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Taking 13 Hours To Fix the Errors Made in 90 Minutes

Posted 01-18-99

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

   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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