“Dark Shadows” and the Fine Art of Adapting TV to Film

Hollywood loves an adaptation--unfortunately, most of them stink. And the biggest mistake that's made on the way to a bad remake is often a poor choice of source material. Time and again, Hollywood sets its sights on a franchise of days gone by hoping to cash in on a pre-existing brand, but for one reason or another picks the wrong one.

"Dark Shadows" is the perfect choice for being brought back from the dead. The daytime soap opera began running in 1966, and in Season 2 introduced Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), a vampire who returns to his family's estate after being freed from his 200-year entombment by a groundskeeper. The movie version, starring Johnny Depp, opens this weekend, 46 years after the original.

A lightweight comedy held aloft by excellent and and an outstanding performance by Ava Green, this "Dark Shadows" is an an inspired choice for an adaptation. It follows what I think of as the key principles to successfully turn a TV show into a film:

Find a franchise that feels current: While we're definitely on the tail end of the whole vampire thing, we're far from over it. There's another "Twilight" to be released and there's a "Van Helsing' reboot starring Tom Cruise in the works, so there's still an appetite for bloodsuckers. And though the past decade has witnessed the steady demise of the daytime soap, shows like "Revenge" and "Gossip Girl" suggest that there's still a hefty market for melodrama. A vampire soap opera like "Dark Shadows" can’t miss.

Find a franchise that is long dormant:  Movies today are typically made in an effort to attract a younger demo, so no one in the target audience for this film is going to be turned off by having their cherished childhood memories defiled.  Rightly or wrongly, the major studios don’t care about people who were hardcore "Dark Shadows" fans—which is to say people in their 50s or older.

"The Fugitive" is a fine example of how this works:  Great story, but no one had seen the show in years, many didn't even remember it, so there was no comparing Harrison Ford to David Janssen. The flipside to this, of course, is to hit the theaters when your brand is still fresh, which can also work. See:  "The Simpsons," "Wayne's World" or "X-Files"—though be careful, because "X Files" felt totally unnecessary after the film.

Find a franchise that produced no pop culture icons: Frid was the star of the show pretty much from the minute he made his debut, but a look at his IMDB page shows a snapshot of a man who fell off the map. Even if you take into account how incomplete his IMDB profile is, there's no getting around the fact that the man was a non-factor post "Dark Shadows" (though he did star in Oliver Stone's directorial debut, "Seizure," as a horror writer whose nightmares come to life one weekend).

Watching "The A-Team," one could only cringe in anticipation of the next "I love it when a plan comes together" riff, or BA vs. Murdoch imbroglio. As dopey as that show was, we knew those characters like a gang of maladjusted but lovable uncles, and the new A-Team could never replace them.

Respect the source material: Depp and Burton very much leverage for laughs the 200-years-dead fish out of water conceit of "Dark Shadows", and the take some liberties with the plotlines from season two of the show, but it's not at the expense of the source material--which even Burton has conceded wasn't all that good. Nonetheless, Burton went so far as to give Frid and other members of the old show's cast small cameos in the film.

If you were unlucky enough to have seen "Green Hornet," you know how bad things can get when a filmmaker tries to adapt material he doesn't have affection for. Watching Seth Rogen in Michel Gondry's "Green Hornet," you got the sense that just wanted to use the show's legacy to send up the genre. Buying someone's brand so you can make sport of it isn’t funny or clever; it's rude.

Find a franchise that's terrible:  This might be the best thing you can do for yourself. With all due respect to "Dark Shadows" creator Dan Curtis, star Jonathan Frid (who died earlier this month) and fans everywhere, the show was a low-budget affair with flubbed lines, wobbly sets and according to multiple sources earned the nickname "Mic Shadows" because the boom kept finding its way onscreen. Compared to "Dark Shadows", soaps of a more recent vintage look like big-budget spectacles And the pacing of the show was torturously slow, in part because the show was shot every day and so they had to keep the dialog light.

Whatever your feelings about Burton as a director, he's produced a film that will far exceed any reasonable person's expectations of what the world of "Dark Shadows" should look like. And no one, not even Mr. Frid's mother, could complain about being portrayed by Depp.

For a precedent, one need to look any further than Depp's surprise cameo from earlier this year in "21 Jump Street," itself a terrible TV show that was ripe for redoing. The Jonah Hill-Channing Tatum version was smarter, funnier and better made, while both mocking and paying homage to the show that helped make Depp a star.

Hire Burton and Depp: These two have fallen into something of a rut, with their semi-annual adaptations made just a little creepier than the original, but the fact remains these guys make bank. While not all of their films kill in America, with overseas box office, they are guaranteed to make $200 million.

Contact Us