It may be difficult to remember now that big-ticket superhero movies arrive on a near-monthly basis, but back in 1996, it was TV adaptations, not comics-based movies, that were considered the creative scourge of the decade. In ’96, there were about a dozen such adaptations, while the year’s single superhero offering starred Billy Zane. Today, the ratio isn’t exactly reversed, but TV doesn’t seem to be considered a go-to source for blockbuster trend-chasers. The biggest such hit of last year was Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible movie series that began way back in, yes, 1996.
The first Mission: Impossible was also the most successful TV-to-film transplant of ’96, as well as the third-biggest movie of the year overall. Yet in the year where this practice reached its peak, TV adaptations also looked, however briefly and strangely, like a more viable artistic choice than ever. Only a few of the TV-to-film class of ’96 are truly lousy (sorry, Bordello Of Blood, a Tales From The Crypt movie starring TV’s Dennis Miller), and four of them are unusually successful, in an unusual variety of ways. Some of their successes weren’t financial, so it’s easy enough to understand why—as Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, The Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy, Mission: Impossible, and Beavis And Butt-Head Do America made their way into theaters—no one was rushing to declare 1996 a golden year for TV going to the movies. But it was, and this quartet of films even provides four different adaptation tactics that could be applied to all manner of pop culture making that awkward transition to the big screen.
Two movies made the big-screen transition by bucking a few trends within trends: The Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy and Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie were not wildly popular network TV series; they were current shows, rather than Nick At Nite chestnuts; and they did not receive wide theatrical releases. I recall my own jealousy at friends who managed to catch Mystery Science Theater 3000 in an actual theater by visiting Manhattan; somehow, I was able to catch up with Brain Candy that summer, when it inexplicably turned up at my local second-run theater, playing once a day, at 12:05 p.m., for one week. The nation’s red carpets had not been rolled out.
These movies may have been produced as part of a boomlet, but their theatrical births were pure bust. Their financial failures, as well as later word of creative clashes behind the scenes, contributed to their reputations as disappointments. But both movies are worthwhile, for fans of their respective shows and maybe even for regular moviegoers.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the somewhat less successful of the two, in part because its very existence qualifies as a fascinating hall-of-mirrors experiment. Mystery Science Theater 3000 the TV show was sort of about a guy (and, later, another guy) and his robot pals marooned on a space station, forced to watch bad movies as part of an ongoing science experiment, but really it was about simulating the communal experience of watching bad movies and heckling them as a defense mechanism. The show’s distinct late-night-cable vibe turned it into an extension of any given wiseass nerd’s living room. Relocating that aesthetic back into an actual movie theater, where many of the show’s abominations originally premiered, shouldn’t alter the show’s chemistry much. But despite the movie madness that drives the best episodes, the sanctity of a movie theater (such as it is—which is to say, rarely preserved) seems largely at odds with the show’s sensibility.
It also raises the question of whether or how to scale up for the big screen. The film version of MST3K settles on somewhat of an upgrade, with the characters riffing on This Island Earth, an actual Universal sci-fi movie many notches above the show’s worst, grade-Z victims, but also not quite a lost classic, either. Even stranger, the movie version is shorter than an episode of the show, running about 75 minutes in comparison with the approximately 90-minute runtime of a two-hour Mystery Science Theater minus commercials. Both of these points were apparently the result of studio interference; they may compromise the integrity of the project, but they also give the film version a novelty as compared to the episodes. Mostly, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie works because it’s still very funny, and includes many pantheon-worthy cracks at This Island Earth’s expense. For example, after an alien demands a switch to “normal view,” the robots chant “NOR-MAL VIEW!” in time with the dramatic music. The movie itself essentially switches the simulated movie theater of Mystery Science Theater to normal view. It shouldn’t succeed, and doesn’t surpass Mitchell or Manos: The Hands Of Fate, but there’s something about projecting the show onto a real movie screen that feels delightfully defiant. It also affords the movie the opportunity to heckle its own credits.
Mystery Science Theater’s fellow spring ’96 flop The Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy has more room to elaborate on its source material. Though it also saw some degree of compromise behind the scenes (bootlegs of an alternate cut have circulated for years) and wasn’t a great experience for its sketch-troupe creators, Brain Candy is nonetheless one of the funniest movies of its decade. It stands out from other TV-based and TV-derived comedies of its era by throwing back to the satirical chaos of Monty Python; with a large ensemble of characters played mostly by five Canadian weirdos, this is the closest a movie has come to reproducing the brilliance of that group’s Life Of Brian.
As with Mystery Science Theater, it would be difficult to mount a serious argument that the feature-film version is superior to the best of the television show that spawned it. But unlike MST3K, The Kids In The Hall changes shape (not just length) in film, telling a more expansive and sustained story (in this case about the dangers of treating pharmaceuticals as a quick fix) with the formal experimentation of building a narrative around sketch-style comedy. Plenty of recent big-screen comedies, like Sisters or Keanu, have been unfairly dismissed for not recapturing or recreating what was so great about their stars’ past TV shows. Brain Candy inarguably captures what The Kids In The Hall do without mindlessly recreating it.
