Recycling small-screen classics

Was it Kirkegaard or Dick Van Patten who first compared the film industry to a sexual deviant? The sweaty-palmed industry, impatient to sow its loathsome seed, will couple with any other medium.

Movies are conceived from despoiling novels, short stories, plays, operas, radio and even children’s comics. Given this pederasty, it’s little wonder that the film industry should also prey on television. Not that the medium which brought us endless small-screen replicas of “MASH” is that innocent.

Experience suggests that efforts to adapt memorable TV programs should be treated with cynicism. Witness “Star Trek.” This mid-60s mediocrity became a “cult classic.” Then Hollywood “recreated” the supposed magic with big budget film versions. These films spawned new TV series and yet more movies.

Once this media incest became accepted, the “Star Trek” syndrome has been revisited upon us time and again in adaptations of such 60s TV shows as “Mission Impossible” and “The Saint.” This year the industry laid its hands on two more hit TV series: “The Avengers” and “The X-Files.”

Though a gulf of some 30 years separates the original incarnation of “The Avengers” from that of “The X-Files,” they share a common formula: something evil and almost omnipotent threatens the world and somebody good and decidedly more mortal must try to stop it. “The Avengers” may well have been among the first television shows to star a man-woman team ­ as opposed to a heroic man and wailing, defenseless woman. Much has happened since the 60s, so it should be no surprise that the formula has been modified somewhat. Nor is it surprising, given this formula, that “The Avengers” should be so bad. What is surprising is that “The X-Files” should be so good, relatively speaking.

“The X-Files” is premised on conspiracy theories, government cover-ups and alien contact, yet the people chasing after the truth are FBI agents. Part of “The X-Files’ ” innovation has thus been to blur the line between the evil something and the heroic someone. Creator Chris Carter’s other twist on the formula was to reverse the stereo-types associated with the man-woman team. It’s the never-smiling Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) who insists that the investigation must be rational, whereas pornography fan Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) acts as the team’s source of intuitive insight.

“The X-Files” continues to be highly successful TV, both in America and Lebanon. Devotees can thrill at the prospect that Duchovny and Anderson will touch each other non-professionally, something they adamantly refuse to do on television.

Director Rob Bowman has resisted the temptation to import Oscar-winning actors into this adaptation: the closest thing we come to a recognisable box-office draw is a slightly batty Martin Landau. The story too follows seamlessly from the central plot of the series ­ the quest to find exactly what is being covered up by the Cancer Man and his cronies. There is a big bang near the end of this film, but it’s not too calamitous obviously, since the series continues to run. Consequently, you come away from “The X-Files” feeling as if you’ve just sat through a slightly longer episode of the television program. Not a bad thing as it is one of the best things on American networks.

“The Avengers” is a very different beast. It’s cult following developed from the series’ first run in 1961. The original stars, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, aren’t up to all the cavorting the roles call for. This gave producer Jerry Weintraub an excuse to stack the remake with stars: Ralph Feinnes as John Steed; Uma Thurman as Emma Peel; and Sean Connery, in his most recent villain’s role as the evil Sir August de Wynter.

That said, “The Avengers” attempts to tread the same convention-defying ground as “The X-Files.” The good guys and the bad guys aren’t that far apart and, like Mulder and Scully, the relationship between Steed and Peel is supposed to keep the audience guessing whether the pair will get together.

The problem is that we aren’t kept guessing. The televised “The Avengers” had a stylish, slap-dash quality that grew from the times and the shoe-string budget that produced it. The thing that made the series work, despite all its improbable situations, were the characters of Steed and Peel and the innuendo between them.

American cinema isn’t usually big on subtlety, preferring stars, sex, and special effects. Hollywood’s take on “The Avengers’ ” eccentric balance means big stars and bigger special effects, and deflates the innuendo by dissolving the invisible barrier between the two characters.

“The X-Files” is a better movie than “The Avengers,” but it’s not that great either. To be fair, Carter never set out to be profound: just creative, entertaining and not insulting to the audience. The fact that they were also able to make something that reflects the concerns of its age, and which makes fun of itself, all while working within the formula restrictions of TV, is noteworthy. This is enough to recommend the film, even if its aim is only to pull in more viewers to the TV show. The best thing in “The Avengers” is Uma Thurman in a leather catsuit.





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