Road to… The man From U.N.C.L.E.

Last weekend, Warner Bros. Pictures released Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram‘s adaptation of the television series The man From U.N.C.L.E..

The original series featured 105 episodes between 1964 and 1968 as a collaboration between creator Norman Felton and You Only Live Twice‘s Ian Fleming, creator of lead character Napoleon Solo. Other contributing writers were Robert Towne, Sherman Yellen and Harlan Ellison. The pilot episode featured character Ilya Kuryakin, who drew positive reception from audiences, prompting Felton to make him the second lead rather than April Dancer. Solo and Kuryakin would star in the series as two spies working for United Network Command Law Enforcement, Section Two – Operations and Enforcement. Solo was Number One and Kuryakin was Number Two. The third and final regular was Alexander Waverly, Number One of Section One. It wasn’t so much The man From U.N.C.L.E. as The men From U.N.C.L.E.. U.N.C.L.E. was founded by the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from mutual fear of T.H.R.U.S.H. Producer Sam Wolfe created U.N.C.L.E.’s hierarchy, and designed it as a global agency recruiting agents from anywhere.

The series’ pilot was feature length. W.A.S.P. took the place of T.H.R.U.S.H., and Allison took the place of Waverly. Kuryakin has a brief role, which would be upgraded to major for the rest of the series. The original version was edited to an hour, titled The Vulcan Affair (Wolfe). Due to the unseen feature-length edition, The Vulcan Affair was released theatrically as To Trap a Spy. The success of this lead to other feature-length stories from the show being released theatrically…

Clyde Ware and Joseph Calverri‘s The Double Affair also had additional scenes, which was included in the cinematic version, The spy With my Face. The United Kingdom release was titled Mr. Solo, and not marketed as part of the series. It remained in British cinemas for two months, which elevated the series to top ratings on ITV Granada.

Season two premièred with the two-part Alexander the Greater Affair (Dean Hargrove). These two episodes were released theatrically as a single feature, One spy too Many, which not only added a romantic subplot that were more sexual than what was seen in the series, but also removed elements from the television broadcast to compensate. Sydney Morning Herald’s Richard Neville described One spy too Many as “a slick and imaginative production, it is nothing more than a celluloid comic strip”.

Another second season two-parter, The Bridge of Lions Affair (Howard Rodman, Wolfe and Henry Slesar) was also released theatrically as One of our Spies is Missing. This was adapted from a tie-in novel, Slesar’s The Bridge of Lions. This involved scenes being rearranged to accommodate the run time, as well as new scenes being filmed to add substance.

Season three featured another two-parter, The Concrete Overcoat Affair (Peter Allan Fields). Unlike previous theatrical releases of episodes, less changes were made to the televised version. The music was carried-over, and no new scenes were added. Some scenes were re-edited to include longer versions than seen in the original episodes. The theatrical title was The spy in the Green Hat.

Another third season two-parter, The Five Daughters Affair (Norman Hudis), was released theatrically as The Karate Killers. Like The Concrete Overcoat Affair/The spy in the Green Hat, minimal changes were made, though these did include musical changes, and scenes were trimmed rather than extended, but still made more graphic than the broadcast edition.

Season four’s final two-part episode, The Prince of Darkness Affair (Hargrove), was released theatrically as The Helicopter Spies. Like The Concrete Overcoat Affair/The spy in the Green Hat and The Karate Killers/The Five Daughters Affair, little changes were made. Scenes remained generally the same apart from being longer to include more mature material, and few scenes were added. But music was changed as before. Alternate cuts were used, involving different camera angles and higher quality stock footage of the rocket launch. Of all the theatrical releases of television episodes, The Helicopter Spies resembled its original television edition the closest.

The final two episodes, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair (Hudis), were released theatrically as How to Steal the World. This was the only theatrical edition to not feature Jerry Goldsmith’s theme music.

The television series was cancelled during its fourth season. Its popularity had lead to imitators, which caused the original show to experiment with different styles that regular audiences felt tested their loyalty. Ratings dropped, and National Broadcasting Company cancelled The man From U.N.C.L.E..

