ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS? POPULAR TV AND ITS TRANSITION TO THE BIG SCREEN by Kenneth Longden
The hit television comedy Absolutely Fabulous is set to hit the big screen as a movie (July 1st 2016), and as such it is worth considering the hype, the paratexts, and the anticipation that surrounds this venture. First the hype: Much of the hype around Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie speaks of its transition from television (there is a clue in the film’s title), and this seems to be an important factor in its marketing.
Although a success also in America, Canada, and Australia (with a French version being made also (Absolument Fabuleux), the comedy also plays on a very British identity, and it is interesting to note that the film version has largely been touted as a forthcoming British Box-Office spectacular. In terms of the film’s paratexts much is made of the concept of business-as-usual, allied to a very British experience. Again, this is a strategy that places a value on the television connection, experience, and production. This can be seen particularly in the film’s posters, where buzz phrases or sayings from the television series play a prominent role alongside motifs/traits of the characters. Finally, there is the carefully constructed anticipation surrounding the movie. As with the television programme, there are cameo parts in the movie – world-renowned celebrity fashion designers, models, actors, etc. Yet efforts are made to stress that the original cast and/or settings are also present. This is designed to offer reassurance – that the television experience will still be largely intact. I mention this because all these features – and many more – describe some of the dynamics involved in the transition of television programmes to the big screen. As Constantine Verevis and Kathleen Loock remark in their studies of Film Remakes (2006) and Remake/Remodel (2012), the film/television remake can be understood through 3 categories or practices: As an Industrial practice; as a textual practice; and as a cultural practice (2006). Further, the dynamic of transitioning from TV to screen involves the area of extended story-worlds and potentially points to studies in prequels, sequels, reboots, and spin-offs. The work of Klein and Palmer (2016) is particularly interesting in this respect.
In the coming months and weeks, I will be editing and writing a special collection for a well-known academic publishing organisation on the subject of the TV to Film Remake. It is a phenomenon and practice that has been around almost from the very beginnings of popular television programming, and one that has produced mixed results. The list of popular television programmes making the transition from small screen to big screen is long and diverse in terms of the notable and the obscure, the successful and the not so successful. The example that is Star Trek, proved so successful, it spawned not only more films, but a new ‘generation’ of television series that in turn created a whole franchise around the story-world and its characters. Some, however, are not so fabulous, suffering from a variety of problems in transition, of which adapting to the long form seems the least of their problems. In these last respects, these examples suffer from what I will call an identity crisis, that in the case of British TV-to-film remakes especially, potentially highlights identity problems elsewhere. Yet the transition from TV to the big screen is often seen at the time as anything but problematic. In many respects the big screen remake has often been heralded as prestigious, or a sign of success and popularity. Some transitions and adaptations have involved a complete change of circumstances, referencing the franchise or original creation only tenuously, while others have attempted fidelity, usually through the retention of the original cast.
Absolutely Fabulous (the movie) is particularly interesting in terms of the British TV-to-Film transition in as much as the movie extends the form of the popular sitcom – a form that makes up the vast majority of British TV-to-film transitions. Those of a particular age in the UK will remember the TV-to-Movie remakes of sitcoms such as On The Buses (3 films – 1971,1972, 1973), Till Death Us Do Part (1 film – 1969), Rising Damp (1 film – 1980), the pretty awful Are You Being Served? (1 film - 1977), and of course (and most recently) Dad’s Army (2 films – 1971, 2016). Nearly all of these films (with the possible exception of the latest Dad’s Army film) may tell us something, not only about the popularity of these television programmes, but also about the state and perception of British/national cinema (and identity) at a particular historical/cultural moment. And with all of these examples, we can use Verevis’s analytical structure (although largely used in the study of film remakes) of Industrial practice, textual practice, and cultural practice to further aid understanding of how this phenomenon and practice works – or not in some cases.
Surprisingly, given television’s early adoption of this practice, and the relatively recent success of some notable examples – Star Trek, The X-Files, The Adams Family, Sex in the City – very little research has been done on the TV-to-film remake, until recently. Transnational Television Remakes edited by Constantine Verevis and Claire Perkins (Continuum 2015), and Constantine Verevis’s forthcoming chapter “TV to Film” in American Hollywood 2, Directory of World Cinema (Intellect Books, 2015), also Klein and Palmer’s Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots: Multiplicities in Film and Television (2016) show signs of addressing this short-fall. In fact, the little research that has been done in this area has largely been in relation to Adaptation studies, or to film remakes. In terms of adaptation, a notable example is Inn Rae Hark’s "Translating embodied television characters to other media." Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text (1999). Interestingly, for Hark the challenges involved whereby a popular television series makes the successful transition to film, lies “less in its narratives [the long form] than in its continuing characters and general situation” (1999). If we look at all the early British sitcoms mentioned above, those that were relatively successful (On the Buses- 3 films), commercially or otherwise, tended to be those that managed to retain their original TV cast. This is a feature that Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie can be seen to address in its hype, paratexts, and constructed anticipation. Similarly, the success of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), it could be argued, lay in its retention of the original cast. As Hark observers, such was the cult status of the television cast members of Star Trek, that recasting the roles for the film was “not really an option” (1999). Where possible, this seems to be the way to go, as evinced by both of the Sex in the City films.
However, the option to use the original cast may not be always possible, and this highlights another dynamic of the TV-to-film phenomenon. Films such as The Addams family (1991), The Fugitive (1993), The Brady Bunch (1995), and Bewitched (2005), are notable for either tapping into a nostalgia boom, or are parodic in their treatment of the original television source. In some cases, these examples work on their own merits, with their link to the original television series being only nominal. As Gillespie observes, although nostalgia does play some part in the film being re-imagined in the first place, the wide demographic for the film’s audience suggests “the demand for nostalgia… is extremely elastic and depends less on the product’s track record than its present performance.” (Gillespie 1994. In: Hark 1999). More interestingly, however, is that along with reactionary claims that the TV-to-film phenomenon highlights a dearth of ideas in the film industry, the recent use of TV shows in the film industry shows a reversal of the traditional hierarchy whereby film was seen as the dominant creative power.
Also at stake in this process and in this phenomenon are issues related to the translation of ideas and ideologies, not only across media platforms, but in many cases across cultures. There is no doubt that for popular American television programmes such as The X-Files or Sex in the City, the transition from TV to big screen is a different experience and challenge that that which faces British TV programmes such as Absolutely Fabulous. The transition of a local/national television programme to the global screen therefore can be complex and whilst global media/television platforms such as Netflix potentially transcend national boundaries in the viewing experience, television programmes such as Absolutely Fabulous, for all their world-wide exposure and appeal, in their transition to film, still have negotiate cultural and industry traditions that oscillate between national cinema, world cinema, and Hollywood.
Kenneth Longden is currently an Associate Lecturer in Film, Television, and Media at UClan, teaching Science Fiction, Critical Approaches to Film, and Popular Television.
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