How to Ruin Your Favorite Stories By Adapting them for TV

The Procedural Formula 

Here’s a simple formula for destroying an original idea by adapting it for television: take a film (or comic book) series and shoehorn it into a format suited for syndication. The defaults you’ll find on network television are: ER clones, law firm look a-likes, New York ad agency stories, the monster of the week, and the cop drama. When in doubt, go with the cop drama.

Find someone in the source material with a unique ability. Reduce them to a roving freelance detective who plays by his own rules. I specify “his” because the maverick on network TV is almost always a “He,” (iZombie is one of the few exceptions).

Pair your maverick with a by the book detective who happens to be without a partner. This role is usually played by a buxom bombshell, the type of woman Chris Carter said Fox wanted him to cast as Agent Scully on The X-Files.

Use your maverick’s quirky ability to solve the murders of bland under developed characters. Tease an overarching mystery to keep us hooked: the type of serialized mythology we wish we were watching all along. Finally hint at the possibility that the platonic partners have a romantic interest. Draw their feelings out beyond believability. Wait to cash in their feelings at an awkward time in their relationship, like when your show gets canceled.

If this formula sounds familiar it’s because you’ve seen many variations of it on: The Mentalist, Castle, Sleepy HollowJohn DoeForever, and many other shows.

This fall season’s latest crop of cop-schlock ensures audiences will see all those tropes again.

Minority Report is a sci fi thriller that dares to ask the question if our fourth amendment right to reasonable searches and seizures extends to our possible futures. The TV show is about a psychic who can’t help but betray that moral, by using his gift to thwart crimes before they happen… Oh, and he has a by the book female partner.

Limitless is a film about a loser writer who discovers his potential with a brain boosting wonder drug called EZT, and all the horrible things he has to do to maintain his dosage. The TV show is about a guy who uses EZT to solve crimes… Oh, and he has a by the book female partner.

Lucifer is a comic book series about the devil retiring from hell and doing everything he can to flee God’s creation. The TV show is about how Lucifer retires from hell to help solve crimes. In this case, Lucifer’s arcane knowledge proved too abstract for TV, so they borrowed Daniel Radcliffe’s ability to make sinners confess from the film Horns… Oh, and Lucifer has a by the book female partner.

Also, based on these three trailers, stubble seems to be in this year.

2. Does this get me in?

Let’s Turn Everything into a Cop Drama

Here are some more film franchises the networks can ruin by adapting them for television:

Idiocracy… as a cop drama

An average unremarkable police officer accidentally runs down a mob boss during a raid. A career making arrest turns into a suspension hearing when it’s revealed the officer forgot to read the boss his rights. Down on his luck the officer submits to the Human Hibernation Research Study, believing he’ll be put under for five days. Instead he’s frozen for five hundred years.

The officer wakes up to find the world has devolved into a waste-scape where morons have outbred intellectuals, where everyone is dependent on technology that’s been automated for centuries, and the police are hapless to stop the violence. The officer re-enlists in the force where he discovers he’s the Sherlock Holmes of his time. The department quickly pairs him off with the most decorated cop on the force; an up-speaking valley girl by today’s standards, but a genius in the future.

Together they catch the dumbest criminals imaginable: thugs caught playing with the murder weapon when our duo comes knocking. The ongoing mythology could pit the officer against an average criminal who’s also woken up in the future (think Demolition Man if both characters were morons).

A Nightmare on Elm Street… as a cop drama

Unlike the previous Nightmare on Elm Street TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares, Freddy Krueger will be the star.

The quiet midwestern town of Springwood is being stalked by a sadistic killer. Each victim is eviscerated in broad daylight and there are always signs of a struggle. The town’s folk have whitewashed all records of Freddy Krueger, the serial killer that haunted their children’s nightmares, but Nancy, a head strong police officer, remembers hearing whispers. She looks into Freddy’s supernatural slayings and finds that this recent string of deaths don’t fit his M.O.

Still, Nancy can’t help but fall asleep with Freddy on the brain. Her fear of Freddy Krueger is enough to summon him into her nightmare. Nancy finds Freddy an emaciated husk of his former self, starving for souls. He doesn’t even have the strength to injure her. As Nancy investigates the daytime slaying she realizes they were done by more than one culpret. When she tells the sheriff she senses a conspiracy, he tells her to drop it.

Desperate, Nancy turns to the weakened dream dweller for help. She offers Freddy the conspirators’ souls if he can uncover the mystery. Reluctantly he agrees.

Mary Poppins… as a cop drama.

And you thought P. L. Travers hated Disney’s adaptation.

Bert is a grizzled cockney copper with one last assignment before retirement. He has to find out who killed George Banks, an investment banker with ties to London’s criminal underground. When he arrives at the crime scene at Cherry Tree Lane he learns the children have hired their own investigator: Mary Poppins. She introduces herself as a private detective “Who’s practically perfect in every way.”

Bert finds himself lagging behind Mary at each stage of his investigation, arriving at crime scenes she’s turned upside down. Bert decides that if he wants to get anywhere he’ll have to tail her. He learns Mary’s results come from her magical abilities, contacts in the supernatural underworld, and the enchanted objects she always keeps on her person. The pair pool their resources. Bert gives Marry access to the department’s files while she shares her tools: a bottomless evidence bag that contains an entire forensics lab, a surveillance drone in the shape of a kite, and a talking gun.

Bert can’t help but admire Mary’s methods. She’s an expert interrogator, making her suspects sing through actual song, infiltrating hideouts by floating on the ceiling, and getting intel from talking animals. The pair make a formidable team.

