In my previous article on re-imaginings, I discussed how television programs (namely NBC’s Hannibal) have lately done a better job than their big screen counterparts when it comes to expanding and adding depth to characters popularized in film. Differences in the medium can’t be ignored, of course, but the fact remains that TV seems to be getting the process of re-imagining, or even sequelizing, a property right a lot more often than movies are. But television should do more than bolster a film’s characters and their relationships. A good re-imagining can also explore and expand on the source material’s themes, as the 2014 FX miniseries Fargo showed.
A re-imagining (or reboot, remake, etc.) can come in a lot of forms. Whether movies or television, the best generally attempt to complement rather than replace the original by taking its underlying ideas and transplanting them into a new entity. For one recent example, Werner Herzog’s 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ended up as a decent spiritual successor to Abel Ferrara’s 1986 original (and better) Bad Lieutenant – despite Ferrara saying that “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up,” when first learning about the remake. Even with 23 years between them, the two films both presented unique and affecting tales of a morally distressed cop (first Harvey Keitel, then Nicolas Cage) fueled by drug addiction and nihilistic fervor.
Television has recognized the importance of this type of thematic continuity as well. FOX’s two-season cult favorite Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009) ended up far closer to James Cameron’s classics than either Rise of the Machines or Terminator: Salvation. Unlike the two cinematic follow-ups, the series saw greater significance in exploring concepts of sentience and destiny than in creating action set pieces or new Transformers-y robots. It understood the borderline-tragic element that made both Terminator and Terminator 2 so poignant. Let’s hope Terminator: Genesis, the forthcoming hybrid sequel/reboot, follows its lead.
Unlike that show, which kept familiar characters such as Sarah and John Connor – and, of course, various models of Terminators – FX’s Fargo started off more-or-less wholly new. A common question people ask with every new re-imagining is, “Why couldn’t they call it something else?” Fargo re-used none of the same characters as the Coen Brothers film and only continued one plot point from the original movie, which actually didn’t affect the main story. Surely it could have been called something else… but it still would have been distinctly Fargo.
Commonalities such as character tropes (unstoppable female detective, beleaguered loser husband turning to crime, etc.), visual cues, and even the setting of a small, snowy, Minnesota town definitely contributed to the Fargo feel, but those familiar tidbits didn’t earn it the title. The main point of comparison is that they are both essentially “good v. bad” morality tales that don’t play around in shades of grey or rely on elaborate conspiracies to create drama. The two Fargos also define themselves by having the sanctity of a small, quasi-isolated town shattered when an outsider evil violates its solitude and the “good” characters try their darnedest to return everything to normalcy.
As with its 1996 forerunner, 2014 Fargo again shows that “good v. bad” does not need to be hokey or lacking in complexity. With television dramas almost exclusively populated by anti-heroes (e.g. Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Mad Men’s Don Draper, Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson), this show’s Marge Gunderson-proxy, Detective Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), stands apart as an actual hero, and one who shows that doing the right thing doesn’t require being blind or overly idealistic. The opposite side of the coin is the sadistic and amoral hitman Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton with such aplomb that you wonder why the Sling Blade star’s been hiding this talent for the better part of 15 years. (Also like the original, Fargo makes a fantastic use of an incredible ensemble cast, including Martin Freeman and Bob Odenkirk.)
While the name certainly helped bring the show recognition, it also placed it danger of unnecessary over-criticism and higher expectations than, “Oh look, another crime drama.” Yet creator/showrunner Noah Hawley lived up to Fargo’s reputation by not relying exclusively on the titular connection or by simply co-opting what we remember from the movie. Re-using a storyline, character types, or a setting is basic. Re-creating a visual moment, such as watching someone pass in a car through a car window, is easily done. The more admirable achievement, and that which Hawley accomplished, is maintaining the tone of Fargo, especially across 10 episodes. While the narrative and visual similarities helped trigger memories of the original work, the miniseries could not have been Fargo if it failed at the far more difficult feat of regaining the subtext and the ambiance.
What differentiates re-imagined TV programs such as Fargo and Hannibal from re-imagined movies such as Total Recall (2012) and RoboCop (2014) is that the former two feel genuinely inspired from the earlier pieces in the truest sense of the word inspiration. Whether focusing on characters or themes, re-imaginings must evince a greater-than-surface understanding of the original. The Total Recall question of “What is reality?” needs to be answered by something greater than future tech and action scenes. Alex “RoboCop” Murphy is a man dealing with the loss of his identity, not simply a guy in a cool robot suit having doubts.
Understandably, most modern cinematic re-imaginings seem directed by the needs of the blockbuster and all the burdens that come with it, but it’s not as though television is lacking in economic or studio concerns. Yet viewers get the sense that Bryan Fuller (NBC’s Hannibal) and Hawley wanted to do something new and exciting with the worlds that came before them while respecting what they represent. They appreciate that Hannibal Lecter is more than fava beans and Chianti, and that there was more to Fargo than, “Aww jeez.” This understanding that re-imaginings should be about honoring the past and not rotely repeating it is what most movies have seemed to lack as of late, and how television has made us see that there is genuine potential in returning to previously trod ground.