After the cancellation, the series’ cast would reunite in a television feature, The Return of the man From U.N.C.L.E.: the Fiteen-Years-Later Affair (Michael Sloan). This was instead broadcast on Columbia Broadcasting System, guest starring The Avengers‘ Patrick Macnee and featuring a tribute to Ian Fleming with a George Lazenby character driving an Aston Martin DB5 identified as J.B., the initials of Fleming’s most popular character, James Bond. (Lazenby portrayed Bond in the adaptation of Fleming’s On her Majesty’s Secret Service (Richard Maibaum and Simon Raven), and Bond drives the Aston Martin DB5 in the adaptations of Goldfinger (Maibaum and Paul Dehn), Thunderball (Maibaum and John Hopkins) and Skyfall (Neal PurvisJohn Logan and Robert Wade) and the theatrical features GoldenEye (Michael FranceJeffrey CaineKevin Wade and Bruce Feirstein) and Tomorrow Never Dies (Feirstein). It also appears in the adaptation of Casino Royale (Purvis, Wade and Paul Haggis).) The television feature establishes that T.H.R.U.S.H. is disestablished, with their leader incarcerated. Kuryakin resigned after a mission in-which an innocent was killed and now designs fashion. Solo was dismissed, and sells computers, until he’s contacted through the radio pen he kept for sentimental reasons and assigned to capture T.H.R.U.S.H.’s escaped leader. Solo and Kuryakin are separated for the majority, working as a back-door pilot to a potential new series that wasn’t commissioned.

In 1993, producer John Davis optioned theatrical film rights to Warner Bros. Pictures and Felton. Over the next twenty years, Davis claims, he commissioned twelve to fourteen screenplays from such screenwriters as Jim ThomasJohn ThomasJohn RequaGlenn Ficarra and Scott Z. Burns. Burns’ screenplay was selected by director Stephen Soderbergh, slated to begin production in March 2012. Warner Bros. Pictures line producers wanted a budget beneath USD60, 000, 000, a budget Soderbergh felt wouldn’t meet the required period, props and locations. In November 2011, Soderbergh departed. It was eventually directed by Guy Ritchie. Armie Hammer was signed as Kuryakin with Tom Cruise set to be Solo. Cruise dropped-out to work on Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie), adapted from the fourth season of Mission: Impossible, which began as one of The man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s imitators. Cruise was replaced with Henry Cavill. Hugh Grant was cast as Waverly. Production began in September 2013 in London and Italy. Principal photography began on 9th September 2013, utilising locations from across Europe and with a final budget of USD75, 000, 000. Ritchie’s collaborator David Allcock said of Ritchie’s process:

“He’s quite intuitive and tends to constantly rewrite stuff, which he does even when they’re shooting. He’ll rewrite things in the morning if they’re shooting that day, working with the actors if something doesn’t feel right.”

Originally scheduled for release on the 16th – 18th January 2015 weekend, Warner Bros. Pictures moved release on 12th August 2014 to the 14th – 16th August 2015 weekend. Goldsmith’s original score was replaced with Daniel Pemberton. It opened to USD13, 421, 036 at third in the box office, directly beneath Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, which had opened three weekends prior. In the United Kindgom, it opened with GBP1, 448, 298 to fourth position, also directly beneath Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, which opened in the same weekend as its North American release. In the Russian box office, the Cold War theme is considered by analysts to have helped its performance, as it opened with RUB201, 036, 611 at number one, instead directly above Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, which was only in its second week. Metacritic scored The man From U.N.C.L.E. at 55, “mixed or average reviews”. Rotten Tomatoes aggregated its reviews to 66%, and said “The man from U.N.C.L.E. tries to distract from an unremarkable story with charismatic stars and fizzy set pieces, adding up to an uneven action thriller with just enough style to overcome its lack of substance”. The North American under-performance was compared with Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Hermann and Andrea Berloff) having a better marketing campaign, as well as Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation having already provided enough espionage until Purvis/Wade/Logan’s Spectre, the first Bond after Skyfall. The liberal use of the original series as a property was also thought to have been too limiting to the target audience for having little brand recognition.

The man From U.N.C.L.E. was written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, based on the television series by Ian Fleming and Norman Felton.

