The Thick of It and The Trip are both unique in that they managed to reach an American audience via adaptation to film. This is certainly a less widely used means of adaptation for a US audience but has some clear advantages.
I don’t quite have precise timing on the ABC attempt at adapting The Thick of It for American TV, but one wonders whether it or Veep for that matter would have been considered had it not been for the success of In the Loop (again: Oscar-nominated and totally robbed). The Trip didn’t get the wider release and attention that In the Loop did and is also a far stranger feat in that it contains no new material and it just basically an abridged version of the series.
In the Loop, an adaptation and a separate entity
It’s moderately disappointing to me that The Thick of It and In the Loop don’t really seem to exist in the same universe–lots of The Thick of It actors are recycled in different roles, including perhaps most notably Chris Addison, The Thick of It’s Ollie seen here as Toby, an almost identical if somewhat more spineless character. The disappointment mostly comes from my love of Tom Hollander’s Simon Foster, who somehow seems more pathetically incapable that Hugh Abbot and Nicola Murray together.
Hollander makes an appearance at the end of The Thick of It’s third series in an intentionally incongruous role, playing a character pretty much exclusively called “The Fucker.”
Three characters carry over from The Thick of It: Malcolm Tucker, Malcolm’s unofficial second-in-command and more feral equivalent, Jamie, and Malcolm’s mostly silent personal assistant Sam.
Malcolm as the only character who is exactly the same does a couple things very effectively.
Explicitly, Malcolm Tucker is easily the most popular character from The Thick of It and is easy for an audience member to latch onto to help orient themselves within each narrative–if you are familiar with The Thick of It but not In the Loop, Malcolm’s relationships with all the other characters easily explains their status, and vice versa for those who’ve seen In the Loop but not The Thick of It.
Implicitly it communicates something suggested within the first few minutes of The Thick of It and focused on a bit more later in the series (especially in the second of the two Christmas specials, Spinners and Losers): the idea that people in government are essentially interchangeable. In Spinners and Losers, the party (for the record: heavily implied to be the Labour party) scramble to find someone to put forward as a candidate for Prime Minister–this scrambling takes place in a single night in which they go back and forth between multiple options. It doesn’t really matter who specifically the person is, so long as they are in the vaguest sense electable. Having the same actors play very slightly different versions of their characters in the film adaptation is a very clever literalization of this idea.
The Trip, understandability, and cutting without altering the story
I know a few people who saw the film adaptation of The Trip who I suspect were at least unfamiliar with Rob Brydon going into it–and the people that I do know off the top of my head would immediately recognize him as Uncle Brynn, easily the best character off Gavin and Stacey as opposed to his frequent appearances on panel shows or the oft-discussed Small Man In A Box routine, which I had to look up after seeing this movie (I’m not cool enough to have seen the series version of The Trip before seeing the film version).
Coogan’s certainly more well-known here, but it is sort of a mystery to me how much is lost on people completely unaware of who he is to people in the UK. There are references to him as a comedic genius, to his one major success, and to his history in the tabloids. But I’m not sure how necessary knowledge of the specifics of Coogan and Brydon’s relationship is. Enough is there on the surface: Brydon is jovial and it is suggested more consistently successful if middle-brow artistically speaking, Coogan is self-serious and highly values his artistic merit. Both, at times, sort of want to be the other person–something pointedly de-emphasized in the film, but more on that later.
But the most obviously noticeable thing about the film is its main characters’ competitiveness with each other–occasionally when it comes to discussing their careers and what constitutes “success” (along with their career paths Brydon is happily married with a baby daughter, Coogan has two children, one of which is a slightly troubled 13 year-old, who live with his ex-wife and a crumbling relationship with a much younger woman who appears to be permanently moving back to America), but also just in terms of their ability to do impressions well.
