Thursday, 31 August 2017

Adaptation: The Dukes of Hazzard

The A-word.
It's the bane of cinephiles, everywhere.

That book you love; the comic you remember; the show you used to watch; the game you lost an entire summer playing? Oh, someone's adapted it and it's getting made into a movie! Whether a cause for pre-emptive celebration or foreboding caution, it leads to only one thing: expectation. And expectation is the death of the 'clean' movie-viewing experience; no matter how closely the film sticks to its source material, or how much it tries to distance itself, it will be faced with the hurdle of comparison.

And while the movie industry loves the pre-built marketing buzz of 'now a major motion picture!', they loathe the comparative references which will be made from the first review onwards. Because many punters will expect to get exactly the same reaction from a completely different medium, to a story they already know. And therein lies the problem.

In this monthly series, we'll look back at some of the most respected and best-loved properties which have made the perilous journey to the big screen; often with some controversy, and almost always with far too much hype. This isn't so much a review of the films themselves, more an appraisal of their suitability as an adaptation.

The Dukes Of Hazzard
The Dukes Of Hazzard
CBS / Warner Bros. (1979-1985)

Yes, that's right. I did wait until August of 2017 before starting to watch a TV series where the protagonists boast criminal records and drive around in a car named "General Lee", with a Confederate flag painted across the roof. I call it 'inappropriate synchronicity'.

Anyway, the TV-leg of Adaptation moves from the 60s to the 70s (just), with Warner TV's The Dukes Of Hazzard, a fondly-remembered favourite of many which was aired on BBC1 in the UK*1. That said, I should add at this early juncture that I don't recall watching it much in my youth (although I must have seen 'some' as can't have absorbed all my structural familiarity with the show by cultural osmosis alone, surely?). I remember it being 'a thing' with my contemporaries, but rarely to the point where it would be a subject for playground-reenactment. So what better a subject to take in properly for the first time, to contrast and compare…

The setup revolves around cousins Bo and Luke Duke, 'fighting the system' with their whiskey-bootlegging uncle Jesse and waitressing cousin, Daisy. This brings them into regular lighthearted opposition with the bent Hazzard County Sheriff Rosco Coltrane and even more corrupt County Commissioner, Boss Hogg. The boys get into scrapes every week, invariably resulting in a car-chase by the 30-minute mark featuring a ramp-jump, a miraculously intact front-axle and a subsequent fond lecture from Uncle Jesse. Daisy is The Girl One who wears hotpants.

So yeah, short version: The Dukes Of Hazzard is distracting fun, but I have no idea why it enjoyed the longevity or legacy it did. The main hurdle the show can't quite clear is the uninspired writing, leading to a transparently formulaic format, even for a Saturday-teatime*2 staple. As the main focus, the Duke family themselves are amiable enough, but much like The Avengers, Hazzard wasn't really meant to be watched in any kind of concentrated succession.

After that is the propensity for light slapstick and comedic gurning carried out by the authority figures in the shape of Hogg, Coltrane and eventually deputy Enos Strate*3. In short order, the bumbling law-enforcers cease being any kind of nemesis to the Duke cousins, and just turn into recurring comic foils. Fine for a half-hour sitcom perhaps, not so much for an already-baggy 50 minute lighthearted action series. While Hazzard was introduced to screens before the likes of more dynamic fare such as Knight Rider and The A-Team, it was still a contemporary of Charlie's Angels and CHiPs. Even back in the day, I struggle to see how this could compete; yet at 147 episodes, compete it did.

It isn't really fair to judge that entire canon based on the first season of course, when Warner were still hammering out the details, but I think I've got a pretty solid handle on the Duke boys. And after thirteen hours of southern drawl, plaid shirts and dryly laconic narration, I'm now itching to work my way through My Name Is Earl again…

For a programme whose USP was essentially an orange Dodge Charger with a Dixie air-horn and a 'Yeea-hooo!' sound-sample*4, The Dukes Of Hazzard did very well for itself. Whether it still holds up in the 21st century is a different matter, of course, which is why you'd want the film-version to be bringing something new to the mix, right..?

