fellow with a few mental troubles who shared some quality time with Norman Bates in the state insane asylum and, as a result, finds himself the beneficiary of the Bates Motel in Norman’s will. The intent was to use the movie as a backdoor pilot for a weekly anthology series of sorts, following the lives of individuals passing through as guests of the motel, but when ratings for the movie proved disappointing, the plan for the series was abandoned.

But A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise. Instead, it’s a prequel, revealing how Norman Bates became the kind of guy who’d grow obsessed with his mother that he’d take on her identity on occasion and kill anyone who looked at him sideways.

Oh, wait, you say that’s already been done, too?

Yep, it sure has: in 1990, Showtime produced “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” which pointedly ignored the aforementioned TV movie and showed a very-much-still-alive Norman (Anthony Perkins) calling into a radio talk show about – what are the odds? – matricide, using the conversation as a framing device to flash back to his youth and reveal the bond between Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) and her son (played by Henry Thomas). It doesn’t exactly hew 100% to the continuity established by the preceding three films, but as a standalone film for casual fins, it holds up relatively well, thanks in no small part to Perkins’ performance.

Actually, A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise, either. Not really, anyway. I mean, yes, it starts at approximately the same point in Norman’s life, and the general idea is the same, in that it’s looking into all the Oedipal-ness of the Norma/Norman relationship. This time, though, it isn’t a period piece. For better or worse, it takes place in present day, which means that it’s arguably not a prequel at all but, instead, more of a complete reboot of the franchise.

Don’t worry, though: the Bates Motel itself still looks just as decrepit and foreboding as ever.

But, of course, “Bates Motel” is far from the first occasion of an existing property has been turned into a prequel for TV. Heck, it’s not even the first time it’s happened in 2013!

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From the Big Screen to the Small Screen: TV Series Inspired By Movies

Given that NBC’s new series, “Parenthood,” was inspired by the 1989 Ron Howard film of the same name, it was hard to resist the opportunity to take a look back at some other programs which originated on the silver screen. Obviously, Hollywood has never been afraid to recycle its properties – because, y’know, it’s just so much easier – but when you’ve got a good (and familiar) premise and you’ve got writers who know how to build on it, then why not take advantage of it? Not every film deserves to be turned into a television series, a fact which is borne out by this list of 15 such shows that never got past the pilot stage (and sometimes it worked just as badly in reverse, as you can see here), but looking back on the television landscape and seeing what classic series have emerged as a result, it’s hard to complain.

First up, a list of our 20 favorite series inspired by movies. You’ll likely disagree with some of our choices, but…well, frankly, you always disagree with some of our choices, and we’ve learned to live with that.

1. The Odd Couple (ABC, 1970 – 1975): Yeah, we know it’s technically a TV series inspired by a play, but it never would’ve been made if the movie version hadn’t been a success first. Believe it or not, Tony Randall actually wanted Mickey Rooney to play the Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger, due to the success they’d had together when they played the roles together on Broadway, but the series’ executive producer, Garry Marshall, fought for Jack Klugman and won.

Nice one, Garry: the chemistry between Randall as the fastidious Felix and Klugman as the slovenly Oscar proved so strong that it’s now hard to imagine anyone else playing either role. They also each won Emmy awards for their performances: Klugman won twice – in ’71 and ’73 – and Randall won in ’75, observing in his speech how he wished he had a job. (The show had since been canceled!)

Looking back at “The Odd Couple,” you may notice that the first season of the series looks notably different from the four seasons that followed. That’s because the decision was made to switch from single-camera to multi-camera, thereby giving the cast the opportunity to perform the show in front of a studio audience…not unlike a play, appropriately enough. No matter what season you happen upon, however, it’s still a TV classic. Sometimes it’s because of the guest stars (Oscar’s career as a sportswriter led to many an athlete being worked into the proceedings), sometimes it’s because of the situations the guys find themselves in (I’m thinking in particular of when Oscar invited Felix to be his partner on an episode of “Password”), but no matter what the scenario, it’s Randall and Klugman who bring home the laughs…so much so that, when you mention “The Odd Couple,” you immediately think of those two guys over Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Now that’s what I call a successful movie-to-TV adaptation!

