“The Simpsons” did it. So did “Sex and the City” — twice. And “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” are about to. Though we may be living in a golden age of television, the small screen isn’t a large enough canvas for some showrunners. IMDb.com is littered with beloved TV shows that made the leap to the big screen, some more valiantly than others. While it’s a tactic that has paid off for plenty of properties, for every hit Muppet or “Star Trek” movie, there’s also a “Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.”
This weekend you can add “Downton Abbey” to the ever-growing list of TV series that have tried to make their mark on the box office, as the creator Julian Fellowes has raised the stakes — and the costume budget — on his lavish series.
Picking up in 1927, just one year after the original series left off, the movie finds the Crawley household frantically preparing for a visit from King George and Queen Mary. They’re the kind of houseguests that only a show like “Downton Abbey” could get away with — and part of Fellowes’s and the producer Gareth Neame’s plan to go bigger, which is just one of the lessons they learned about how to turn a series into a film.
Takeaway 1: Play to the show’s strengths
Being given a chance to revisit a thought-to-be-completed project could tempt any writer to dig up a long-abandoned story line or to perfect something they wish they’d changed in the first place. For Fellowes, however, focusing the script on what viewers would want to see was the guiding principle. He said he set out to decide “what the audience would have missed about the series.”
To Neame, the stakes had to be the absolute highest of the characters’ lives, and a visit by the king and queen “would be the biggest honor paid to both the family but also the servants there.” That would also mean “lots of set pieces that played to our usual strengths — whether those were balls or lavish dinners or parades, the multiple changes of costumes, all of that kind of stuff — but on a bigger and more glamorous scale than ever.”
Fans of the original series were probably most interested in seeing all of their favorite characters together again, which, considering the size of the cast, was a substantial challenge. “That’s what we managed to succeed in doing,” Neame said, “but that was working up until the eleventh hour.”
Takeaway 2: Keep the spirit of the series — then build on it
The Crawleys in New York? Never! While TV shows and movies have long relied on the old transport-these-characters-to-a-new-setting trick, Highclere Castle — the estate that plays the role of Downton Abbey — is arguably the show’s most towering figure.
“Downton itself is one of the main characters in the show,” Fellowes said. “Sometimes when they do a film of a series, they will go to Honolulu or something. I didn’t think that was available for us as an option.”
“It’s got to be a little splashier, but at the same time, it needs to stick to the spirit of the original,” he added.
A larger budget allowed for audiences to see much more of Highclere Castle than they had in the past, with sweeping, wide-screen views from a variety of angles. “Certainly these great rooms — the library, the great hall, the staircase — seemed kind of bigger, better and bolder,” Fellowes said.
While new is good, different is not. “You want to make it so that it is recognizable and enjoyable and familiar to the fans,” Fellowes said. “You don’t want them to go in and find something completely alien, pretending to be a movie version of their show when it isn’t at all. But at the same time, you want to try and give them a dimension that they haven’t really had on television so that it was worth getting the car out and going down to see the film. So in a sense those are quite contradictory in a way, those two goals, and you somehow have to synthesize them.”
Takeaway 3: You can’t bring every character back
Given the grand scope of “Downton Abbey” and its enormous cast, one could be forgiven for wanting to cram in a few seconds of screen time for the dozens of characters fans have come to love over the years, but that’s not realistic — which is why you won’t see Rose (the Dowager Countess’s great-niece, played by Lily James) or Rosamund (the Earl of Grantham’s sister, played by Samantha Bond).
“I just felt that I had reached the limit of how many characters I could find a story for,” Fellowes said, adding that he was partly guided by Neame and that they knew there wasn’t time to go to the Dower House, home to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and her bickering servants Spratt and Denker. “I regret that, and if we ever go back again, who knows?”
Takeaway 4: Timing can be tricky
The “Downton Abbey” finale ran in Britain on Christmas Day 2015, and American audiences got their last peek at the show’s “Upstairs, Downstairs”-like antics a few months later — which means it’s been over three years since we last traveled to the abbey. “If you leave it much too long then people have got out of the habit of it, and I think it’s more difficult to get them to take an interest,” Fellowes said.
But when it came to the story, Neame said, the filmmakers wanted to feel that time had changed the family a bit. “You come back and the other children are older and life is moving on,” he explained. “So it wasn’t just static, but not too far advanced or unrecognizable from where we left off.”
For Fellowes, leaving too much time between the series’ end and the movie’s premiere could be risky. “If you start making a five-year gap, then you’ve got a lot of explaining to do,” he said, adding that “fans of the show don’t really need any back-story explanation because the back story is what they watched in the series.”
Takeaway 5: Remember the fans — and the newcomers
But what about those who don’t know the show? It was important to Fellowes and Neame that even people who had never seen an episode could understand the movie.
“What I’ve tried to do is to make sure that there is no missing back story that affects your ability to follow the film,” Fellowes says. “Something like Sybil’s death is referred to, but really all the viewers have to know is that Branson was once married and is now widowed. They don’t need the story of his marriage, but they need to know he’s a widower, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Whether all these lessons result in a box office success remains to be seen. But the film is open-ended enough that it’s practically begging for a sequel. Neame said if the movie worked commercially, “I can’t see any reason why it couldn’t continue.”