Adapting TV shows to movies hasn't always been popular. Hollywood initially looked at TV as competition fearing it would keep people at home and away from the theater, so studios weren't eager to suggest that there were small screen shows worthy of big screen attention. But TV didn't bring the demise of movies and studios eventually came to realize that TV audiences were worth tapping into. So here are the best of the films based on TV shows. (series such as Batman, Superman and Spider-Man have been excluded since they are more closely linked to their comic book origins than the TV shows.)
1. 'To Trap a Spy' (1964)
This marks the beginning of movie studios' awareness of the financial gain to be had from successful TV series. To Trap a Spy was a re-edited version of the pilot episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. MGM was already thinking of a theatrical release when it shot the pilot in color (the pilot aired in black and white on NBC). MGM also shot footage deemed too sexy for TV but just right for a feature film. Both the film and series starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as spies and cashed in on the espionage fever of the 1960s.
This may be the only film based on a failed TV show. Naked Gun is based on the 1982 series Police Squad! that lasted a mere six episodes. The film carried over the silly sight gags, non-sequiturs, and bad puns that made the series such a delight. Leslie Nielsen and George Kennedy return as the inept cops. Plus O.J. Simpson as the hard to kill Detective Nordberg.
The TV series Star Trek may have spawned more spin-offs of the most diversity of any TV show. There have been multiple spin-off TV series, films, video games, comics, and books. The 2009 Star Trek film by J.J. Abrams served up an origin tale that reboots the series for a whole new generation of fans. But the film that best captured the spirit of the series was Wrath of Khan with Ricardo Montalban reprising his role from the 1967 episode "Space Seed."
Cowboy Bebop debuted on Japanese TV in 1998 and delivered 26 revved-up episodes of one of the best anime series ever. The feature film is supposed to take place a few episodes before the series' end. Both the series and film revel in a delirious collision of styles and influences, East and West. It's like an anime take on Blade Runner with a Sam Spade anti-hero time-warped into the future—it's the familiar made fresh.
Jim Henson's Muppets first found fame with kids courtesy of Sesame Street. But his clever puppetry quickly won over older fans and spawned a TV series called The Muppet Show, which in turn inspired a series of feature films. Celebrities lined up to appear in the series and films, and to banter with Kermit and Miss Piggy. This first feature boasts Orson Welles, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Milton Berle and many more.
Okay, Serenity could also be described as inspired by a failed TV series but at least Firefly got 11 of its 14 episodes to air before being cancelled. The show's devoted fan base is probably responsible for Universal's willingness to allow a feature film spin off. The film marks creator Joss Whedon's feature directorial debut.
Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean is a character well-suited to international fame. The nearly mute Bean relies on physical comedy that translates into any language. Bean, the first movie based on the Britcom Mr. Bean, didn't quite capture the series' comic style, but this second outing got the tone and silliness right.
This film was conceived as the means of introducing American audiences to Monty Python. The film was shot between the first and second seasons of Monty Python's Flying Circus and includes skits already seen in the first season and others planned for the second. The film gathers some of the Python's best TV work together in one place.
Head was inspired by the 1966 TV series The Monkees yet it was unable to tap into that fan base because the film's intent seems to be to deconstruct what The Monkees were. The talent involved is impressive: Jack Nicholson wrote the film, Oscar-nominated Bob Rafelson directs, and Oscar-winner Bert Schneider produces. The film serves up a psychedelic acid trip that makes fun of practically every movie genre. This is one of the stranger movie spin-offs of a series because it seems to want to destroy the very thing that inspired it.
Of all the animated shows that have inspired features (The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Rugrats, Spongebob), only South Park produced a film up to the level of its TV show. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut takes full advantage of the greater latitude allowed in a film and pushes the envelope to the point that the 2001 Guinness Book of World Records cited it for the most profanity in an animated film. And it was hilariously subversive. Dude!