Remember When... 'The Addams Family' Convinced Us It Was a Good Idea to Turn TV Shows into Movies?

Remember When... 'The Addams Family' Convinced Us It Was a Good Idea to Turn TV Shows into Movies?

Nov 22, 2016

The Addams Family

Before the 1990s, big-screen versions of live-action TV shows were rare, and their track record was spotty. For every successful franchise like Star Trek or The Muppets, there were flops like the Get Smart film The Nude Bomb (1980); modest hits like Dragnet (1987) that succeeded only by skewing the tone of the original show; or anthologies like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), unburdened by any obligation to recreate specific beloved characters. The idea of, "Hey, remember this TV show? Here it is again, as a movie!" was risky and mostly untested. 

And then, 25 years ago this week, we got The Addams Family. Though technically based on Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons, the film had many elements that had been invented for the 1964-66 TV series (which eventually led to an out-of-court settlement for the show's creator), not to mention that familiar, finger-snapping theme song. 

The Addams Family was a smash, the 7th highest-grossing film of 1991, earning $191 million worldwide on a $30 million budget and spawning a sequel. But its success was by no means assured. Though the brand had name recognition (the first teaser trailer just showed the family and played the music), The Addams Family wasn't as familiar to the average American in 1991 as, say, The Munsters, which had aired at the same time in the '60s but had had a more successful run in syndication. (There'd already been a Munsters movie, by the way, in 1966, called Munster, Go Home! It flopped. ) 

Furthermore, the production was plagued with setbacks and crises, a near-disaster that Morticia and Gomez would have found wonderful. The script underwent numerous rewrites. The director of photography quit halfway through; his replacement worked for a few days and then became critically ill. Barry Sonnenfeld, a cinematographer making his debut as a director, ended up filling both roles despite having already collapsed on the set from anxiety and exhaustion. 

Oh, and the studio financing the film, Orion Pictures, was so hard-up for cash that they sold the movie to Paramount while it was still being shot.  

"When things were at their worst [producer] Scott [Rudin] had the best idea of all," Sonnenfeld told the Los Angeles Times. "When we were showing our teaser trailer in the theaters, he said we should just pass a hat down the aisle, asking for contributions." This was a joke in 1991; in 2016, it's Kickstarter, and it's been used to fund more than one TV-to-movie adaptation (e.g., Veronica Mars). 

Emboldened by The Addams Family's success, Hollywood studios started digging through the old TV properties they owned, looking for other potential goldmines. By the end of the decade, moviegoers had seen (or, more often, failed to see) big-screen versions of more than 25 different TV shows, most of them from the '60s and '70s. These included sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and The Beverly Hillbillies; live-action versions of cartoons like The Flintstones and George of the Jungle; and action dramas ranging from The Fugitive and Mission: Impossible to The Mod Squad and Lost in Space

Wild Wild West, an expensive dud from the summer of 1999, signaled the end of the cycle, and new TV adaptations fell off considerably post-Y2K. The ones that did turn up tended to be ironic and meta-referential: Charlie's Angels and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle in 2000, Josie and the Pussycats in 2001. One trend continued, though: the closing-credits rap song that summarizes the movie. Take it away, MC Hammer!

When The Addams Family was released, on Nov. 22, 1991:

- It easily took first place at the box office, earning $24.2 million. Cape Fear and Beauty and the Beast, which had both opened the week before, were next, followed by new release An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Also in the top 10 that weekend were Curly Sue, All I Want for Christmas, The People Under the Stairs, Little Man Tate, Other People's Money, and Billy Bathgate.

- The 10 most popular shows on TV were almost all on CBS or ABC: 60 Minutes, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Cheers (NBC), Home Improvement, Designing Women, Coach, Full House, Unsolved Mysteries (NBC), and Murder, She Wrote. Seinfeld hadn't caught on yet, and Friends was still a few years away...

- In sad, AIDS-related news, Magic Johnson had announced two weeks earlier that he had HIV, while Freddie Mercury would die two days later of AIDS-induced pneumonia.

- It was a good time for Eastern Europe, though. The Soviet Union was crumbling, with republics declaring their independence right and left; by year's end, the USSR would no longer exist.

- Shailene Woodley was a week old. Tyler Posey was a month old. One Direction singer Louis Tomlinson had a month left in the womb. At the other end of the life spectrum, classic film actors Fred MacMurray and Gene Tierney, producer Irwin Allen, and insane Werner Herzog associate Klaus Kinski had all recently died. 

- Michael Jackson's 11-minute "Black or White" video, directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, Three Amigos), had premiered on television eight days earlier, broadcast simultaneously to 27 countries and some 500 million viewers. For reasons still unknown, the video for a song about racial harmony included MJ smashing windows and tearing a car apart, and also grabbing his crotch (though he tended to do that anyway).

- U2's Achtung Baby, Enya's Shepherd Moons, Paul Simon's Concert in the Park, 2Pac’s 2Pacalypse Now, and Ricky Martin's self-titled first album were all new.

- On the radio, you'd have heard such timeless hits as Michael Bolton's "When a Man Loves a Woman," Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P.," and Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex."

Categories: Movie Nostalgia
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