Feature film’s future

Recently, a lot of debate’s arisen over the state of modern cinema and whether it can provide the kind of quality people are prepared to pay for and sit in an auditorium with other people.

Personally, I find this is still the best way to watch a feature for numerous reasons. Mainly because doing it alone is still fun, but it’s even better when there are other people involved. It’s a better way to gauge the reaction from the audience, and if a film’s good, you find yourself feeling it together. And that’s what cinema has the power to do; bring people together.

Gone With the Wind is the highest-grossing film when adjusted for inflation, meaning that it’s the feature film people were most interested in seeing. To this day, no other feature has beaten the number of tickets sold. But that was 1939, and the industry’s moved-on since then. Now, cinema has to compete with television and videogames. Nobody expected videogames to become popular enough to legitimately challenge entertainment consumers’ attentions. Within three days of release, Grand Theft Auto V became the highest-selling and fastest-selling entertainment product. And that was only two years ago. Television is also now a legitimate threat; Games of the XXIX Olympiad is officially the highest-rated television broadcast, with an estimated peak of five billion viewers – nearly seventy percent of Humanity. Compare that with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs Manny Pacquiao, which became the highest-grossing pay-per-view television event, to the point that Avengers: age of Ultron, the fourth highest-grossing feature film of all time and third highest-grossing feature film of 2015, opened to less numbers than expected because of the audience divide caused by television.

So what’s to be done? Is the public going to be divided into those that game, watch television or go to cinemas? Will cinema become less of the phenomenon that it once was, and now becomes smaller compared to the competitive media? The answer to that is to be determined by whether cinema can be innovative than those other three. Whereas before different distributors and feature films would compete with each-other for what would generate the highest opening weekend, cinema itself is if anything united by the other media it needs to compete against. Cinema needs to offer something videogames and television cannot, or… television and video games themselves.

My local cinema allows customers to book console parties, where they can bring a games console and a video-game and play on the big screen. And it’s been announced that Sherlock Special will be livestreamed in cinemas worldwide. But it’s more than that. People are no longer able to just experience feature films, television and video-games in cinemas, because cinema is adapting those things into feature films. This April, Focus Features brings us Ratchet & Clank, based on the PlayStation 2 video-game Ratchet & Clank. And this month will be closed-out with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, based on the television series Mission: Impossible. But is there anything that’s soon to exist across all three media? Is there a feature film coming soon that’s also a videogame and television series?

Probably not. But there are still adaptations of at least one of those things. Coming soon is:

  • Warner Bros. Pictures’ The man From U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie) based on NBC’s The man From U.N.C.L.E.
  • 20th Century Fox’s Hitman: Agent 47 (Aleksander Bach) based on Square Enix’s Hitman: Codename 47
  • Universal Pictures’ Jem and the Holograms (Jon M. Chu) based on Claster Television’s Jem
  • BBC Films’ Dad’s Army (Oliver Parker) based on BBC One’s Dad’s Army
  • Columbia Pictures’ The Angry Birds Movie (Clay Kertis and Fergal Reilly) based on Rovio Entertainment’s Angry Birds
  • Columbia Pictures’ Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune based on Sony Computer Entertainment’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
  • Universal Pictures’ Warcraft (Duncan Jones) based on Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft: Orcs and Humans
  • Paramount Pictures’ Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin) based on NBC’s Star Trek
  • 20th Century Fox’s Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel) based on Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed
  • Lionsgate’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Dean Israelite) based on FOX’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
  • Paramount Pictures’ Baywatch (Seth Gordon) based on NBC’s Baywatch
  • Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon has said he’s adapting the Nine Network series.
  • Battlestar Galactica (Bryan Singer) based on ABC’s Battlestar Galactica.

So where does this leave us? Is the future of feature films in adaptations of video-games and television? It’s not as if it’s anything new, but is it the future? That will be determined by the relative success of these feature films, and nowhere else than 2016. The current dominating trend in feature films is comic book adaptations, Fantastic Four (Josh Trank) being the next upcoming release. But in 2016, with Warcraft and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune currently releasing on the same weekend, it’s an in important question, especially given the upcoming Hitman: Agent 47, coming out in the same month as Fantastic Four. All trends end, but in their place something new will begin. What’s more interesting is the behind-the-scenes story. How do these videogames and television series make it to being a feature film, and what kind of brand recognition is required for it to work?

