At a time when Hollywood refuses to commit to original, untested concepts on either the big or small screen, mining older film properties for the next possible record-breaking television show has become increasingly popular over the past several years, ranging from the just-cancelled Hannibal to the soon-to-premiere Minority Report.
It’s that latter series that has us thinking about other classic science-fiction movies that could be ripe for development into a multi-year, ongoing narrative. If this is a trend that doesn’t seem likely to stop anytime soon, and if there is some material out there that genuinely could reap dividends for fans and the studios alike, then why not attempt to make the best of a flawed situation?
And, indeed, once those cinematic rocks start to be turned over, it doesn’t take long to realize that everything from absurd comedies to political satires to esoteric philosophic journeys are arrayed just beneath the surface, waiting to be excavated, cleaned up, and reconstituted into engaging modern enterprises. At this rate, the so-called golden age of television doesn’t have to end anytime soon.
Join us, then, as we explore the 10 Classic Sci-Fi Movies That Should Be Adapted for TV.
The Fifth Element (1997)
There are few films as schizophrenic as The Fifth Element. On the one hand, it is a beautifully envisioned and produced movie, painting a gestalt that was unlike anything that had hitherto been seen on the big screen – equal parts Blade Runner and Star Wars, rendering New York City into Star Wars-ian Coruscant a few years before The Phantom Menace released.
On the other hand, however, the story is paper-thin. Director/co-writer Luc Besson originally conceived of the narrative when he was 16-years-old, and it thoroughly shows. It is a black-and-white tale of good versus evil that attempts to throw nearly every element into the pot, from aliens visiting ancient Egypt to over-the-top shoot-outs to rock operas. Needless to say, a cohesive whole is never quite attained.
In many ways, a prospective television showrunner couldn’t ask for a better setup: the ability to import a great many visual and mythological elements with the chance to actually make something of them, like a chef taking another’s list of ingredients and making a real recipe out of it. And with such a wide-ranging timeline of events, there is easily enough material to last the run of, say, The X-Files or Stargate SG-1.
The Abyss (1989)
Psychologically intense, emotionally resonant, and wonderfully speculative in its handling of extraterrestrial visitors to Earth, The Abyss is easily James Cameron’s best film – and a property far better suited to the television format than the ill-fated Terminator series.
A small crew of blue-collar oil rig workers stationed at the bottom of the ocean stumbles upon the possible outbreak of World War III as the American and Soviet militaries race to recover a nearby sunken US nuclear sub. The situation transforms instantly when they all discover that aliens have (temporarily?) settled in the Cayman Trough and have decided to decisively intervene in man’s endlessly bellicose ways.
A TV show could easily fill multiple seasons with the uniqueness of the ETs – which can manipulate water to make it vessels for their consciousnesses – the profound effects of their making their presence known globally, and the political tensions that could end the world, especially as they’re all anchored by the slowly-falling-back-in-love relationship of the two main characters.
Brazil is zany, engrossing, and idiosyncratic in a way that only Terry Gilliam, the sole American member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python, could be. Similar to THX 1138, the state has grown to be a fascistic force in a post-apocalyptic world, but in Gilliam’s handling, the only hero seen is a dashing, James Bond-esque air conditioning specialist who literally swings into action to cut through bureaucratic red-tape to fix citizens’ ductwork. The protagonist, meanwhile, is a low-level government employee who’s forced to engage in extensive daydreaming due to the banality of his daily existence – and who’s astonished when his fantasies seem to be coming true in the really-real world.
With Gilliam’s other deliciously surreal sci-fi film, 12 Monkeys, already heading into its second season on the SyFy Channel, there’s already a precedent for a TV adaptation. Brazil’s chaotic, demented world certainly gives the impression of extending far beyond the screen, allowing a potential showrunner to delve more fully into the guerilla war waged by the freelance heating specialists or the exact nature of the narrative’s relationship between fantasy and reality.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
There are few science-fiction films as classic as Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. Arriving in theaters in the 1950s, when the Cold War began to inspire science fiction in a new way, Wilcox’s film has gone on to influence scores of genre movies and television series that have released in the decades since. The original Star Trek, for example, based its costumes, production design and even the concept of the United Federation of Planets on ideas from Forbidden Planet. And even on a wider, non-sci-fi scale, Forbidden Planet was the very first production to use an electronic score – “electronic tonalities,” the music was called, and they were generated by custom-built equipment.
Such a cultural pervasiveness certainly presents a challenge to keep the material new or engaging, but, luckily, the movie presents a rather substantive narrative to mine for multiple seasons of a potential TV series. Based off of the Shakespeare play The Tempest, it tells the story of a mysterious creature that stalks the crew of a rescue ship sent to investigate a long-lost expedition. It wouldn’t be hard to expand the narrative to recount what happens once the survivors return to Earth, or to expand the narrative with more Shakespeare-inspired tales. Macbeth comes to mind as a psychologically twisted story that could easily be adapted for a sci-fi audience.
THX 1138 (1971)
THX 1138 is George Lucas’s very first feature film, many still consider it to be his best.
It’s certainly the most surreal: Lucas and his filmmaking partner, Walter Murch (his co-writer and co-editor), opted to approach their future, post-apocalyptic, dystopian world in a way that is still just as novel today as it was 45 years ago – rather than making a movie about the future, they made a movie from the future. As such, as the characters go about their daily, existentially-free lives, they engage in activities that are inexplicable (though still somehow recognizable). Being in the midst of the so-called golden age of television, such an avant-garde concept is readily adaptable.
