Television and film are two different forms of media, but they’re very compatible. Over the decades, many popular movies have been turned into highly-rated television shows, and many successful television shows have been adapted into hit feature films. Movies based on beloved TV programs are pretty common. Slightly less common, and certainly more interesting, are the shows that transition to the silver screen completely intact: same actors, same creative personnel, same feel.
Lots of shows have tried this. There have been kids’ shows like Lizzie McGuire, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Rugrats. There have been cult shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Comedies like Entourage and dramas such as Veronica Mars have tried it too. Even The Crocodile Hunter made the leap. (Oh, had you forgotten about Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course?) The quality, needless to say, has been varied.
A lucky few shows have resulted in great movies, which is what we’re celebrating here. Keep in mind that these movies aren’t necessarily “great” in the same way that, say, Casablanca or The Godfather are great. They’re great in the sense that they transcended the trap of being elongated episodes projected onto a bigger screen. These titles gained something in the transition. They also satisfied fans, while simultaneously making themselves accessible enough to entice newcomers.
Here are 15 Good TV Shows That Became Great Movies.
15. Star Trek
Gene Roddenberry’s creation Star Trek had a notably short shelf life on the tube. It ran on NBC for only three seasons before getting cancelled. Via syndication, the show made enough of an impact to endure, and even grow in popularity. In the late ’70s, America was in the middle of a science-fiction renaissance thanks to the popularity of a little picture called Star Wars. That made it the perfect time for Star Trek to seek out new adventures on the big screen.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979, inspired a mixed reaction that continues to this day. Some fans love it, others find it terminally boring. Nonetheless, it was successful enough to allow the franchise to continue in cinematic form. The best Trek movies — The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home — revive the character elements and social commentary that made the TV series resonate so strongly, while also opening up the possibility of grander adventures that the budget of the show would never allow for. The weaker entries, such as The Final Frontier, at least present the chance to hang with old friends for a couple of hours.
Incidentally, Star Trek: The Next Generation spawned a similarly hit or miss (but mostly hit) movie series, as well.
14. Batman: The Animated Series
Batman: The Animated Series was a landmark superhero TV show from the 1990s. It came on the heels of Tim Burton’s Batman, which presented a darker version of the character than had been seen onscreen before. (Burton’s take was influenced by Frank Miller’s seminal book Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.) Batman shows, in particular, had always been aimed more at the kiddies than the adult fans. While The Animated Series was technically a children’s show, it was sophisticated enough to please older viewers, too.
The impact was so significant that in 1993 Warner Brothers released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a feature-length version of the show, to theaters nationwide. Featuring the voice talents of Kevin Conway, Mark Hamill, and Dana Delaney, it finds the Caped Crusader framed for a murder he didn’t commit and trying to bring down the real culprit.
Despite bombing pretty hard at the box office (where it earned just $5.6 million), Mask of the Phantasm was well reviewed by critics. Upon hitting the home video market, more fans saw and embraced it. Today, it’s commonly viewed as a first-rate Batman adventure that easily bests some of the weaker (i.e. Joel Schumacher-directed) live-action Dark Knight movies.
13. Tales From the Crypt
HBO’s Tales From the Crypt ran for seven seasons. The anthology series was hosted by a decaying (and wisecracking) corpse known as the Crypt Keeper. Each episode would begin with him delivering a pun-filled introduction, after which a star-studded half-hour horror story would unfold. He’d return at the end to wrap everything up.
Tales From the Crypt spawned two movies. Bordello of Blood, released in 1996, is generally considered a misfire, even by the people who made it. The previous year’s Demon Knight, on the other hand, is regarded by many genre fans as a darn good B-movie. Starring William Sadler, Billy Zane, and Jada Pinkett, it tells the story of a drifter who ends up in a remote boarding house, which comes under siege by a demon and his minions.
Demon Knight retains the series’ trademark mix of horror and macabre humor, as well as its popular Crypt Keeper bookend segments. Having ninety minutes to tell a story allows the franchise to go a little deeper than it could on TV. Sadly, after Bordello of Blood tanked, the Crypt Keeper’s big screen adventures ended.
Jackass was an immediate hit when it premiered on MTV. The show promised — and delivered — dudes performing outrageous, dangerous stunts that you couldn’t look away from, no matter how horrific they may have seemed. The debut episode featured genial host Johnny Knoxville getting zapped with a taser and shot with a bean bag gun. And the show was just getting warmed up.
At the same time that they were breaking barriers in terms of what could be shown on television, it was clear that Knoxville and friends were still holding back. The R-rated Jackass: The Movie allowed them to perform the unexpurgated stunts MTV’s Standards & Practices Department would never let them get away with. Hence, we get to see things like Steve-o launching a lit bottle rocket from his rear end. The result is half comedy, half freak show. In many ways, this “party movie” is an endurance test to see how much you can watch without looking away.
11. Sex and the City
For millions of women, and more than a few men, Sex and the City was essential viewing. The HBO series followed four stylish cosmopolitan ladies as they navigated love, sex, and career issues. The situations they faced were relatable, yet there was also a fantasy element to the show; the characters’ lives seemed so cool that many audience members wanted to inhabit them.
