Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Serenity, Cinematisation and the Perils of Adaptation

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Serenity, Cinematisation and the Perils of Adaptation

Article excerpt

Adapting films to the television medium is a fairly common practice, especially in the field of sf. From early US variations on film serials, such as Buck Rogers (1950-1951), Flash Gordon (1953-1954) and Commando Cody (1955), to more recent efforts at special effects-laden adaptations, such as Stargate SG-1 (US/Canada 1997-2007) and Total Recall 2070 (Canada/Germany/US 1999-2000), nearly two dozen sf television series have drawn upon films' proven plots, established characters and potentially guaranteed audiences - although usually with just mixed success. Despite the greater resources typically available for a film adaptation, seemingly ready-made audiences and the possibility of the greater rewards that attend big screen hits, far fewer sf television series have managed to move to the big screen, and with the exception of the Star Trek franchise, practically none has achieved the measure of success that would suggest a formula for future television-to-film developments. One small exception, in fact perhaps the most unlikely of exceptions, is the series Firefly (US 2002-2003), remade as Serenity (Whedon US 2005), which brought highly positive reviews, won several sf-related awards and confirmed through its modest box office and DVD success the cult following that the short-lived television series had surprisingly developed.1 In Serenity we might begin to measure some of the difficulties and possibilities involved in making a successful transition from small to big screen.

Certainly, having the series' creator/writer/producer/director Joss Whedon in charge of the adaptation provided important continuity and ensured that much of the flavour of the television program would be retained. And the involvement of the entire cast of major actors from the series brought a level of understanding about the characters and their backgrounds - a sense of their lives - that would otherwise have been difficult to obtain. Moreover, the fact that the series had already been cancelled allowed for a certain level of freedom not found in film adaptations done while the television series was still running (see, for example, The X-Files (Bowman Canada/US (1998)), because Serenity's creative team did not have to be concerned about narrative developments - such as the deaths of several characters - that would disturb Firefly's continuity or circumscribe its narrative development.

In fact, the general plot of the film seems largely intended to round off the narrative arc described by the series' fourteen episodes, only eleven of which had aired prior to its cancellation (the remaining three episodes were first broadcast in the summer of 2003). It describes how Simon Tam (Sean Maher) rescues his sister River (Summer Glau) from a government experimentation station and thus how they came to be fugitives aboard the space freighter Serenity. It further develops the backstory of the Reavers (violent, cannibalistic humans who inhabit a distant section of the galaxy and raid outlying settlements), offering an explanation for how they came to be. It intensifies a key plot element of most of the television episodes, the Alliance's efforts to retrieve River, while linking her to the secret behind the Reavers. And it draws out the heroic potential of its central characters, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of the Serenity, as they wager their lives to stop the Alliance and reveal its complicity in the creation of the Reavers. For devotees of the series, the film thus managed to answer a number of questions, while also further sketching the potential of its diverse group of characters.

Yet what is arguably most interesting about the film version is something that hardly surfaces in Firefly's relatively brief existence. For Serenity seems pointedly mindful of its medium, after a fashion that we do not typically see in most television series, but that has always marked some of the best cinematic sf. As Garrett Stewart observes, the film genre, 'whether through an intertextual allusion . …

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