The New York Times
By Page 42 (section 2, part 2)
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In an article comparing the characters between the movies and the tv shows written around La Femme Nikita, Buffy Vampire Slayer, and The Net, the executive producer of The Net us quoted as saying, "To be sure, there are plenty of examples of shows with strong, competent, reflective women, but, with the possible exception of 'Xena: Warrior Princess,' they are spoon-fed to us as colorful personalities that exist within the ensemble population of, say, a law office or a police station or a Federation starship."
IF it's true, as the adage goes, that a second-rate novel can be made into a good movie, then surely a second-rate movie can be made into a good television show. Or so it would seem in the case of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a flatly directed horror spoof that lived and died on the big screen in 1992 but was reborn five years later as the critically lauded series that legitimized the struggling WB network. In its second incarnation, the quirky title, the stake-flinging blond high school girl and her all-knowing, older mentor (the Watcher, as he is known, sort of a guru regarding all things creepy) remained. But everything hackneyed had been tossed aside and craftily replaced with new ideas by Joss Whedon, the creator and executive producer of the television "Buffy." In what he has often described as a sequel to the film, Mr. Whedon's heroine (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) has gone from a smug-but-dim cheerleader to a social outcast. Gone is her San Fernando Valley address; she now lives in Sunnydale, a fictional Southern California suburb that rests atop a portal called the Hellmouth. While Buffy's nights are still spent snuffing monsters and fanged assailants, they are no longer mere pop-up scare tactics but metaphors for the real-life traumas that teen-agers face on the path to adulthood. Of course, Mr. Whedon's expert repair job should have been no surprise. Before he became a dual-medium success story, he was known in Hollywood as the guy who was brought in to fix the scripts of event movies like "Speed," "Twister" and "Toy Story" (which earned him an Academy Award nomination). Mr. Whedon was also known as the guy who wrote the original "Buffy" screenplay but felt the feature film didn't fully realize his concept. But what if Mr. Whedon's dark, witty script had been more faithfully translated as a movie? It might have become a classic instead of taking in only $16 million at the box office. And that could have stood in the way of its eventual television success. That's because turning not-so-great movies into prime-time series may be a growth industry. At least two cable series -- "La Femme Nikita" and "The Net" -- have come into being the same way. Television can be the perfect environment for fine-tuning an imperfect film. The movie is the failed prototype, offering a clear look at numerous mistakes to avoid. And 13 hourlong episodes (rather than 90 movie minutes) can give the characters enduring dimension. Maybe more television producers should be looking at the critics' 10-worst lists for possible future projects. Looking back on the history of small screen knockoffs, much-loved hit movies often make for pretty uninteresting prime-time fare. Yes, there have been memorable ratings toppers like "The Odd Couple" and "M*A*S*H," but they're the exceptions to the rule. In the name of trying to appease the nit-picking expectations of an adoring fan base, the people who adapt the films often end up doing a cautious imitation of a movie like "The Client," a short-lived 1995 series that cleaved to the source material and featured actors who were fuzzily reminiscent of the stars who created the roles on the silver screen. JoBeth Williams and John Heard in the Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones roles, that is. In fact, had Mr. Whedon's original "Buffy" script been a box-office blockbuster, instead of a Kristy Swanson-Luke Perry misfire, the sales pitch to the WB brass probably wouldn't have been, "This is going to be extremely different from the movie." "The series probably would have been done exactly like the feature," said Gail Berman, an executive producer of the series, who says, in all honesty, that she loves both Buffys. "You wouldn't have explored anything differently. And if you look at the shows based on feature films that are successful, they are the ones that explore things differently and move the concept forward." In a way, Ms. Berman's prediction is best proved by the USA Network, which has made a name for itself in the world of basic cable by programming original hourlong shows that bear film titles. Aside from its World Wrestling Federation slamfests, USA's primary draw is "La Femme Nikita," which takes its inspiration and core premise from Luc Besson's stylish but ultimately hollow 1991 underground hit. As it happens, USA was not the first to spot potential gold in the movie's tale of a heroin addict who kills a policeman and is given the offer of being executed or being groomed as a professional assassin for a top-secret government organization, whereupon she wisely chooses the latter. In 1993, John Badham directed "Point of No Return," an American remake of "La Femme Nikita," which was an almost shot-by-shot duplicate, save the rechristening of its central hit-woman character as Maggie (with Bridget Fonda as a most incongruously petite hired gun). So when the series "La Femme Nikita" had its premiere in January 1997, the smartest thing about it was how it had been retrofitted for television. Chosen as its headliner was a 5-foot-11, blond, blue-eyed Australian unknown named Peta Wilson, who was not quite as feral as Mr. Besson's leading lady Anne Parillaud but a more credible fighting machine than Ms. Fonda. Operating on the logic that audiences might not want to invite an amoral murderer into their living rooms every week, Joel Surnow, the executive consultant, gave Nikita a more sympathetic back story. Falsely accused of the crime that keeps her duty-bound to her employers, she never relishes whacking evildoers, but if she doesn't dispatch them, she'll be handed her mortal pink-slip. On a happier note, every day is designer day for the pacifist superspy. The impracticality of Nikita's work wardrobe is never addressed. And who