I do wonder if a lack of knowledge of Coogan’s past as a performer is a boon or a sort of detractor. It’s slowly made explicit over time that Coogan, who definitely doesn’t consider himself an impressionist, did in fact begin his career doing impressions. There’s a sort of dramatic tension to eventually learning this as opposed to knowing from the outset. But if you’re aware of Coogan’s history going into the series, these stretches of the two challenging each other’s abilities as impressionists has an immediate, different understanding. You know at once that Coogan is participating because he feels above it–it’s not just being competitive with a friend, it’s sort of proving to himself that he could have kept going down the same path as Brydon and been successful. Proving to himself that he took the high road. Again, this point is made very explicit in the second to last episode/latter half of the film.
This is a bit difficult to discuss, because obviously I can’t go back to a time when I didn’t know much about Steve Coogan’s life and then watch the series or film and judge for myself whether this is more or less effective. But I suppose my point is there is a meta-narrative here that there’s every possibility the American audience is missing. It might just be easier to pick up on the building dramatic tension more quickly if you’re familiar with these men and nothing more.
Creating “Likeable” Characters for an American Audience
As alluded to earlier, each adaptation had two slight changes to characters in their film versions that I found notable.
The first is a little more subtle: if In the Loop’s Toby is the equivalent of The Thick of It’s Ollie, he’s certainly a less despicable person. Toby does start the film basically using his girlfriend’s position in the foreign office to curry favor with his new boss and does eventually cheat on this same girlfriend, but he is certainly significantly less amoral than Ollie. Toby’s our audience surrogate, first introduced to this world, slightly naive, trying to get by. It’s what you expect when you see Chris Addison’s weirdly boyish face (Chris Addison is 40, no matter what Tom Baker has lead you to believe), an expectation that’s subverted in The Thick of It but very usefully played straight in the film.
The second is a bit of a major loss on The Trip’s behalf. The series totals three hours (six thirty minute episodes), the film is about one hour and forty minutes. A lot of what was cut seems to be bits and pieces of the two’s dinner discussions and impressions. Certainly, all the major dramatic beats needed to flesh out the story are maintained. The most altered of these is an extension of a moment intact in the shortened film version. Coogan’s assistant Emma and a photographer meet Coogan and Brydon at one of the restaurants they visit. Coogan and the photographer leave early so that she can photograph him. Over coffee, in the midst of a Hugh Grant impression–early used to flirt with his wife over the phone to little effect–Brydon makes a comment alluding to his attraction to Emma. Cut from the film version is a later attempt to kiss her (this time choosing a Tom Jones impression–a bit less passive a choice) before being told, very kindly, that he’s read the situation wrong. The exclusion of this from the film leaves Brydon coming away looking maybe annoying and difficult to put up with, but otherwise the happier, more well-adjusted man. With it in, we have the suggestion that Brydon covets something of Coogan’s life (he goes after his friend’s assistant, after all. And after watching him similarly seduce women with a fair amount of ease) and reveals a level of desperation in his near-constant impressions (still hinted at in the scene with Coogan’s parents, but never so clear as it is here). As with In the Loop’s Toby, again we have in the film adaptation at least one character we don’t have trouble liking, someone we can connect to.
Film Adaptation vs. TV Adaptation
Still, these are very, very small changes and there’s no doubt in watching these adaptations that the spirit of the shows on which they’re based, their artistic integrity is intact.
If we maintain the basic idea that UK shows can almost never simply be re-aired here unless on say…BBC America–which, while not necessarily something I personally agree with certainly makes sense from a business standpoint–with these two as examples, there’s a pretty good argument to be made for film adaptations over making an Americanized version (from an artistic standpoint, at least). Films, especially independent films which both of these technically are, don’t necessarily expect universal appeal to be considered successes. Which, in these cases, means less drastic alterations. There’s less of a demand for characters to be competent and likable to be appealing to an American audience because these things don’t have to worry about fighting for ratings for years on end. I personally saw both of these films in the theater before I’d watched either of the respective series they were based on. So if nothing else, it’s an effective way of drumming up interest amongst niche groups in America. Now if only there was a legal way to watch either of these series in this country.