In 2008, after a hiatus of several years, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw and her besties had a cinematic reunion. The Sex and the City movie reveals what they’ve been up to since the show ended, then follows them down new, more domestic avenues (marriage, motherhood, etc.). Running almost two-and-a-half-hours, it was designed to be a massive gift to the fans. They ate it up, to the tune of $152 million at the box office. But more importantly, the movie maximizes the show’s intelligent and comical insight into the types of real-world issues women deal with every day.
10. Mr. Bean
You can’t look at Rowan Atkinson without laughing. His rubbery sad-sack features are made for comedy. The British comedian put his endless array of hilarious facial expressions and undeniable comedic gifts to good use on the classic series Mr. Bean. He played a child-like man who usually communicated in grunts and noises. Every episode found him getting into some kind of sticky situation, which he proceeded to make exponentially worse.
That winning formula was expanded upon for the 1997 theatrical release Bean, which finds the hapless hero charged with transporting a valuable painting to a museum in Los Angeles. Needless to say, the work of art doesn’t exactly arrive intact. This feature length film works because it allows for elongated and more complex sequences of physical comedy. The scene in which Mr. Bean attempts to “fix” the painting he’s ruined, for example, is hilarious because it keeps building to increasingly disastrous levels. Bean is filled with such moments.
9. The Simpsons
The Simpsons debuted in 1989 — and it’s still on the air! That’s twenty-seven years and nearly 600 episodes. Such longevity is almost unprecedented in television. Of course, the seasons vary in quality, but the show has never not been good. You would think there’d be nothing left to do by now, but the show’s creative team somehow keeps finding new inspiration.
In 2007, that inspiration led to The Simpsons Movie, a $183 million smash. The film gives the beloved characters a much bigger, more epic story than they’ve ever had on TV. It involves Homer inadvertently poisoning the town’s water supply, which leads to the EPA building a massive dome around Springfield. It’s fun to see the Simpsons and their friends in a more high-stakes adventure, but the best moments in The Simpsons Movie are the ones that parody motion pictures themselves. The way the 20th Century Fox logo is Simpson-ized is just one example.
8. The Muppet Show
The Muppet Show was undeniably sensational, inspirational, celebrational, and Muppetational. The program featured guest stars, musical numbers, comedy bits, and behind-the-scenes hijinks that appealed to both kids and adults. It was one of those shows that expertly combined silliness and sophistication. Although it only ran for five seasons, the cultural impact of the show was so great that it feels like it was on much longer.
So popular were the Muppets that they quickly found their way to cinemas via 1979’s The Muppet Movie, a road comedy/musical that finds Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and the gang trekking to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. The film was a massive hit, earning $65 million (which would be almost $225 million in 2016 dollars). It captures the zany spirit of The Muppet Show, but also effectively opens up the characters’ world and gives them lives outside the Muppet theater.
The celebrity cameos — which include Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Cloris Leachman, and Steve Martin — are hilarious. As for the music, the big tune, “The Rainbow Connection,” was nominated for an Oscar. Today, The Muppet Movie is rightly viewed as a family classic.
7. Da Ali G Show
On Da Ali G Show, Sacha Baron Cohen perfected his ambush style of comedy. He assumed various guises to interview prominent figures from the worlds of politics and entertainment, none of whom were in on the joke. (A particular highlight was when he referred to famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin as “Buzz Lightyear” during their interview.) His characters included hip-hop moron Ali G, gay fashion maven Bruno, and Borat, a reporter from Kazakhstan.
It seemed impossible that any of these personas could inspire a full-length motion picture, but the hilariously titled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Khazakhstan came to light in 2006. Cohen and director Larry Charles use the format to send Borat on a cross-country trip in which he comically exposes racism and prejudice among those he encounters. Whether he’s singing a mangled version of the national anthem in front of a crowd of red-state rodeo fans or coercing a bunch of drunk frat boys to use racially offensive terminology, Borat peels back the veneer of political correctness to show that bigotry is alive and well in the United States. The result makes you laugh while you’re gasping.
6. Shaun the Sheep
The folks at Aardman have created some of the most beloved animated fare of our time. They’re responsible for the Wallace and Gromit franchise, plus underrated family films like Chicken Run and Flushed Away. In 2007, they released Shaun the Sheep, a show about a lovable sheep who gets into all kinds of mischievous adventures on the farm where he lives. It ran for five seasons, producing 150 laugh-filled episodes.
Shaun and his friends proved so appealing that a movie version seemed like a no-brainer. Shaun the Sheep Movie, which was released in 2015, finds Shaun and his pals venturing away from Mossy Bottom Farm and into the big city in search of the lost farmer who owns them. What’s impressive about the stop-motion animated film is that it’s almost completely wordless. The animal characters only make appropriate noises, while the farmer talks in indecipherable mumbles. That approach is really funny, as are the elaborately designed sight gags. Shaun the Sheep Movie is great for kids, but parents will love it, too. The film boasts a stellar 99% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which gives you an indication of just how terrific it is.