One of the major differences between directing a television episode and a feature film is the creative control a director has. In television, the showrunners have that control, in feature films, the director generally has control and will be hired based on his vision, which he’ll create for the producers. In a Breaking Bad episode, the director will have been overseen by showrunner Vince Gilligan, whereas a feature film would give the director more control (although in Breaking Bad‘s case, Gilligan would probably be directing anyway). If a television series is to be adapted well, it requires a director with cinematic creativity, who won’t just direct a feature-length episode. Universal Pictures’ Serenity (based on Fox’s Firefly) scored high critic ratings but low grossing, despite being directed by creator Joss Whedon. A popular choice of adaptation amongst television audiences is The CW’s Supernatural, and Ron Howard claims to have been signed to direct a feature film of Netflix’s Arrested Development. The BBC One series Doctor Who‘s already had two feature film adaptations: Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (directed by Gordon Flemyng), but at eighty minutes, these were arguably not feature-length. Nevertheless, they were adaptations of two original serials, rather than connected to the television continuity. This is often seen as necessary in feature film adaptations, as it would be the best way of being accessible to a wider audience not familiar with the television series. That said, some Game of Thrones fans claim that a feature film set during the early years of the show’s mythology could be so far removed from the television continuity that it wouldn’t matter, while also introducing new audiences to the television series. But it would still require a cinematic director to work.

In terms of videogames, popular selections to become feature films include Dead SpaceAlan WakeTomb Raider and The Last of UsTomb Raider‘s already been adapted into Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (Jan de Bont) with a reboot planned by GF Films after the videogame series was rebooted with Tomb Raider, and an adaptation of The Last of Us has already been announced by Sony and Screen Gems.

What this is doing is putting the feature in a similar situation to the early 2000s, when comic book adaptations were on the rise. The comic book adaptation is the highest box office draw currently; Marvel’s the Avengers (Joss Whedon) is the highest-grossing of them. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi) and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan) are those often considered the best. But this was not always the case. There was a time when comic book adaptations were considered a bad idea. But this wasn’t out of ignorance. The track record showed why – Howard the Duck (Willard Huyck), Superman IV: the Quest for Peace (Sidney J. Furie), Batman and Robin (Joel Schumacher) – Catwoman (Pitof)! But comic book feature films are now, arguably, the most anticipated.

Video game feature films currently hold the reputation once shared with comic book feature films. Alone in the Dark (Uwe Boll), for instance, is considered the worst of them all. The two Tomb Raiders are also thought of as being inferior to the source material. No video game adaptation has ever been successful. But there’s hope yet. WarcraftHitman: Agent 47Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is amongst those coming out soon. Pixels may have underperformed and yes, The Angry Birds Movie will probably be horrible, but the rich source material of these adaptations have such potential that eventually all videogames will be trying to get themselves adapted.

With comic book fans wondering what the next line to be adapted will be, eventually video gamers will be anticipating the announcement of their favourite video game’s adaptation. I myself have an idea for how to adapt Grand Theft Auto V, which I’d love to write into a treatment for the property’s Rockstar owners. The series itself is becoming the subject of a feature film, Game Changer, about creator Dan Houser and the video game lawyer who accused him of making them too violent. If there’s a popular video game, it will be adapted into a feature film, and it will probably be good. Jones is a very good director, and someone like him working on Warcraft is a good sign. All that’s required is for publishers to understand that a feature film adaptation will make even more money when it’s good. Yes, filmmaking is an art, but cinema is a business. And if those two things can be combined, drawing from the interactive art that is video games, feature films could be transformed.

