Hope Lies On Television #10 – Movin’ On Up
Edwin Davies marks the landmark tenth edition of Hope Lies In Television with a look at TV shows that have made the transition to the big screen.
Since it opened on the 17th of August, The Inbetweeners Movie, which is funnily enough the big screen adaptation of the popular TV show, has taken a really rather staggering £27.7 million at the UK Box Office. To put this into perspective, this result means that it is the most successful British film of the year that doesn’t star a stuttering king or a teenage wizard, and it won’t be too long before it outgrosses Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Hangover Part II and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides to become the third most successful film of the year full-stop, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it even overtakes The King’s Speech’s by the end of its run. The Inbetweeners Movie is nothing short of a phenomenon.
This turn of events is fairly sensational, as they would be for any fairly low-budget British comedy (the film only cost £3.5 million), and its success to date is obviously the result of two factors; the fact that it’s very funny, and that it has been released at the peak of the show’s popularity. It also benefits, weirdly, from the same bump that the final Harry Potter film did; the film has been billed by its writers and cast as the finale to the series – an idea that seems to be borne out by the events of the film itself – and that makes it more of an event than if it was just a stop-gap release between series of the show. It also manages it despite suffering from some of the problems that have afflicted countless TV shows that have moved to film over the years, in the process highlighting the ways in which a television show can translate to the cinema, but only if there is a specific need for the show to make that move.
For those unfamiliar with the show, The Inbetweeners is a raucous comedy series that ran for three series on E4 from 2008 to 2010. Created by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, it focuses on the lives of four teenage boys as they navigate the murky waters of adolescence, caught between childhood and adulthood and forever on the fringes of their school society. Will (Simon Bird) is the new kid at school, as well as the show’s narrator, and he falls in with Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley) and Neil (Blake Harrison), who he becomes friends with because they are as maladjusted as he is. Each episode revolves around their, almost always unsuccessful, attempts to get laid, and the humour of the show derives largely from the extent to which they will humiliate themselves in pursuit of the fairer sex.
There are, broadly speaking, two reason for a TV show to move to the big screen (setting aside the obvious reason of, “to make money”), the first of which is content. Most TV shows – this is especially true of American series – are restricted in terms of their content by their networks, and the most obvious restriction is often language; if you’re on at a certain time or on a certain channel, you can’t swear. Admittedly, some shows manage to circumvent these rules either through clever use of format – U.S. mockumentary sitcoms like The Office, Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation allow their characters to occasionally swear by bleeping the actual words, a move that is justified by saying it is something that the makers of the fictional documentaries being produced would do – or through time honoured comedic devices such as double entendres and wordplay. (Probably the best example of this, in terms of execution and sheer cajones, is the way that Arrested Development managed to have David Cross say “cunt” uncensored by having him describe his wife as a “selfish cunt [slight but crucial pause] -ry music star.”)
The Inbetweeners, airing as it did late at night on a digital channel, never had to worry much about content restrictions, so the writers were free to have as much swearing as they could possibly want, and were able to push the cast into situations that were much more outrageous than they ever could have if the show had aired in a different context. This made the show great because it combined genuinely funny and well-structured farce with a comedic style that was unflinching; I’ve always found it difficult to watch more than two or three episodes in a row because the plots can be so cringe-inducingly awkward, and the humour is so focused on humiliation, that I wind up feeling sympathy pains for the characters.
Whilst that unflinching quality is such a boon to the show, it presents a problem for the film; where else can the writers go that they haven’t gone before? Going in, I was very worried that the film would go too far down the gross out route which, admittedly, the television show did explore, but only sparringly. Fortunately, the film does not use too much disgusting humour – there are perhaps a few too many gerontophilia jokes, but it’s hardly Jackass - and, if anything, it’s a touch softer than the show, though I will delve into that more later. It’s a far cry from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the big-screen spin-off of Trey Park and Matt Stone’s seminal satire which, in a move typical of its creators, acted as a comment on the freedom to swear which provided the main reason why they wanted to make a movie of the show.