A third contemporary cable series received a more traditional film adaptation later in 1996, and managed to make some money in the process: Beavis And Butt-Head Do America may not have arrived during peak Beavis-mania, but Mike Judge got it into theaters quickly enough to reap some box-office rewards. Asking the perpetually gutter-laughing stars of eight-minute shorts and even shorter music-video commentaries to carry a film might have seemed like a bad idea, but the Beavis And Butt-Head movie proves the characters’ surprising durability, sending them on a cross-country odyssey that would be impossible in the world of the show, which tends to keep the boys in what looks like about a three-mile radius of their couch. South Park and The Simpsons also put together supersized versions of themselves for the big screen, but Beavis And Butt-Head did it first, and with far more modest, less densely populated source material.
It’s also striking that the Beavis movie brought PG-13 animation into cinemas. In the 20 years since, animation has exploded as a medium, yet American animation not aimed at the family audience remains rare; even Seth Rogen’s R-rated Sausage Party seems intended more as a self-consciously raunchy parody of family-friendly animation than its own thing. Beavis And Butt-Head may not have featured characters original to movies, doing anything wildly different from what they did on TV. Their movie just turns America into the boys’ convenience store parking lot. But Mike Judge is an original voice—and Beavis remains his best, most complete film work in addition to his TV masterpiece.
The fact that Beavis, MST3K, and Brain Candy were all based on then-contemporary cable shows suggests the way that the TV-to-film craze had begun to catch up to itself, and potentially eat its own tail. They leave Mission: Impossible as the odd movie out—not just because of its enormous financial success, but because it follows the more established ’90s template of making over a TV show from about 30 years earlier.
The classic spy show was “updated” for post-Cold War times via a twisty series of changes, including killing off members of the traditional espionage team early on, and forcing Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to get disavowed (as he does in almost all Mission: Impossible movies) and assemble a new team of rogue operatives. The changes were the subject of complaints at the time, and it’s hard to picture a current comic-book movie reorienting itself around a particular star and director the way that the first Mission: Impossible movie merges the Tom Cruise persona and Brian De Palma in full craftsman mode.
It may not be as sleazy or bonkers as the most intensely De Palma films, but the movie bears his signature from its very first voyeurism-infused moments. While there are still plenty of stylistic differences between most movies and most TV shows, this gulf was far greater in 1996, and part of Mission: Impossible’s success derives from its ability to play up that difference. Even if the material was essentially mined for iconic spare parts (that jabbing theme, the self-destructing message), audiences were clearly receiving a more cinematic take than they’d get from Sgt. Bilko. A decade later, there would be less difference between Mission: Impossible III and the higher-end TV shows associated with its director, J.J. Abrams (though his Mission is plenty cinematic).
Over the years, the series has remained an auteur showcase, though the Cruise-iness has gradually increased, to the point where the forthcoming sixth installment will finally break tradition by rehiring a director (Christopher McQuarrie, who oversaw Rogue Nation). But even if the next movie surrenders to routine, the legacy of the 1996 original is the idea that summer-movie escapism based on some old TV show can serve as a playground for a series of distinctive stylists. More broadly, that the same non-creative impulse that produced movie versions of The Flintstones, Good Burger, and McHale’s Navy could, in its peak year, result in such a strong group of four offers a beacon of perhaps unreasonable hope for other Hollywood trends. Comic-book movies, for example, may not have had as strong a single year yet, but maybe they still could (especially if someone makes another couple of movies like Ghost World or American Splendor).
To apply the methods of these surprisingly good TV-to-movie transplants to future TV shows, though, requires an acknowledgment that movies and television remain very different, despite the current conventional wisdom that says TV is like movies, but better. This idea makes no more sense than declaring that reading a novel is now officially more rewarding than listening to music, yet movies and television have the bad luck to be treated as creatively interchangeable. As such, the status increase that used to come from making a movie out of a TV show has diminished, along with whatever profit potential executives saw flashing in front of their eyes when The Addams Family and Wayne’s World hit it big.
Of course, the idea of a big-screen revival still gets bandied about whenever a show is canceled or even voluntarily leaves the air, and sometimes the creators in question still go through with it. But with TV shows routinely describing themselves as 10-hour movies, and two-hour movies sometimes dinged for not having as many laughs or twists as a commensurate amount of a particular television show, there’s no reason for the Entourage movie to do anything but be Entourage at two hours rather than 30 minutes, without the automatic recontextualization of a MST3K or the comedic joy of Beavis And Butt-Head. Even something less inherently dopey than Entourage, like the enjoyable Veronica Mars movie, failed to reinvent itself for a different medium.
It makes logical if not creative sense. The often-tortured creative process that led to the best 1996 adaptations may seem unnecessary today. The Veronica Mars movie worked as a satisfying fan experience, and many have both praised and dismissed the Marvel Studios superhero movies as big-screen TV akin to an event binge. The comparison, while sometimes superficial, isn’t entirely wrong, especially when taking into account Marvel’s productivity. The TV-based Mission: Impossible spawned five big-screen episodes in 20 years; Marvel Studios made five interconnected movies before they even got to The Avengers.
None of this diminishes the enjoyability of today’s Zane-free superhero movies, nor should it create a thirst for ever more TV shows going big. But it’s striking how, in retrospect, the 1996 TV-to-movie gold rush forced some creative innovations. Even as it operated at a trend-quashing peak, the TV-to-movie transition didn’t smudge either form into a multi-platform franchise blur. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but maybe 1996 was one of the final years that the cinematic form could really assert itself over its source materials.