The Dukes Of Hazzard
The Dukes Of Hazzard
Jay Chandrasekhar (2005)

And so it came to pass that Warner Bros did so well with the 2004 movie redux of Starsky & Hutch that the next natural step was, of course, to keep S&H co-writer John O'Brien onboard and mine other TV back-catalogues for buddy-com mileage*5. The result of all this cashing-in is that Comedy™ is the main thrust of the 2005 cinematic adaptation of The Dukes Of Hazzard. And who better to lead the charge than Seann William Scott (the wildcard of the hitherto successful American Pie flicks), and Johnny Knoxville (the posterboy of the then-burgeoning Jackass) as Bo and Luke respectively?

And the modus operandi of both their previous series is very much evident in the big-screen reboot. The UK's 15-rating (PG-13 in the US) means that not only can the brawl-scenes and lewd humour be ramped up, they arguably become one of the main supporting pillars of a 103-minute punctuated car-chase. Country-royalty Willie Nelson stars as Uncle Jesse, and is fawned upon by pretty much the entire cast, while woman-of-the-moment Jessica Simpson dons the mantle of Daisy Duke*6. Unusually for this sort of thing, there are no gratuitous cameos by the original stars. In fact the closest we get to cast-reprisal is probably M.C. Gainey playing Rosco Coltrane, who appeared in a Season 4 episode of the TV run.

As a mid-noughties studio action/comedy, this is not remarkable in any way, but as an adaptation it's surprisingly workable*7. I can see why the old-school fanbase could absolutely detest Chandrasekhar's reboot, but as tonally ramped as the movie is, it's clearly been made with a core love of the series at a writing-level, at least. O'Brien and Jonathan Davis understand which aspects of the original can be amplified and which need to be pointed out with a raised eyebrow (the Confederate flag on the roof of the General Lee being a prime example).

The cinematic Dukes Of Hazzard isn't as bad as I'd feared, even if it's not quite as good as I'd hoped.

Although might I suggest that if Georgia's finest are ever resurrected again, the property piggybacks on another successful franchise? Dead Hazzard has a nice ring to it...

To Atlanta! Where adventure lies…

Is the original thing any good, though?
It's alright. Good in places, repetitive in others..

Is the film-version any good, though?
It's alright. Good in places, mechanical in others..

So, should I check out one, both or neither?
Both; they make an interesting counterpoint to one another.

Oh, is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not in the TV episodes I watched, and I didn't hear one in the film either.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
For the TV version...
Level 1: The show once featured the voice of Savage Opress. I mean, that's it, but it still counts.

For the film version…

Level 2: The movie stars Jessica Simpson, who appeared in a 2003 episode of The Twlight Zone called 'The Collection' alongside Forest 'Saw Gerrera' Whitaker.

*1 The Dukes Of Hazzard only narrowly squeaks into the Adaptation bracket, fact-fans, as it is itself a loose reworking of the 1975 film Moonrunners. However, two reasons led to its inclusion here: 1) From a cultural perspective, Dukes is remembered by and large as its own thing, and 2 By the time I found out about Moonrunners, I'd already bought the DVDs. So, fuck it. [ BACK ]

*2 Of course, I 'remember' this being Saturday-teatime and family-friendly, which is what it eventually became. It first aired in the 9pm slot, though, which perhaps explains why the pilot episode has references to cousins marrying and uses an inflatable sex-doll as a prop for Daisy Duke's jailbreak, while the second episode sees the Dukes using an RV full of hookers as a distraction-tactic... [ BACK ]

*3 A largely unnecessary character who went on to get his own 18 episode spin-off series, no less... [ BACK ]

*4 The exact recording of which is used roughly twice per episode, not including the one in the opening titles… [ BACK ]

*5 A general practice which has sporadically continued until this year of course, when I sincerely hope that the celluloid-pile-ups that were Baywatch and CHiPs have now driven the final rusty nail into the coffin of this lazy commissioning process... [ BACK ]

*6 And with the best will in the world, the Dollar-Mall Britney Spears is as 'theatrically challenged' as Catherine Bach was, so that sort of works at least [ BACK ]

*7 Even if this film did spawn an unwarranted and less than stellar origins-entry[ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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