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Review: Syfy’s 12 Monkeys

Terry Gilliam is famous for his bizarre, fractal, mysterious approach to filmmaking, whether he’s adapting from texts like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or developing original content. No matter what the setting and characters, his work is always readily identifiable by a whiff of strangeness, an unsettling feeling that appears within moments of the opening titles; even his work on Monty Python is surrealist. Many of his films plunge deep into dystopia and terrifying visions of the future, including the interlinked Brazil and the star-studded 12 Monkeys, which also happen to be among his best.

Next week, we’ll be seeing the opener of SyFy’s adaptation of 12 Monkeys, airing some 20 years after the original film’s appearance. It’s very much an adaptation, and judging on teaser footage released by the network, this is not faithful and exact replication, but rather a show ‘inspired by’ Gilliam’s masterwork. In this instance, it might be reasonable to start asking some probing questions about why the network felt the need to mess with a good thing.

2014 and 2015 have been an interesting time for television. Adaptations like Game of Thrones and Hannibal are performing extremely well, and, notably, both programmes are characterised by violence, achingly beautiful settings, fascinating character development, and strangely changing character sympathies. In the worlds of these programmes, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between good and bad, with lines constantly blurring and characters existing in the massive grey areas that infect the real world in general.

The same is true of Gilliams’ original film, where James Cole, a time traveler sent both forward and back to save the future from the aftermath of World War Three, ultimately finds himself facing his own fate as his timelines collide. Within the context of the film, Cole’s mental state, the entire validity of the setup, and his experience, are a mystery. Is this really happening? Are we missing something? Is Cole experiencing this at all? The same sort of dubious reality holds forth in Brazil, which is not just utterly impossible to pin down, but also deeply undecided when it comes to the line between fantasy and the real world.

That unanchored sense is what works so well for 12 Monkeys on film — itself adapted from an experimental French short. But what about the TV adaptation? SyFy isn’t exactly known for stellar production values, emotional complexity, and elegance, all of which are critically necessary for a successful 12 Monkeys adaptation, if the film should even be adapted at all. What works on the big screen may not necessarily translate onto the small one, whether or not the network departs radically from much of the story. It looks like the network may be keeping little of the plot beyond ‘time travel,’ and that might be a good decision, or a terrible one — in either case, it’s not entirely fair to call it a faithful adaptation of a beloved film.

Perhaps that’s partly the point, with the producers promising a ‘complete reimagining,’ but if that’s the case, perhaps it shouldn’t have been adapted in the first place. There are numerous original takes on the subject that the network could have used as the grounding point for a fascinating and dynamic series that didn’t wrap itself in the mantle of a cult favourite from the 1990s; instead, this feels like a naked grab for attention from viewers interested in tuning in to see how things out, profiteering from the original film’s reputation.

Moreover, speaking of profiteering, the network is offering a gimmicky tie-in that allows viewers to sync the pilot episode with their home lighting systems to allow the show to control their lighting. If that sounds bizarre and dystopian, that’s partly the point — what better a way to underscore the strange world of 12 Monkeys than to cede control over one of the most basic of things to a third party? But it’s also a fantastic bit of press chicanery, benefiting SyFy and Philips’ Hue System alike.

With any adaptation, it’s crucial to ask whether a text should be adapted at all. In this case, a pretty compelling argument would be necessary to articulate an excuse for picking 12 Monkeys to slaughter on TV, rather than moving on to a more appropriate piece of media or writing original content. What works so well in the film won’t necessarily translate well, as the film has a deeply fractured, splintering timeline but it functions within the tight, clean lines of a movie with a clear beginning and an end, and a limited amount of time to work within. With the extended luxury of a US television season, or series, 12 Monkeys could rapidly spiral out of control, spawning endless confusing storylines, unnecessary filler, and frustratingly fleeting temporary characters.

While the series promises to plunge viewers directly into the time travel aspect and let them focus on immersing themselves in the world first and learning the details later, which is a valid approach to get people hooked and one that avoids tedious and dull exposition, it might backfire. Audiences who haven’t seen the original film may wind up deeply confused and frustrated, while those who have might be irritated with the almost immediate departure from familiarity. The adaptation may be especially jarring for critics and commentators who have spent the last two decades exploring and talking about 12 Monkeys within the context of media, society, and the production of thoughtful and stimulating science fiction.

Sometimes it’s best to let sleeping monkeys lie rather than to attempt a bold resurrection that may fail both as an adaptation and as a standalone television series. 12 Monkeys is counting on its gritty presentation and more simplistic approach to hit the sweet spot of US television, but it may end putting people off — especially those who are growing tired of grim television programming along with endless retooling of old content. Thanks to Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Twin Peaks, and more, we’ve already got quite enough to be getting along with in the world of television adaptations.