fredag 5 februari 2016

TV-Month: Television vs Film - Production and Adaptation

While there are numerous of highly anticipated films coming out this year, like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016) and Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo), 2016), it seems a lot of people are more excited about the next seasons of TV-shows like Daredevil (2015-) and Game of Thrones (2011-). When did television become big enough to compete with movies for audience attention?

This month, I will focus on television rather than film. I will discuss television as a whole, particular genres and review a few TV shows. The focus will be on American television, as American TV-shows are watched all over the world and are often seen as the standard for television production. Today I will discuss the differences between television and film and how these differences are becoming increasingly less clear.

At first glance, movies and TV-shows seem very similar and analytically comparable. However, this is only partially true. While we are in both cases dealing with moving pictures, there are significant production differences that must be taken into account. The most important ones to keep in mind are budget and content.

This is probably the most significant difference between TV and film. Since films are usually released in theatres, every audience member pays a certain sum of money every time they watch it. Films are budgeted according to how many people they think will pay to see it. In times when a lot of people go to the movies, films are produced with higher budgets. Television, on the other hand, is paid for by either advertisement or, in the case of publicly funded television, by tax-payer money. This results in lower budgets, which in turn results in differences between the two media to keep in mind.

Firstly, television is traditionally produced very quickly. Producers can't afford long production times and one season of a TV-show, up to 14 hours of episodes, can be produced in a single year, while a two hour movie often takes a few years to finish. This hectic schedule affects the quality of the final product - TV-shows rarely do re-shoots.

Secondly, TV-shows are limited in terms of sets and locations. Because they can't afford to shoot in locations all over the world, and provide housing for cast and crew, production is usually limited to one city and a few sets and locations. This limits the plot of the series or forces the crew to build sets for foreign locations which may end up looking artificial, breaking the illusion. However, some television genres are build around these limitations, for example the "sitcom", which I will discuss next week.

Thirdly, a limited budget also means limited special effects. In a drama series with supernatural elements, the script has to keep in mind that some effects are more expensive than others. For example, it is quite expensive to have a character that can fly, at least if you want the effects to look realistic.

Television content is heavily restricted by law and network standards, as shows are usually expected to be suitable for anyone. While films are also subject to similar restrictions, if a director wants to include cursing, violence and sexuality in their film, they can do so and the film will receive a higher rating. Moreover, films are generally stand-alone products, while TV-episodes are not and therefore the content of each episode is subject to the same standards as the series as a whole; you can't just have one R-rated episode in a PG-13 series.

The big exception to this rule is Cable television and other subscription-based services. HBO, Showtime and Netflix are not subject to the same standards as their programming is not publicly available.

The times they are a-changin'
While these limitations still affect the television medium, we are seeing shows with larger budgets and more explicit content than ever before. This change has everything to do with the subscription-based services mentioned above. As people are paying for their programming, they can afford bigger budgets and make higher-quality shows. HBO took a big chance with Game of Thrones. It is one of the most expensive TV-shows ever produced, with episode budgets ranging from five to ten million dollars. It paid off extraordinarily well. Nowadays we are seeing more shows with higher budgets, more diverse locations, larger casts and better special effects. These improvements are not limited to subscription-based services; even networks are spending more money in this golden age of television.

Is television a better medium for adaptations than film?
George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels, famously refused to sell the rights for a film adaptation of the series. In hindsight, he definitely did the right thing. His books are long and full of complex relationships and world-building, and it would be impossible to fit most of it in a two-hour movie. While Game of Thrones has excluded some of it, as you have to do with any kind of adaptation, it uses its ten-hour seasons to do Martin's world and characters justice. With this in mind, should we prioritize television adaptation before film adaptations?

It makes sense, doesn't it? Novels, like television, generally employ episodic storytelling, while films use a three-act structure, which isn't as visible in novels. Also, we don't generally read books in one sitting, we read them a few chapters at a time, which is comparable to watching one episode every week. As any fan of a book series that has been adapted to film can attest, they always leave out important things. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005) they excluded a subplot from the book about Hermione's activism to liberate the house elves of Hogwarts, which angered a lot of book fans since it was important to her character. A season-long TV-adaptation wouldn't have had to cut it, since they would've had more time. Also, wouldn't the very episodic The Hobbit have been better as a miniseries than a overly long trilogy with tons of added material that no one thought was necessary?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes the most faithful adaptation is also the best film or TV-show possible. Changes in adaptation are unavoidable, because novels, comic books et cetera are written and published differently from films and TV-shows. There are different standards; you can usually get away with more in terms of content in short stories and novels than in any visual medium. What makes a great book is not the same thing that makes a great film or TV-show.

Every adaptation is an interpretation, not a representation, of the source material. Which medium is best suited for the adaptation is dependent on what kind of story you want to tell. If you want a faithful adaptation of a long story, television might be better suited than film, but some stories are better presented in a shorter format. Comic books, the single largest provider of source material for Hollywood today, is an interesting example. Most famous comic book characters today have decades-long histories and countless different versions have emerged over the years. Sometimes, the best thing to do is not to adapt any one storyline, but to write a new story based on the characters, which is what most comic book adaptations have done. In these cases, the important part is to be faithful to an interpretation of the characters; the adaptation does not have to represent the entire history of the comic series. Take Batman, for example. There have been countless film, television and video game adaptations of the Caped Crusader: their Batmans are not the same, but they are all Batman, in different media, genres and creative hands.

These considerations are important, but I have neglected to mention another important aspect of adaptations: they are not simply made by creative artists, but by studios and production companies. Hollywood blockbusters are not primarily meant to be great films, but to be profitable. There is of course a financial incentive in television as well, but TV-shows have to be consistently good to keep a large audience, especially with a smaller marketing budget. Therefore, the decisions made during the adaptation process may be made for different reasons in different media.

With everything above in mind, we cannot simply dismiss film as a worse medium for adaptation, but there are differences we need to take into account. Some stories and interpretations are better for television and others more suitable for film.

This will have to serve as an introduction to "TV-Month". Come back next week when I discuss the possibilities and limitations of the traditional American sitcom.

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