What’s the story? THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) finds himself slipping off his state-mandated drugs, engaging in forbidden relationships with his fellow citizens, and, ultimately, attempting to do the unthinkable: escape from the fascistic underground city to explore the wild unknown. It may sound pedestrian in written form, but in visual, it is surreal, esoteric, and thoroughly engaging.
Ask film scholars what the best movies ever made are, and they’ll invariably come back with a short list that includes Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the original Solaris.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novel is, indeed, a masterpiece, a film that attempts to use the concept of alien life to analyze the nature – and limits – of human consciousness; perhaps Wikipedia describes the film best when it says it is “a meditative psychological drama.” An Earthbound psychologist is tasked with traveling to the space station Solaris, in orbit around an alien planet, to discover what has been transpiring with the crew. What he finds are metaphysical manifestations from their own personalities, which drives each of them to new emotional understandings – or suicide.
The 2002 American remake by Steven Soderbergh is an adequate attempt to streamline the Russian original, tightening the plot’s focus while exploring more of Earth’s future society, though it fails to come anywhere close to the genius of Tarkovsky’s classic. Still, both adaptations provide components that could be combined to tell a haunting, visually engaging story of life and death, humanity and alienness that could play out across the span of several years.
Dark Star (1974)
It’s easy to take science fiction and move it towards the narrative poles of drama, action, or horror, but it’s been much rarer to see filmmakers make the trek into comedic territory. In 1974, future cult filmmaker John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (the writer of the original Alien) decided to boldly go where few have ever gone before – or since.
Dark Star’s premise is nothing short of absurd, as its poster’s tagline attests: “The spaced-out odyssey – the mission of the Strangelove generation” (apparently, being tongue-in-cheek doesn’t preclude one from referencing the master, Stanley Kubrick). With “unstable planets” posing a risk to mankind’s future colonization of the galaxy, the crew of the Dark Star is tasked with the supremely important task of hunting them down and eliminating them with sentient “thermostellar triggering devices.” The only problem is that, after two decades of deep-space hunting, both the crew and the bombs have gone nearly mad with tedium, with the inanities of daily life aboard the tiny ship providing the bulk of the film’s story, culminating in a conflict between the crew and a phrenomenology-loving nuclear warhead that has something of an existential crisis.
The TV potential here speaks for itself, especially with the possibility of seeing many such Dark Star vessels – and the state of human society back on Earth, which is only ever hinted at in the movie.
The Black Hole (1979)
Dating back to a time when Disney was interested in pursuing adult live-action fare, The Black Hole tells the tale of the USS Palomino, a deep-space scientific vessel, happening upon the long-lost USS Cygnus as it mysteriously sits perched at the very edge of a black hole. When the Palomino’s crew comes aboard, they discover a lone survivor who has spent the past 20 years studying the black hole and is now ready to fly his ship through it.
Before he can do so, however, his would-be rescuers discover the terrible secret behind his squadron of faceless, non-sentient androids, putting them in battle with one another. By the end of the movie, the only remaining personnel find themselves on a probe ship that goes through the black hole, subjecting them to a highly surreal, possibly theological sequence before spitting them out into the great unknown.
There is much to be transferred to the small screen, both before and after the characters’ voyage through the titular black hole; one of the Palomino crew has ESP, for instance, posing many sociological questions for a series to tackle. But the biggest draw here would be in exploring how the mystical experience inside the spatial phenomenon changed the characters – and, possibly, the rest of humanity, as well.
Strange Days (1995)
Strange Days is, perhaps, one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the past generation. Co-written by James Cameron and directed by his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow (14 years before she won an oscar for The Hurt Locker), it follows a near-future world in which SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices) have proliferated on the black market, allowing users to relive other individuals’ recorded memories with all five senses engaged, including feats of physical prowess or intimacy.
The film intertwines the stories of an ex-Los Angeles police officer turned black marketeer, along with his obsessive quest to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, and a conspiracy involving the police department’s murder of a famous African American rapper and their attempts to cover it up to prevent a race war. Playing out against the countdown to the next millennium, it is a rather effective tale of suspense, reconciliation, and betrayal – the sort of story, in other words, that the golden age of television has thrived off of.
Dark City (1998)
Dark City is, not to put too fine a point on it, a modern masterpiece, a sci-fi entry that can easily sit on a list with the likes of THX 1138 (or, for that matter, 2001: A Space Odyssey). Equal parts Chinatown and Twilight Zone, Alex Proyas’s little movie of insomniacs, a shapeshifting city (literally) that never sees daylight, and the mysterious “Strangers” that control all has gone on to be hugely influential with subsequent waves of sci-fi filmmakers, starting with the Wachowskis and a little film called The Matrix.
As with other movies on this list, the benefits of a small-screen adaptation would include the ability to more fully explore both the backstory and consequences of the film’s narrative, expanding the horizons both narratively and thematically. The movie is only the tip of a much bigger, interstellar iceberg, one that could pay profound dividends to a writing-producing staff that could handle the complicated material in a subtle, polished way – making this prime territory for an HBO series.
Did we leave a (cult) classic out of the list that desperately needs to be on here? Does one of these films not deserve the title “classic” in the first place? Be sure to let us know in the comments below.