Can a Brad Pitt movie from 1995 become a hit TV show?

It’s the new silver screen.
It’s the new silver screen.
Image: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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LOS ANGELES—While many have made the argument that TV is now better than movies—I’ll certainly take Orange is the New Black and Fargo over Transformers: Age of Extinction any day—it’s also true that TV has become the movies.

The current television landscape is crowded with series based on motion pictures, including Fargo, Parenthood, About a Boy, Teen Wolf and Psycho prequel Bates Motel. Now Syfy is joining the fray with 12 Monkeys, a new science-fiction drama debuting in January, which is based on the 1995 film with Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe and Brad Pitt.

While both center around a time-traveler from a post-apocalyptic world frantically searching for the source of the plague that will eventually wipe out the human race, the series “is a complete reimagining” of the movie, co-executive producer Terry Matalas said at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. “We didn’t want to just redo what the movie does. Everything from the top down changed.”

Including the gender of the mentally-unhinged character played by Pitt in the film—a performance that won Pitt a Golden Globe as well as an Oscar nomination—which is now female. “We were going back and forth on how could anybody possibly do that role again, it’s so memorable,” Matalas told Quartz. “And one night, we were sitting there and we were like, what if we gave that opportunity to a woman and really saw what they could do with it.”

Bringing 12 Monkeys to the small screen wasn’t supposed to take two whole decades. “The idea was something that came up pretty soon after the movie was made,” said executive producer Richard Suckle, who was a production executive on the original film, but there were difficulties securing the rights from Chris Marker (who had created the 1962 French science-fiction short film La jetée, upon which 12 Monkeys was based). Years later, Matalas and co-executive producer Travis Fickett had written a 12 Monkeys-like time traveler thriller script called Splinter, and the decision was made to turn that into a full-on 12 Monkeys adaptation.

While movie adaptations have popped up sporadically on TV for decades (a mix of hits like M*A*S*H*, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights, and failures like Nine to Five, Dirty Dancing and, earlier this year, Bad Teacher), the trend seems to have reached critical mass this year. With more and more new series struggling for viewers’ attention each year, any kind of brand recognition—like a familiar movie title—can help a show get that all-important leg up.

“Absolutely. The name itself seems to resonate with people,” Aaron Stanford, who is playing the Bruce Willis role, told Quartz. “Anyone who I’ve spoken to about 12 Monkeys, it clicks with them. It is a pre-existing brand. People recognize it, and they recognize it as something of quality. So it’s now our responsibility to uphold that brand and continue on and make this a quality program.”

The same phenomenon is happening in theater as well. Many of shows currently on Broadway are also movie adaptations, including Kinky Boots, Bullets Over Broadway, Aladdin, The Lion King, Newsies and Once.

While networks will be tempted to turn even more films into shows, 12 Monkeys producers caution that the key to potential success is not the title, but the idea and its execution. “What it usually is for me is the concept. Fargo is a unique setting and a unique world; the same thing here with 12 Monkeys,” Matalas told Quartz. “I wouldn’t say that I want to see everything turned into a television series, but there are specific ones that work great.” Added Fickett, “I think it’s more about capturing a state of mind, not necessarily repeating the same stories and ripping off those characters. You’re capturing that essence and distilling it into a longer form of entertainment. It’s worthwhile.”