2. M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972 – 1983): In the grand scheme of TV shows made from feature films, surely there’s none more commercially and artistically successful than “M*A*S*H.” Based on the 1970 Robert Altman film of the same name (which in turn was based on the book by Richard Hooker), it was an unlikely candidate for a hit series, and yet that’s exactly what it ended up being. Both movie and TV show showcased the frustrations of the Vietnam War through the lens of a group of Army medics operating during the Korean War (or conflict, depending on to whom you talk). Even though the series’ highpoint was the first three seasons, which displayed a far more madcap, almost anarchic vibe, the TV-viewing public couldn’t get enough. The show, enduring numerous cast changes along the way, ran for a whopping 11 seasons, effectively lasting four times as long as the Korean War itself. The series finale in February of ‘83 was, until recently, the most watched TV event in U.S. history, but Super Bowl XLIV came along and smashed that record. – Ross Ruediger

3. Alice (CBS, 1976 – 1985): If ever there was an oddball movie on which to base a TV show, 1974’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” directed by Martin Scorsese, was that movie. The relatively straightforward dramatic piece about a widowed mother of one struggling to make her way in the world was reimagined as a half-hour sitcom. By all counts, this series shouldn’t have made it past one season, and yet it lasted a mind-boggling nine years. Well, it’s really only mind-boggling to someone who hasn’t seen the show, because anyone who has, likely understands this sitcom’s place in TV history. Alice Hyatt (Linda Lavin), who in the series is divorced rather than widowed, travels across country with her son Tommy, seeking fame and fortune on L.A. as a singer, when her car breaks down in Phoenix. She’s forced to take a job at a local greasy spoon called Mel’s Diner owned by Mel Sharples (Vic Tayback, reprising his role from the film). There she finds friendship and zany antics amongst Mel’s employees and clientele. “Alice” was an ideal blue-collar premise for ‘70s TV viewers, particularly women, many of whom understood Alice all too well. The show also brought the catchphrase “Kiss my grits!” (thank you, Polly Holiday) to the table and its possible TV hasn’t recovered since. – Ross Ruediger

4. Logan’s Run (CBS, 1977 – 1978): It’s probably a little easier to buy into the idea of a “Logan’s Run” TV series when you realize that the author of the novel that inspired the film – William F. Nolan – actually wrote two sequel novels (“Logan’s World” and “Logan’s Search”) as well as a novelette (“Logan’s Return”), but as it happens, the series stands completely apart from Nolan’s written word. Starring Gregory Harrison as Logan, Heather Menzies as Jessica, and Donald Moffat as an android named REM, “Logan’s Run” sent its characters across post-apocalyptic America by hovercraft on a voyage to find Sanctuary. Given the era, the show was a relatively solid bit of sci-fi, thanks in no small part to having former “Star Trek” writer D.C. Fontana serving as the show’s story editor, but in a rather obnoxious move, Warner Brothers has released the complete series of “Logan’s Run” as iTunes downloads without making it available for purchase in a hard-copy form. Fingers crossed that the folks at Warner Archive will read this and take heed. Better to get a glorified DVD-R version that’s authorized and somewhat cleaned up than a crappy bootleg version.

5. The Paper Chase (CBS, 1978 – 1979 / Showtime, 1984 – 1986): James Bridges’ 1973 film version of John J. Osborn’s novel turned producer John Houseman, a film and theater legend but an unknown to the general public, into an Oscar-winning movie star at age 71. Later, Bridges, Osborn, and Houseman brought “The Paper Chase” to television with likable James Stephens starring as earnest law-student James Hart who, week by week, struggled with the enigmatic method and deep mind-games of the unapproachable Prof. Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. The idea of a show about extremely intelligent young people learning how to think and reason at a high level was a novelty in 1978 — not that it’s commonplace today — and it was canceled after one season. However, such was the affection for the series that the show was successfully rerun on PBS. That led to a TV first: “The Paper Chase” went back into production in 1983 for premium cable’s Showtime with author Osborn’s involvement as well as most, but not all, of the initial cast. Not that anyone seemed to noticed: with Stephens and the charismatic, coldly witty Houseman on board, by the time Hart finally graduated, many viewers had no idea there had ever been a movie. – Bob Westal

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