5. The X Files
The tag line for the long-running Fox series The X-Files was “The truth is out there.” And the truth is that the paranormal is never not fascinating. It provides a nearly endless amount of fodder for science-fiction tales. For this reason, the show has endured in popularity, launching two feature films and a recent television revival. Audiences love the otherworldly, ever-engaging adventures of agents Mulder and Scully.
The first, and more popular, X-Files movie, subtitled Fight the Future, extended some of the plot threads from the show, while also bringing back a number of popular supporting characters. In the movie, our heroes find themselves blamed for inappropriately handling a bomb situation. There is, of course, something far more sinister taking place, and eventually they find themselves facing an alien threat to humanity. The movie suitably looks more cinematic than the show, taking advantage of the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. A reported $60 million budget also ensures it looks great. Storywise, Fight the Future is just an extended episode of the show, but it’s one that has been executed on an even more ambitious scale.
Joss Whedon created two of the most revered TV shows of the last twenty years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. When he unveiled the “space Western” Firefly in 2002, there was every reason to believe it would turn out to be another ratings hit. But that didn’t happen. Viewership was low, leading the Fox network to cancel it after eleven of the fourteen produced episodes had aired. Nonetheless, Firefly was a show that people shared with their friends on DVD, subsequently helping it generate a loyal cult following.
Such a following led to Serenity, a 2005 Universal Pictures release that brought Firefly back from the dead. The plot involves a telepathic crew member and a deadly mercenary known as the Operative, and it maintains all the quirky character touches that made people go wild for the show. The movie received positive reviews from critics. Still, the cult audience wasn’t large enough to make Serenity a hit; it grossed a modest $25 million. Even if it wasn’t a blockbuster, the film satisfied the fans who turned out, while also extending the life of an adored fictional universe that most thought was gone for good.
3. Twin Peaks
The David Lynch-created Twin Peaks took America by storm when it debuted in 1990. Although it aired on television, it looked like a movie. The tone was darker and eerier than anything else on the tube. The show also marked one of the first times a major film director worked in TV, something that has become a bit more normal these days. The show followed FBI agent Dale Cooper, magnificently played by Kyle MacLachlan, as he investigated the brutal murder of teenager Laura Palmer in the quirky Washington town that gave the series its name.
Season one was brilliant. Season two, on the other hand, was widely considered something of a letdown. (Lynch was substantially less involved by that point.) Many were furious when the show was cancelled before fully revealing all the hows and whys of the Laura Palmer murder. Lynch decided to answer these questions via a theatrical movie, 1993’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Of course, there were hiccups. Stars Lara Flynn Boyle and Sherilynn Fenn opted not to participate (the former was replaced by Moira Kelly), and MacLachlan only wanted a small role, which meant a key character was reduced to the sidelines.
Nonetheless, Fire Walk With Me filled in some important gaps in the larger Twin Peaks story, offering up much trademark Lynch-ian weirdness in the process. By the way, there’s more Twin Peaks coming next year on Showtime.
2. South Park
Comedy Central’s South Park is notable for its boundary-pushing humor, not the least of which is that its child characters are insanely foul-mouthed. From the moment creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone unleashed it upon the public, it was clear that the show was a superb example of animation created for adults — one that also held a forbidden appeal to many kids.
For their leap to the big screen, Parker and Stone had a brilliant idea. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut deals with children seeing inappropriate material in a movie. Cartman, Stan, Kyle, and Kenny sneak into an R-rated movie, then come out imitating the things they witnessed onscreen. Their horrified parents — and the whole town, for that matter — band together to fight the moral corruption of their children.
Bigger, Longer and Uncut is a South Park story that could only work as a movie. It takes on the MPAA and its flawed ratings system, censorship, parents who fail to properly monitor what their children watch, and the allure of adult-oriented entertainment to inquisitive kids. Oh, and it’s also roll-on-the-floor funny.
1. Police Squad!
Of all the TV shows on this list, Police Squad! is the one whose movie version is most surprising. The spoof of police dramas, which debuted on ABC in 1982, was a flop, despite having been created by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, the creators of Airplane! Six episodes were produced. Low ratings caused the network to cancel the show after only four of them aired.
The ZAZ team knew they had something special, though, so six years later, they revived Police Squad! for cinemas under the new title The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! Leslie Nielsen returned as bumbling cop Frank Drebin. Former sports star/future Bronco racer O.J. Simpson played one of his colleagues. The movie utilized the same kind of zany throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks humor that had become its creators’ stock in trade.
Despite mocking TV cop shows, The Naked Gun worked better as a movie. While the show was great, it was also a little too hip for the room. Audiences had to pay close attention to get the jokes. That sort of attentiveness isn’t always part of the television viewing process. Movies, however, have a captive audience. With ticketbuyers giving their undivided attention, the comedy came across much more forcefully. The Naked Gun was so popular that it spawned two sequels, both of which also did well at the box office. The original is still the best, and its madcap tone holds up well.
Do you have any favorite TV shows that transitioned to movies? Did we forget any that you love? Let us know what they are in the comments.
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