There’s a time-honored tradition of turning celebrated movies into television series. A lot of them have ended up as sitcoms: “The Odd Couple,” “M*A*S*H,” “Alice” (spun out of Martin Scorsese’s 1974 landmark “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”). But not all of them. Did you know that “Casablanca” was turned into two different TV series, one in 1955 and one in 1983? (The latter starred David Soul as Rick Blaine!) In 1976, they tried it with “Serpico.” Sometimes, a series can seem a true extension of the movie it’s adapted from — that’s what happened with “Fargo” and “Dear White People.” Sometimes, the movie that spawned a series will come to seem a mere footnote to the show — that’s what happened with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Friday Night Lights.” And in the case of “Parenthood” (though it took two tries to get it right), a movie can be turned into an ideal show because it was always TV at heart.
But even given the vast history of movies-into-television, the announcement last week that “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s deliriously ambitious, wildly acclaimed, staggeringly popular South Korean sociological thriller, may now be converted into a limited series for HBO, with Bong and Adam McKay in talks to team up as executive producers, has to count as a total eyebrow-raiser. And part of what’s eyebrow-raising about it is that the news didn’t raise more eyebrows. It barely raised a shrug.
One of the headiest, most lavishly praised foreign-language films of its era remade, just like that, into a miniseries. (And we don’t even know yet how it will fare at the Oscars!) “Parasite,” as a movie, has only begun to carve out its place in the culture, yet the idea that its story, its substance, its themes, its metaphors, its very form is already an utterly malleable thing is a very 21st-century concept. There’s a refreshing lack of pretension to the idea. This isn’t about Bong Joon Ho sweating whether his film gets etched onto a monument of canonical reverence. It’s about Bong, even at the moment he’s being saluted around the world as a newly preeminent maestro, stepping off the pedestal and going with the media flow.
Given the rarefied atmosphere of prestige that a film like “Parasite” occupies (the Palme d’Or at Cannes; the rave reviews, top spots on 10 Best lists, and bevy of year-end critics’-group awards; the Golden Globes kudo; the slew of Oscar nominations that will surely greet it tomorrow morning; the rising number of people who think that it has a genuine shot to win best picture), it’s hard to consider the potential HBO version of “Parasite” without cracking a few obligatory dislocating jokes.
As in…what’s next? A 12-chapter Netflix soap opera entitled “Roma: Another Year,” which traces the further adventures of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and the Mexico City family she works for, though Cleo herself utters only three lines of dialogue per episode? “Life Is Beautiful…Everywhere,” in which Robert Benigni stars as a rotating series of international bumpkins, each one imprisoned by the forces of his homeland (Bosnia, Iran, Brazil, China), and by the end of each episode you’ll be smiling through your tears of political outrage? Or how about “Two Days, One Night: Marxist Apprentice,” in which the Dardenne brothers adapt their celebrated 2014 drama into a highly austere reality series, where contestants have just 36 hours to bring social justice to their workplaces?
Okay, I’ll stop. But the point is: How often has a film as singular and as deadly serious as “Parasite” been wedged into the small screen? All but never, if you consider that a sitcom like “M*A*S*H” didn’t pretend to be the subversive comic hand grenade that Robert Altman’s movie was (Altman, aghast at the idea, claimed to have never watched the show). That said, there’s a galaxy of difference between a network series and an HBO miniseries, which really can feel like a movie. I assume that an HBO version of “Parasite,” though the details of the series have yet to be released or even nailed down, would tell the same essential story the movie tells, probably now set in an American city (San Francisco? Boston? Portland?), and would expand and enrich the narrative.
If I shared the opinion of many of my critical colleagues that “Parasite” is, quite simply, the movie of the year, then I’d probably, on a basic level, object to this project. After all, why mess with perfection? But I’m personally attracted to the prospect of an HBO “Parasite” precisely because I thought the film was good rather than great. I had an issue with it, one that many viewers I’ve spoken to share. The first half, in which the members of the down-and-out Kim family in Seoul infiltrate the much wealthier home of the Park family, pretending to be tutors and servants, all so that they can revel in the luxury of living in that posh enclave, is devious Hitchcockian bliss. It’s a suspense tale that’s also a highly sensualized parable of vengeful class envy.
But as I watch “Parasite,” I’m disappointed, on some primal childlike level, when the ingenious deception the Kim family has orchestrated begins to fall apart. It happens too quickly; I want it to go on! As soon as the film moves into that basement bunker, where the Parks’ former housekeeper’s husband lives, I feel like the movie’s dirty joy starts to seep out of it. It becomes what it probably, in a sense, always was — a dark didactic illustration of the competing rage of the haves and the have-nots. In the HBO version, Bong, I suspect, will have greater freedom to revel in the sheer playacting fantasy that gives “Parasite” its charge. I could definitely use another hour or two of that.
The best description I’ve read of “Parasite” comes from the director Paul Schrader, who in a Facebook post said that the movie starts off as Buñuel and ends up as Tarantino (weapons, blood, life gone gonzo). Maybe that’s the trend this year. (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” starts as Tarantino and ends as Herschell Gordon Lewis.) And maybe an HBO “Parasite” would just be a more padded, less essential cover version of the same thing. In our binge-watching era, when too many people glibly sanctify the “superiority” of series television, I always say: There isn’t a single great movie of the last 100 years that needed to be a minute longer. So why make “Parasite” several hours longer? Because, just maybe, it’s an experiment that can poke at the possibilities of the new synergy of movies and television. And can do something gripping with them. And can demonstrate that what we once thought of as a “foreign film” may not be a foreign film at all. The tagline for the new “Parasite” could almost be: It’s not cinema. It’s HBO.