South Park serves as an interesting example of the second reason why the creators of a TV show might want to make the move to the cinema screen; scope. What story couldn’t be told on television but which could conceivably be told on film? In the case of South Park, the storyline of the film is actually not that far removed from one that could conceivably be told on the show itself. Animation offers a freedom that live-action doesn’t, and South Park had already made its name as a show in which one of the main characters died every week, and even before the film had made several episodes in which the eponymous town had been devastated by ridiculous monstrosities. (Including, in possibly my favourite episode, a fight between a giant, robotic Barbra Streisand and a giant version of Robert Smith who happens to look like a butterfly.) The idea of Satan and Saddam Hussein (who is his lover) trying to take over the world doesn’t seem that outside of the normal parameters of the show.
Perhaps a better point of comparison for The Inbetweeners would be a similarly foul-mouthed and fiendishly clever show, namely The Thick of It. When the creators of The Thick of It decided to create the spin-off movie In The Loop, they gave it a global story about various factions trying to stop and start a war, respectively, that could not be told on the show because The Thick of It is a show about the minutiae of politics. It is a show about people who obsess over a single word in a speech, or how the media will perceive a poorly worded phrase. Of course, In The Loop is about that as well, since the events are kicked off when a Minister (Tom Hollander) describes war as “unforeseeable”, inadvertently establishing himself as anti-war, but the scope and scale of the story are far grander than anything that could be done in a single episode of the show.
The Inbetweeners Movie favours expanded scope over expanded content by sending the four boys to Malia in Greece, following in a long tradition of British sitcoms sending their characters on holiday. The change of location is obviously something that the show would never normally be able to do, mainly because of the cost, but also because of the amount of set-up required to get the characters to Malia in the first place, yet the plot of the film does not veer off model from that of any given episode of the show. The characters try to have fun and get laid, they glimpse the possibility of both those things when they encounter four girls who, for reasons passing understanding, find them funny, rather than off-putting and a bit weird, and they make complete fools of themselves.
The major difference is that, owing to the length of the film versus the length of an episode, they keep making fools of themselves over and over. In a normal episode of the show, if the group got themselves thrown out of a hotel because they accidentally offended the family of a disabled girl, their attempts to woo the girls would end there and then. But because the story can’t end there, the film finds ways to thrust the two groups together over and over, with humiliation and embarassment happening every time, though at least each act furthers the relationships between them or moves the pieces of the gossamer thin plot along. (I don’t want that to sound like an insult; the film works precisely because it is very light on plot and uses its setting as a framework upon which to hang its jokes.)
Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent that the “scope” of the story is not merely to do with sending the boys on holiday, but lies in Beesley and Morris’ desire to take the characters on a journey that they never could on the show; the take them into adulthood. As part of its duty as a series finale, it seeks to leave the characters fundamentally different to how it finds them. Maybe they aren’t exactly mature adults by the end, but they aren’t the people that they are at the start, and as such the ending of the film actually serves as the most definite end to the series possible, short of having them all go crashing off the side of a cliff in a bus, Young Ones-style.
The journey of the characters over the course of The Inbetweeners Movie, rather than the location or the central narrative, goes a long way towards justifying it being a cinematic release. Trying to tell a similar story as the final episode of the show would have felt rushed and forced because an audience would not have believed that the characters, having spent three seriess being completely incapable of fitting into normal social situations, would suddenly be able to find girlfriends and become better people. It would have felt out of keeping with the show as a whole. By making that specific journey one separate from the series as a whole, and devoting a whole 90 minutes to it, the creators ensured that if the film was terrible it wouldn’t sully the series, and if it was a success the unambiguous changes that the characters undergo would be enough to prevent any future stories being made with them. Even though the story is simple enough that it could have been told on television, it ultimately needed to be told over feature length for the development and growth experienced by the characters to feel earned.