3. I got a prize

Here are More Franchise to Ruin by Putting Them on Television:

  • A Harry Potter procedural where Potter consults on cases involving wizard on muggle violence.
  • A Santa Claus procedural where Santa repurposes his network of elf confidential informants to tell him which suspects have been naughty and which have been nice.
  • A Tron procedural where Sam investigates cyber crimes represented by actual crime scenes on the game grid.
  • The Matrix as a procedural about an agent charged with tracking down rogue programs who casue glitches that threaten to expose the system.

Can you think of a franchise to ruin by adapting it for television? Please share your pitches in the comments.

9 thoughts on “How to Ruin Your Favorite Stories By Adapting them for TV”

  1. The Phantom Tollbooth as a cop drama. Milo is a genius who uses a combination of advanced mathematics and semiotic analysis to solve crimes. Toc is the beautiful but obsessive partner with a punctuality fetish. They are supported by a goofy but lovable lab team of Humbug and Dinn.

    1. Of course, now I’m thinking of pitching that for real.

      Patricia “Trish” Smith is a plainclothes officer in a wealthy suburb, mostly taking victim statements in burglary cases and providing reports for insurance claims. She’s unremarkable, not ambitious, not particularly beautiful, just doing her job.

      One day she gets caught in the middle of a messy domestic dispute and gets shot in the head. She is rushed to the hospital and spends a week in a coma. While she is unconscious her mother sits by her bedside, reading aloud from a book she loved as a child, about a magical kingdom and a handsome prince who goes on adventures.

      When Trish wakes up, the prince comes with her out of her dreams. Only she can see him, and she’s sure that he’s not real–just a hallucination that she devoutly hopes will fade.

      However, he can talk to her and he starts giving her advice and encouragement, helping her both to solve cases and to advance her career.

      Think “Raines” meets “Once Upon A Time”.

  2. I think Ronald D. Moore actually tried a Harry Potter procedural. It was called 17th Precinct, and it starred half the cast of Battlestar Galactica as cops solving crimes in a city full of magic. Didn’t make it past the pilot stage.

    Here’s my suggestion: A police drama set in Middle-earth in the aftermath of Lord of the Rings. Sauron didn’t die when the ring was destroyed, just lost all his power. Now he’s wandering without purpose until a buxom young by the book hobbit cop enlists his help in uncovering the perpetrators of a string of orc-on-orc homicides. Plenty of opportunities for flirtatious banter and stubble.

  3. Cereal Killers. Seamus O’Flaherty is a homicide detective, nicknamed “Lucky” due to his unbelievably high close rates. Always guarding his secrets, Lucky insists on working alone; and the chief is inclined to let him, given his string of successes on tricky high-profile cases.

    Meanwhile, John and Jane (the latter of whom happens to be buxom), newbie partners on the force, begin to suspect that Lucky’s tactics are not entirely natural when Jane returns to the precinct late one night to see scintillating rainbow colors emanating from beneath Lucky’s office door, only to barge in and find the room quiet and empty. Thereafter, the duo are determined to uncover Lucky’s secrets.

    Lucky carries a case with him at all times. Inside are strange, mystical objects which he consults away from prying eyes as he investigates the horrific murders, and which aid him with everything from divination of clues to precognition of events.

    Early killers include:

    “The Count” — a mortician gone mad, who “embalms” his victims alive, replacing their blood with chocolate syrup

    “Trixie” — a voluptuous playgirl who seduces under-aged victims, luring them to her penthouse where she dares them to perform life-threatening feats to earn her “tricks.”

    “Coco” — a prison escapee whose M.O. is “stoning” her victims to death with billiard 8 balls.

    While Jane’s motives to steal Lucky’s secrets begins as purely self-serving — to gain a quick name for her and John as the newcomers — her attempts to use flirtation and seduction to manipulate Lucky into divulging quickly turn into real respect and even a secret of her own: love.

    1. By the way, I know you were probably intending more literary or cinematic topics as fodder; but with your final picture of the badge and the cereal box — I couldn’t resist.

  4. I was just eating dinner before reading this, and my brother-in-law had Elementary on. You can guess how much I related to the first half of this post right off the bat, even without all prior hate of every rehashing of a rehashed solve-it-in-30-minutes.

    Also, your blogginess is as on point as ever in the second half. I could, unfortunately, see all of those examples at least considered by network execs.

  5. I thought the idea of making cop dramas out of any old movie or Tv show with one formula was pretty interesting. Oddly, I feel that the cookie-cutter style production method isn’t just applicable to cable television. It seems as if movie producers had dug through their childhood closets for their old comic collection and plastered each page on to film, even the not-so-great ones. Nearly every other movie is a superhero one, each with a nearly identical plot. Take the hero’s arch nemesis, as well as some of the lesser villains, team them up and create a plot to take over the world (or just defeat the hero). If you want a real blockbuster, throw in some aliens. S/o to Erik Tyler for showing me a blogger I will be sure to revisit.

    1. I’ve been feeling the same way when I go the movie theater. There only so many stories you can tell with superheroes, especially when the villain’s goal is world domination, for vague poorly motivated reasons. Hollywood sometimes confuses grand stakes, like the fate of the world, with emotional stakes, like the fate of a handful of characters we actually care about.

      I have faith that we’ll see more variety at the movies once the comic book bubble bursts. There’s already so many adaptations on TV and film (many of which are really good). When audiences have too many options their interest might diminish. Hopefully some new writers will come in with low budget ideas that take some risks.

      Thanks a lot for reading and taking the time to comment.

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