When it comes to Hollywood’s habit of adapting television series into movies, perhaps the hardest thing as a fan is when a series you loved is adapted by a completely different creative team. Even if they are competent filmmakers, there’s a difference between making a good film and making a good film of a beloved franchise. Director Peter Segal and writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember never worked on the television series Get Smart; this is fairly normal for adaptations. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. But while some good adaptations of television series have come about this way, a great many more bad ones have come about.
I am a longtime fan of the original 1965-1970 series starring Don Adams. I discovered it on reruns on Nick-at-Nite when I was a child, and it became regular viewing for me. It was funny, sharp, and adventurous. I watched it with the same devotion as Saturday morning cartoons. I remember being asked in sixth grade what my favorite television show was, and replying “Get Smart“. I don’t remember if the teacher was surprised, but I do remember other kids not knowing what it was — understandably. I did get a few to start watching it.
So I was concerned about the idea of Steve Carell stepping into Don Adams’ telephonic shoes. It’s something that would be very easy to handle the wrong way. But, having recently tracked down and watched the last remnant of the old series that I hadn’t previously found — the 1989 TV movie Get Smart, Again! — I decided it was time to finally give Carell’s version a chance.
After all, I gave the Andy Dick series a chance, and it couldn’t possibly be worse than that. And probably wouldn’t be a lot worse than the spin-off novel.
Would you believe… it’s sort of OK?
The tough thing for a longtime fan to realize about this film isn’t the obvious part about it not being the original Get Smart. It’s that it’s not entirely trying to be. It’s arguably a good thing that it tries to be different, but it does mean that some of the character portrayals feel like almost entirely different roles. Only a few of the characters from the series are translated more-or-less the same into the film. The Chief — here played by Alan Arkin — is still a gruff-but-kindhearted leader who likes Max but finds him exasperating at the same time. Terence Stamp provides his usual skill depicting KAOS agent Siegfried, who differs only in accent from his original portrayal. Stamp always makes a good villain, and it’s no exception here — although, as Bernie Kopell has an instantly recognizable cameo, I can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t go with the original Siegfried. It’s not like Stamp is significantly younger than Kopell. Also in cameo is Bill Murray as Agent 13, whose lonely vigil inside a tree is arguably the most series-accurate performance in the entire film.
Well, really, who would you get to play the part?
With other characters there are some significant changes, however. Sometimes this comes in the form of wholly new characters. Dwayne Johnson plays CONTROL hotshot Agent 23, who virtually everybody in the agency idolizes. Masi Oka and Nate Torrence play a pair of nerdy CONTROL scientists, who are bullied by some of the agents, including Larabee (David Koechner); while Larabee was dimwitted in the original series (to the point that Max used him as an example of who the Chief would have to work with if Max was taken off a case), he was never mean-spirited. Here he’s possibly still dimwitted, but his defining characteristic is that he’s a jerk. Similarly, the ever-nameless Agent 99 gets a new frosty demeanor. Anne Hathaway certainly has the right look for the hypercompetent spy, and the acting chops as well, but after years of seeing 99 roll her eyes affectionately over Max’s bumbling, it’s a bit jarring to see her call him out for inexperience and ineptitude. She does warm up eventually, of course. Even Hymie, present in a cameo, is now smug instead of robotically bewildered.
But the biggest change of all is in Maxwell Smart himself. In the series, Max was a socially sophisticated man but just a bit off-kilter in the thinking department; not necessarily stupid, but generally a step behind his foes. He had that special brand of ineptitude where he would competently carry out his actions until the exact worst possible moment to screw up. He was also a veteran of the agency, used to being hand-picked for missions from the very beginning of the series. Steve Carell’s version is a complete inversion in almost every way. He’s a book-smart clerk who isn’t streetwise and who until recently was morbidly obese and unfit for agent training. The film puts him in his first assignment, hence 99’s reluctance to partner with him. He’s possessed of an uncanny attention to detail — able to recognize one minor agent by voice and recite his life history — but is socially awkward. He’s defensive about his failings, while Don Adams’ version was flatly oblivious to them. It’s as if the writers decided that, since they couldn’t have him be exactly the same as the original, they were going to make him as different as possible while still filling the same role. This comes with a few jokes that wouldn’t really have flown in the original, largely poking fun at his former weight, although there’s also a very graphic scene involving a barf bag.
One second later and I wouldn’t be able to use this picture.
Taken as a film standing alone, these changes are not a bad thing. I have no doubt whatsoever that most people of my generation or younger watching the film, being unaware of the original series, enjoyed it thoroughly. And once I realized that this was going to handle the characters differently and accepted this, I enjoyed myself as well, if not to the same extent as a newcomer to the franchise would. It tells a solid story, one that has the proper number of twists and turns for a spy spoof — and twists that make sense, at that. Carell and Hathaway have decent chemistry together, if not great. The humor in the film is mostly pretty good, although Carell lacks the clipped delivery that really sells Max’s classic catchphrases.
But he does throw them. Beyond the film’s competence on its own merits, the other thing that helped with my enjoyment of the film was that there is a sense of genuine affection for the old series. Kopell’s the only cameo — Barbara Feldon declined and the other principles have passed away — but the film was dedicated to the memories of Don Adams and Edward Platt (the original Chief). And there are a lot of shout-outs to the old series hidden throughout the film. There are references to villains Mr. Big and the Craw, and a lot of the familiar malfunctioning gadgets are trotted out, either in their original form or updated for the new generation. Even the old car gets a moment in the spotlight, and the classic theme tune is present in several scenes.
It’s a Get Smart for the new generation, but it doesn’t completely shut out the old. I may not be able to love it the way I did the series, but I can respect it. And I can see how some of the kinks might get ironed out in a sequel.