Across the Pond: American TV Adaptations

For years I’ve tried to understand the love affair American TV networks have with the BBC, and frankly I still don’t get it. Every now and then rumors surface that a network such as CBS is “In Talks” about ‘Adapting‘ a BBC series and bringing it to US audiences, something that I’ve noticed is becoming more and more frequent. If I recall correctly there was even talk during 2010 of Hollywood wanting to make a big-screen ‘Americanized’ adaptation of one of the BBC’s most iconic franchises: Dr. Who.

Almost immediately fans on both sides of the Atlantic cried heresy, a cry that reached such a volume that the project was swiftly abandoned (Or was it?). However, this was a one-off as numerous BBC franchises have have a make-over and have been shipped over to the US: Life on Mars, Top Gear, The Office, and Spooks to only name a few. Audience receptions of adaptations like this I understand have been ‘mixed’ at best and very few of these shows end up being an improvements over their originals (The Office). I feel that these adaptations suffer from the same issue that crops up whenever Hollywood decides to reboot a movie franchise: No matter how hard directors try the end product is always compared and judged by it’s predecessor and critical reception is correspondingly harsher.

I feel that the reason “The Office”, now in it’s 9th season, was successful when it was adapted is because the scenario is more universally relatable so it doesn’t matter if you’re American or British – you can still relate to the humor. The problems arise when American networks adapt shows such as “Life on Mars” where the original scenarios are simply not relatable to their audience. Shows like Life on Mars feature characters and themes imbedded in British cultural history. Re-writing characters such as Gene Hunt (Viewer Discretion Advised!), characters that have ‘Old-School British Values’ at their core means that when they are adapted for a foreign audience something always feels ‘Off’ no matter how hard writers try. The US version of Life on Mars suffered from this and felt as though it was chasing it’s predecessor’s shadow as it ended up becoming a weird re-telling of “Starsky & Hutch”. Come to think of it, why didn’t you just re-boot that show for modern times instead of adapting something from the BBC?

The latest BBC series that has caught American television’s eye is “Sherlock”, a modern-day re-telling (Meaning it is completely faithful to the original Conan Doyle stories) of the classic British icon Sherlock Holmes and his cases.
How on earth are studios planning to ‘Americanize’ SHERLOCK HOLMES!?
I mean seriously, does anyone think this is a good idea? I understand that this adaptation,  titled “Elementary” will be drastically changing certain aspects of not only Moffat’s BBC series but Conan Doyle’s original stories as well (Example: “Dr. John Watson” becoming “Joanna Watson”).
When this BBC series was first announced even British audiences were uncertain about modernizing such a cherished story, so what makes American studios think their audiences would react well to both adapting and modernizing what is perhaps one the most “British” stories imaginable and suddenly making it all-things-American?
I cannot hate on American studios for having the courage to attempt such ambitious projects but I honestly do not see “Elementary” working at all. I know I am sounding rather elitist and snobby at the moment but hear me out. Imagine if for some bizarre reason the BBC made a British adaptation of say… HBO’s The Wire. The sheer difference in culture and cultural history means it just wouldn’t work.

I know for a fact, as do many of my fellow countrymen, that American TV is capable of putting out breathtakingly good content: Band of Brothers, The Wire, Dexter, Game of Thrones and more recently The Newsroom. You certainly have the brains and the brass to create intelligent and inventive television so why do the likes of CBS insist on adapting already-existing material from the likes of the BBC?
I know that the BBC is also guilty of adapting shows from other countries as we’re currently airing episodes of Wallander, which we got from Sweden, but the US seems to have developed a greater affinity for this more so than others.

Can anyone help shed some light on this phenomenon? I’m really interested to hear what American viewers think of this!

6 comments

  1. Could not have put it better myself. Just – why? WHY? Apparently they also tried to Americanise (Americanize???) Outrageous Fortune. Not surprisingly it did not work.

    1. There’s a few other cases on top of “Outrageous Fortune” that I neglected to include, the biggest one being “The Inbetweeners” which has recently had it’s adapted US pilot.

      I don’t find “Americanization” of BBC properties particularly offensive, I just think it’s a complete waste of time. It’s beyond me why CBS is at work on “Elementary” when they have more or less already done an “Americanized” version of Sherlock Holmes in “House M.D”.
      Who, ironically was portrayed by an excellent British actor: Hugh Laurie.

  2. I actually kind of think that “Elementary” will be fairly successful because Americans are FASCINATED with Sherlock Holmes. I mean, look at the Sherlock Holmes movies.

    But I agree that it’s interesting how many American shows are based off of British shows. I’ve watched Being Human, which was originally British, but I watched the American version, and I also tried to watch the British version, but it didn’t appeal to me as much.

    My theory on the recycling of shows is that there are so many channels that to come up with something new and exciting is pretty risky. But to recycle something that people have heard of because it’s popular in Great Britain is a lot safer.

    Plus, look at Hollywood right now. They redid Spiderman just a few years after the last one came out, they’re redoing old movies, etc . . .

    But great post! I really enjoyed it🙂

    1. Something I forgot to mention is that British audiences are fairly reactionary and remakes of icons don’t generally sit well, the degree of knee-jerk reaction is made worse when their ‘cultural’ property is changed around by overseas studios. I’ve noticed the obvious double standard here as UK broadcasters have changed around beloved foreign shows such as Wallander and nobody seems to care.

      I was also thinking “Spider-Man” when I referred to Hollywood reboots. Despite “The Amazing Spider-Man” being a very good movie people are still divided on it because some cannot let Sam Raimi’s trilogy go. Batman is in for a similar if not worse experience.

      Elementary might be decent in the long run but I think that it’s critical reception will be very harsh when it is premiered. If it can successfully be it’s own thing and not copy-paste the BBC series then it might have a chance.

      1. I definitely agree. I heard that they’re planning on re-doing a lot of the avengers movies in the near future, is that true?

  3. I’m not sure, I haven’t heard anything about Marvel rebooting the likes of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America at all. It seems pretty crazy for them to re-do movies that are still popular.

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