"It's like writing books of the Bible," chuckles producer Simon Kinberg ("Star Wars Rebels," the "X-Men" films) as he ponders the increasing trend toward tying various film and television projects with a big-name franchise together with a nearly unprecedented degree of shared continuity and canon. "You're just writing one book, but it's going to interconnect to all the others."
There was a time not that long ago when, if you were a fan of a TV show adapted from a hit movie, or a movie adapted from a hit TV show, you pretty much had to accept that each incarnation was an alternate universe version of the other. But today, as franchises, spinoffs, and shared universes rise to even greater prominence than ever before in the Hollywood business model, creative crossover possibilities have become more essential than ever.
For ages, "M*A*S*H" was the TV-to-film model Hollywood wanted to recreate: filmmaker Robert Altman's 1970 pitch-black comedy set in the Korean War was considered in and of itself a masterwork of satirical allegory on the Vietnam experience, as well as a huge commercial success -- but it seemed a complete, finite story, with little obvious sequel or franchise potential.
The television incarnation of "M*A*S*H," refitted in a sitcom form complete with laugh track and with only a single holdover actor from the film in the same role, debuted on CBS two years later and defied the odds to quickly became not only one of the highest-rated, longest-running, and awards-honored shows in TV history, but a pioneer of the dramedy format. It also supplanted the film in the public consciousness, and there was virtually no bleedover between Donald Sutherland's Hawkeye Pierce and Alan Alda's.
Thus most film-to-TV adaptations of that era were essentially re-workings, rather than continuations, of the source material, from the improved and refined ("Alien Nation," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Hannibal") to the ill-advised ("Planet of the Apes," "Casablanca," "Working Girl"); rare others like "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" seemed tenuously set in the same universe as their cinematic progenitor, yet stylistically very different.
Conversely, nearly all in the avalanche of TV-to-film projects that populated the multiplexes from the '80s onward were complete revamps, ranging from successful, often radical reinventions, like "The Fugitive," "The Brady Bunch Movie" and "21 Jump Street" to poorly received re-imaginings like "Lost In Space" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."
There were very few unique instances of small degrees of continuity: a handful of shows like "Dragnet," "Batman" and "The Munsters" had one- or two-off big-screen ventures while still on the air; later, others like "The X-Files" would follow suit, or offer singular closure to immediately off-the-air series, as in the case of "Twin Peaks."
But it really took the film revival of TV's "Star Trek," which brought the original cast and its concept from small to large screen intact, to demonstrate that a direct continuity between both incarnations (most notably with the second film and its 15-years-later villain, Khan, played again by Ricardo Montalban); the process also worked in reverse when "Trek" launched its string of wildly successful and still-in-universe TV spinoffs, and back again to the big screen with the crew of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
For a long time, "Star Trek" stood, as it so often does, as a unique phenomenon ... until very recently.
The Marvel-produced series -- both the ABC-broadcast shows like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Agent Carter" and the Netflix-streamed series "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones" -- are set firmly, if in specific corners, of the Marvel Cinematic Universe of the super-heroic movies, with supporting characters like Phil Coulson, Peggy Carter, Nick Fury, and Lady Sif crossing between the film and TV camps to gain greater prominence, while seasonal plotlines both referencing and directly reflecting the big, game-changing events of the blockbuster movies.
Now things are changing even more radically, as film and TV properties grow even more interconnected, in very intriguing ways. For example, the upcoming film "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," is the first standalone spinoff film set in the "Star Wars" universe created by George Lucas, and features Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker playing a live-action version of Saw Gerrera, a rebellious veteran of the battle against the Empire who was first introduced in a 2012 arc of the animated series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," as well as referenced in the subsequent series "Star Wars Rebels" and a book tie-in property.
To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, it's a first step into a great shared universe.
Kinberg is an architect in this new era of emerging cross-continuity between TV and film brands, both as one of the top creative forces behind "Star Wars Rebels" and a key member of the Lucasfilm Story Group, a group founded in 2013 and dedicated toward establishing a clear and consistent "Star Wars" canon between the films, TV shows, comic books, video games, and other storytelling formats.
"I'm very excited," Kinberg says of the emerging cross-pollination of characters, concepts, and content between "Star Wars" projects. "I think part of the fun of the way they're building the universe is that it is interconnected between the different movies and even beyond the movies ... It's something that was true in comic books going back, the way that you'd have interconnections between characters and stories. Even sometimes from DC to Marvel. I like the way that those stories are told in the larger tapestry.
"And, also, getting to work with other artists and filmmakers and writers, and use their talents -- I like not being by myself in a room when I work," he adds. "I like having other collaborators. You're with some of the world's best."
It's a plan that's been put to very effective use on "Star Wars Rebels," with the carefully crafted inclusion of characters from the classic films -- including Darth Vader, Lando Calrissian, C-3P0, and R2-D2 -- and breakout personalities from the animated tie-ins -- such as Ahsoka Tano and the Clone Trooper Rex -- with more slated to appear in the upcoming third season.
"What's lovely is, obviously, we've brought in characters from "Clone Wars" in the second season, and we keep sort of bringing characters from the original movies and sort of deepening the relationships between our core characters, the Ghost crew," says Kinberg. "So it's trying to balance the two different things, like the original cast from the first season with "Clone Wars," with characters from the original movies, and maybe even feeding into future movies."
"Star Wars" isn't the only franchise under Kinsberg's stewardship; he's also an executive producer on the "X-Men" films, and, after broadening its reach with the smash "Deadpool," he's also got an eye on expanding the universe into television with FX's upcoming series "Legion," which has vacillated between being directly tied to the films' (admittedly shifting) continuities and occupying its own distinct subset universe.
"The success of that movie showed the studio that not just the mainline "X-Men" movies, but there are characters -- and characters with different tones and different vibes, that can justify their own movies as well," he explains.
"So Gambit, and Deadpool, and New Mutants, and even others ... we're really serious about making, and then, like the way Marvel has done so brilliantly, the Marvel Studios have done so brilliantly, feeding them in and out of each other's stories," Kinberg adds. "Building these larger tapestries that you can watch one movie and enjoy it, and that can be your only experience of an 'X-Men' movie, but if you watch all of them together, you get a deeper, richer experience."
"Legion" marks the first step to bringing a direct connection to the cinematic X-verse to television, and is overseen by Noah Hawley, who's had tremendous creative success translating the Coen brothers' film "Fargo" into an FX series with two distinctive season-long story arcs both interconnected with one another and, slyly and subtly, with the original movie.
"Tonally, it's very different," says Kinberg. "Noah is a genius -- he wrote and created and directed the pilot to Legion' -- and it is a very different sensibility than anything we've done with the 'X-Men' movies. Almost, I would say, as radically different as 'Deadpool' was from the mainline X-Men movies. 'Legion' is, again, in a different direction: really character-based, really granular in terms of getting inside the details of the characters. It stands as part of the 'X-Men' universe, but it stands apart from it as well."
"Legion" is currently slated to premiere on FX in early 2017.
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