cares? This is pop fantasy television. You're supposed to lean back and appreciate the parade of Dolce & Gabbana, Mizrahi and Gaultier. A little bit "Mission:Impossible," a little bit "MTV's House of Style," Mr. Surnow's "Femme Nikita" doesn't try to be what it isn't. No series has the budget to reproduce big-money action sequences, but things can stay current. While Mr. Besson and Mr. Badham's second-rate look-alike became dated the second the final print was struck, Mr. Surnow makes sure that his characters' weaponry and computer gadgets appear state-of-the-art and that his story lines are ripped straight from the international section of the evening newspaper. "Stylistically, we have the opportunity to give a five-minutes-into-the-future look at where we are technologically," said Mr. Surnow, who feels that the public is inured to small-time urban violence because of reality programming like "Cops." "Dealing with the Abu Nidals and the Osama bin Ladens and the stuff that's happening right now seems to be really scary in a real world way." It would have been interesting to have sat in on the creative meetings that hatched USA's "Net," which is based on Irwin Winkler's 1995 thriller about Angela Bennett, a freelance software consultant whose electronic identity is erased by cybercrooks and replaced with that of a known felon. No doubt the $50 million in domestic ticket sales was emphasized, while no one probably mentioned that at the time moviegoers were so besotted by its star, Sandra Bullock, that they would have paid to see her in an update of "Howard the Duck." And did anyone bring up the brutal reviews? ("Riddled with more coincidences and implausibilities than Hitchcock permitted himself in his entire career," said one review.) In truth, USA's version of "The Net" doesn't always make sense either. Still, it's touching to watch how Brooke Langton, last seen kvetching to Billy on "Melrose Place," throws her entire being into the principal role, looking relieved to have landed the part of someone who actually has something worthwhile to add to a conversation. Ms. Langton's computer whiz is spunkier and sexier than Ms. Bullock's mopey recluse and, given her life-threatening circumstances, refreshingly social. But there's nothing Ms. Langton can do to get around the fact that the writers of "The Net" have made her a novice at the art of cloak-and-dagger. Still on the lam from both deadly techies and the police, Angela moves from town to town, armed with only a half-alias (distressingly, she only bothers to change her last name) and always seems ready to blow her cover to the first person who asks. Aside from this glitch, or perhaps because of it, there's more fun to be had in any episode of "The Net" than in Mr. Winkler's plodding, overly serious movie. There's something amusing about how the baddies are often shot in leering, comic-book close-ups and how the show's producers aren't above crowbarring in bits that are meant to keep the men in their mixed demographic happy. (Recently, for example, Angela managed to escape arrest from a yacht by diving overboard and swimming to shore, but not before removing her shiny blue cocktail dress to reveal her matching bra and panties.) Even so, Ms. Langton's heroine isn't a patsy. When the chips are down, she takes charge -- which, of course, is what makes the series similar to "Nikita" and "Buffy." Not only are these protagonists linked by smarts and self-sufficiency; they are prisoners of their own bad luck. Having been assigned jobs they never applied for, they still try to rid planet Earth of sinister forces with type-A zeal. But given the chance, they'd trade in their white hats for ordinary lives -- you know, love, stability, no blood on your hands. Which makes for a different action dynamic. "Anyone can write a tough guy," said Patrick Hasburgh, executive producer of the television version of "The Net." "Bringing a female sensibility to that kind of character expands it 10 times. There's a kind of truthfulness to the violence and a sense of how painful it really all is." In this way, Ms. Gellar, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Langton inhabit three of the most complex and unusual female characters on television. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of shows with strong, competent, reflective women, but, with the possible exception of "Xena: Warrior Princess," they are spoon-fed to us as colorful personalities that exist within the ensemble population of, say, a law office or a police station or a Federation starship. That Buffy, Nikita and Angela are allowed to drive the story has something to do with the fact that the WB and USA networks have neither the budget nor the viewership to compete with the Big Three, so they have no recourse but to be experimental. That these shows bore the names of feature films allowed the shows' creators and executives alike to reason that at least these experiments came with a built-in promotional hook. Each project had a cult following. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," for example, was No. 1 in video rentals more than once. Be it a large cult or a small one, that's still thought of as an incremental edge in the netherworld that is weblets or basic cable. "There you are, buried up on channel 39 or something and competing against the traditional networks with very lean resources," said Rod Perth, USA's former president, who acquired the rights to "La Femme Nikita" and "The Net" because he wanted his roster of shows to include "assertive, pro-active female leads." "A project based on a feature gave me viewer awareness without putting a nickel behind marketing." Such is the redemptive power of television. After all, if the overblown heroism of Kevin Costner's 1997 bomb "The Postman" were toned down, would it be impossible to envision a postapocalyptic drifter saving mankind on a weekly basis? And given the success of CBS's "Martial Law," starring Sammo Hung, is it that big a leap to see "The Replacement Killers" -- a middling 1998 action flop starring Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino -- rejiggered into a series? (He's a Hong Kong hit man who got a conscience! She's a high-priced forger who looks good in gauzy half-tops!) The possibilities are endless. Somebody someday may even have a bright idea about "My Giant."
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