The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the TV Adaptation Conundrum

By  · Published on August 12th, 2015

Warner Bros.

Confession time: I’ve never heard of The Man From U.N.C.L.E

At least, not the TV show. The movie I know. But then, the movie’s been in production for five years now (with Quentin Tarantino musing about a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie for another decade before that). If no one ever thought to adapt it in movie form, the words “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (likewise, “Napoleon Solo,” “Illya Kuryakin,” etc.) would get zero response out of me.

I imagine this is a common occurrence for people in my age bracket (you know, ’90s kids). The Man from U.N.C.L.E. aired its final episode on January 15, 1968. More than a few decades have passed between The Man From U.N.C.L.E. being a relevant part of pop culture and people my age developing the higher brain functions necessary to remember things like TV shows. And it’s not like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ever had the pop culture staying power of something like Dragnet or Gilligan’s Island.

Which brings us to the conundrum of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Today, in the year 2015, it’s a PG-13 espionage action movie. It’s no stretch to assume The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is chasing that highly sought-after 18–35 crowd. Yet I am right smack in the middle of that crowd, and I have no idea what the hell The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is (even today’s 35-year-olds would have been born in 1980. Still kind of a stretch). Am I the target audience for this thing?

Meanwhile, the 18–35 crowd who actually watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E. when it aired… are old. I mean no offense by that, but even if you watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as a ten-year-old, you’d be 57 when the movie hits theaters. I’m sure a fair amount of 50-and-above folk will still see The Man From U.N.C.L.E. this weekend, but they’re far from the target audience.

So who benefits of making a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie? Most major studio productions are based on an existing IP, but the point of an existing IP is name recognition. Oh, I’ve heard of that [TV show, video game, sugary snack cake]. And bam- your foot’s in the door. Marketing-wise, anyway. Yet The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s IP gets you zero name recognition with the 18–35 crowd, and the movie’s tone and content isn’t geared toward the people who actually recognize the name.

I don’t get it. Especially given the terrifyingly similar precedent set by The Lone Ranger. Just the same, you take a half-century old property and target it at the grandkids of the people who watched it in the first place. Remember how that turned out?

To gather a little more intel, I picked through the last 20 years of older TV show-to-movie adaptations. And I noticed a pretty solid pattern. It may just add some foundation to this whole Man From U.N.C.L.E. conundrum.

In the past two decades of older TV adaptations, here are all the movies that were genuine successes (that is, made at least double their budget back- a pretty standard metric). Now, let’s take those successes, and filter them by how many years there were between when the show ended and when the movie released. In essence: how old is the adaptation?

Ok, now all the TV adaptations that failed to break even.

Notice a pattern? The successful adaptations rarely stray above 30 years, while the flops rarely stray below (if you’re curious, the average time between show and adaptation is 24 years for successes and 34 for flops). I don’t think this is a coincidence. Or a flat, arbitrary rule (would a gritty reboot of Kenan & Kel be a smash hit? Probably not. I’d still see it, though). But I do think it informs just why some TV-show-to-movie adaptations are successes, and some wither and die.

This definitely reinforces that whole Man From U.N.C.L.E. conundrum. The older a show, the larger the age gap stretches between that core 18–35 audience and the people who’re actually being won over just on the name Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Genre, too, is a major part of the lists above. Nearly every film on the success list has been filtered into a straightforward, modern genre. Barring The Dukes of Hazzard (which would be a sex comedy, I guess?), they’re all family movies, straight-up action pics and action comedies. On the flop list, the same genres still stick out (pretty standard, as far as TV-to-movie stuff goes), but there’s a proliferation of weird little subgenres. Land of the Lost is a dinosaur adventure movie/Will Ferrell comedy. Dark Shadows is a dark vampire comedy (you’d think Burton and Depp alone could have carried that one, but I guess not). The Lone Ranger and Wild Wild West are westerns, which don’t carry nearly the same mainstream appeal they did when those shows were on TV.

The older a TV show, the further it stretches away from modern tastes. This makes it much tougher to adapt. Take something like Mission: Impossible vs The Avengers. The shows aren’t too far apart, really. Both were spy thrillers; The Avengers ran from 1961–1969, while Mission: Impossible ran from 1966–1973. But The Avengers was campier (star Patrick Macnee carried an umbrella, not a gun) while Mission: Impossible had a more traditional team of secret agents- tech whiz, muscle, femme fatale, guy who could make neat face-masks, etc.

And when you adapt them, Mission: Impossible translated into a straight-ahead Tom Cruise action movie…

While The Avengers had Sean Connery as kilt-sporting megalomaniac who could control the weather.

One’s still relevant, the other can’t even be mentioned in conversation until you clarify it as “the Hulk-less ’90s Avengers that nobody saw.”

I’m not slagging off on all TV adaptations, forever, but maybe we’re better off letting the older ones remain where they are, undisturbed. Exhuming Perry Mason for a modern re-telling does no one any good. Not us, not the studio in charge, and definitely not poor Perry Mason.

(Oh, and as far as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s concerned? The show finished airing in 1968. Meaning, there are 47 years between it airing on TV and in theaters. Judging by the list above, this might be an ill omen).