And as for television? That looks less certain. A feature film is a different style of storytelling, which requires a narrative to be established, developed and resolved in some form between ninety and one-hundred-and-fifty minutes. Ninety minutes is generally considered the minimum duration to be “feature length”, but that doesn’t mean a television series can create two episodes and just combine them. This year, we’ve had

  • Warner Bros. Pictures’ Entourage (Doug Ellin) from HBO’s Entourage
  • 20th Century Fox’s Spooks: the Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri) from BBC One’s Spooks
  • Paramount Pictures’ The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water (Paul Tibbitt) from Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob Squarepants
  • StudioCanal’s Shaun the Sheep (Richard Starzak and Mark Burton) from CBBC’s Shaun the Sheep.

But the reason so many television series aren’t adapted into feature films is because there needs to be enough substance. Most television series wouldn’t work as feature films, and many that do are already part of a franchise that includes the feature film medium.

Rotten Tomatoes criticised Entourage for feeling “less like a film than a particularly shallow, cameo-studded extended episode of the show”. Of note is that the television series had already been cancelled, and that was for a reason. That’s a good point, and one that Wittertainment’s Mark Kermode said of comedy actor Harry Hill vehicle The Harry Hill Movie (Steven Bendelack): “It is funny how small screen comedy works on the small screen, and when you take it and transpose it up on to the big screen, it’s like watching an articulated lorry trying to do a three-point turn. There’s something about the mechanism of cinema, which is so much weightier … just to do with the scale. All that stuff that Harry Hill does – the asides, the strange little surreal interludes, the puppets, the catchphrases – all that stuff is perfectly suited to the medium of television, on which he does brilliant, and on which he is, and quite rightly so, very successful. In the case of a film, it was just like going behind a tapestry and seeing all the bits hanging out from behind it. It was suddenly, you become crushingly aware of the mechanism.”

Spooks: the Greater Good was met with more positive reviews, but still received a mixed response. Many critics felt that its weakness was in the elements carried-over from the television series. Scotsman’s Alistair Harkness said, “The big screen proves an unforgiving canvas: for both the show’s hitherto high-end production values and its topical urgency”. The Express‘ Allan Hunter said, “it does not feel much different from an above-par television episode but then that is probably no bad thing”. Radio Times‘ Andrew Collins said, “the first big-screen spin-off, which revisits familiar Central London locations and similar dramatic territory, is essentially an extended bonus episode that will please fans but may leave cinemagoers spoilt by Bond and Bourne”. IGN’s Leigh Singer said that it was, “neither big nor smart enough to justify its big screen incarnation”. List Film’s Angie Errigo said, “this is very enjoyable, but cinematically pedestrian, looking and feeling like a long TV episode”. And that’s the main problem with Spooks: the Greater Good – in a world where Spectre‘s released next October and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation‘s released next week, a television series in the same genre can’t justify itself just for being in that same genre – it actually has to be good. A Game of Thrones feature film could happen, but it would need to work as a fantasy piece capable or rivalling The Lord of the Rings. Just because something’s the best of a genre on television, remove the medium from the equation and it just comes across as weak imitator.

And of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water, Rotten Tomatoes said, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water won’t win over many viewers who aren’t fans of the show”.

And yet, Shaun the Sheep scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Irish Times’ Tara Brady saying “The gorgeous big-screen version of Aardman’s TV hit has been carried off with faultless professionalism”.

Clearly, then, television feature films are rarely of a quality to be considered legitimate in their own right. Unlike video game adaptations, which are considered to just be bad films. Television feature films are more common, but video game feature films are going to become the next trend based on the expected quality of Hitman: Agent 47Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed. The difference is that television is already a motion picture, and therefore has a guaranteed level of quality, even if it isn’t very high, whereas videogames are interactive motion pictures, and that’s the difference. With a television feature film adaptation, the way it’s consumed is only a difference of situation; you have to pay for a ticket and go to a cinema, and watch it on a big screen with other people. Video game feature film adaptations don’t have that interactivity, but the desire to recreate it is often the downfall. There are video game “movie”s on YouTube which are perfect playthroughs in feature-length videos, but that’s not what a motion picture should be. It’s like comparing a novel with a comic book – totally different thing.

But there’s still no denying that video games and television series are now challenging feature films, and to catch-up, there’s going to be a lot of adapting to do. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Art builds on art, and since the largest feature film draw was from a novel, it’s clearly what the people want. And what the people want is what the feature film needs…