Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
When I was a kid, TV shows based on feature films were the bottom of the barrel. Series like 9 to 5, Stir Crazy, and the truly ill-advised Delta House (a censor-scrubbed adaptation of Animal House that gave John Hughes his first writing credit) were embarrassing cash-grabs that played like very pale imitations of their source material – and, it turned out, didn’t actually grab much cash since they were always canceled within a season or two. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule like the long-running M*A*S*H, which trashed its source material every bit as thoroughly as Delta House but worked well enough on its own terms to become one of the most popular sitcoms in history. More often than not, though, TV shows based on movies were WTF endeavors like the 1983 Casablanca series NBC aired starring David Soul as Rick, Ray Liotta as Sacha and Scatman Crothers as Sam.
In the last few years, however, something surprising has happened: TV shows based on movies aren’t just pretty good, some of them are among the best series on television. Sure, there are still flops like Minority Report and this year’s Uncle Buck (the second time a small-screen adaptation of that film has been attempted and failed), but they’re outnumbered by programs of impressive audacity and ambition like Bates Motel, the now-defunct Hannibal, and the extraordinary Fargo – shows that earn comparison with their formidable source material by not merely imitating their cinematic ancestors but reinventing them. In some cases, such as the lively Shadowhunters series taken from The Mortal Instruments, the shows are actually better than the movies they’re based on, and in others, like Ash Vs. Evil Dead, they allow filmmakers and actors to return to past work with a renewed sense of skill and enthusiasm. The best case scenario is a show based on a great movie that not only doesn’t tarnish that movie’s legacy but expands upon and deepens it. Fargo managed do that, and now TNT’s Animal Kingdom joins it in achieving that rare feat.
In fact, Animal Kingdom serves as a kind of clinic in how to properly adapt a great movie for the small screen – it retains everything that made its source great while also taking advantage of the rhythms of serialized storytelling to explore quirkier avenues and create richer characters. Not that rich characters were in short supply in David Michôd’s terrific 2010 crime movie, which used a true story as the jumping-off point for its mesmerizing portrait of a dysfunctional family. The premise and characters of both the film and the TV series are essentially the same: when teenager “J” is orphaned due to his mom’s drug overdose, he moves in with his grandma “Smurf” and her sons, a gang of criminals who specialize in armed robbery. Smurf rules over them with an iron hand, and over the course of Michôd’s film betrayals and mistakes pile up with increasingly escalating tension until most of Smurf’s sons are dead.
The demands of serialized television require series creator Jonathan Lisco to make certain adjustments to the storyline, particularly in terms of the deaths of the sons – he can’t just kill off the majority of his leading men if he wants to keep the show going. What Lisco initially sacrifices in violence and intensity, however, he makes up for in depth and wry humor, as he fuses the raw materials of Michôd’s film with that most stalwart of all TV genres, the episodic family drama. At its core, Animal Kingdom follows the same template as something like Parenthood (another pretty good show based on a movie) or The Fosters – the difference is that the secrets between members of those shows’ families aren’t going to get anyone killed. The other difference is that most family dramas are built around audience empathy, while Animal Kingdom is unafraid to present its characters in the worst light possible – no one on the show is all that “likable” in the conventional sense, since even the good characters are usually in the process of deceiving someone they care about, and the bad ones … well, they’re really, really bad.
Lisco relocates the Cody family from Australia to a Southern California beach town, which the series uses as far more than just a picturesque backdrop – the locations actually comment upon and complement the action in a way that marks an improvement over the Australian film. Cinematographers Daniel Moder (who shot the pilot) and Loren S. Yaconelli (the director of photography on the rest of the series) bathe their characters in sunlight that is alternately harsh and beautiful, creating a dichotomy between the fantasy of Southern California and the grimy underbelly of drugs, tainted money and illicit sex that is more indicative of the characters’ lives. Visually, the guys exist in a state of perpetual hangover – not just from the drugs and alcohol they consume in mass quantities, but from an economy that has left everyone but the top 1% scrambling for stability. Smurf’s sons constantly hustle and commit acts of hideous brutality to make their money, but they never seem to be that far ahead – it’s what makes their family saga universal in spite of the despicable nature of most of the behavior.
Behavior is the key to Animal Kingdom, a show that’s surprisingly subtle given its sensationalistic context. Ellen Barkin portrays Smurf, taking over the role from Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver, and it’s a testament to Barkin’s gifts that I forgot about Weaver approximately 30 seconds into the Animal Kingdom pilot. When I saw the commercials for Animal Kingdom, I thought I knew what to expect from Barkin as the crime family matriarch – I figured she and the show wouldn’t be able to resist the more outrageous elements of the role and the premise, playing up the incestuous eroticism and crass materialism of the character. Those elements are there, but Barkin doesn’t force them; the joy of watching her performance is that she plays every moment with complete honesty, never seeming to think about the audience or the immediate gratification of a cheap effect – which, of course, only makes the character more entertaining.
I’ve never seen a crime boss like her on television or in the movies; her power and gravitas are there but rarely externalized in the way they are in male crime lords. Perhaps the emblematic moment comes in an episode in which Smurf calmly kidnaps her granddaughter from a grocery store after a spat with her son’s girlfriend – it’s a power play that she pulls off without even thinking, and her instinctive ability to go for the jugular in such a casual manner is both darkly funny and deeply unsettling. It’s another scene that demonstrates Lisco’s gift for merging the family drama and the crime film in a way that serves both genres; the petty squabbles between Smurf and her son’s girlfriend represent the kind of domestic dispute familiar to just about everybody, but the context here ramps up the intensity to almost unbearable levels – especially in the first season’s later episodes. In those final hours of the first season, particularly John Wells’ brilliantly directed season finale, Lisco reveals what he’s been up to all along: he is able to achieve the focused visceral intensity of Michôd’s two-hour feature, and do it with even more power thanks to the groundwork that the serial format has allowed him to lay in early episodes. Lisco has long been one of TV’s finest writers on shows like Halt and Catch Fire and Southland, but Animal Kingdom is his greatest achievement to date – and proof that adapting material from another medium can lead to work that is more original, not less.