Cobra-Kai – Lessons in Turning a Movie into a Great TV Series

DISCLAIMER – Except for the scene of Mr. Miyagi catching a fly with his chopsticks and the immortal “Wax On, Wax Off” I never thought Karate Kid was a movie worth revisiting.

The original movie of 1984 turned into a franchise of Karate Kid 2 (1986) & Karate Kid 3 (1989) and a remake in 2010 was not a proof it was worth reconsidering my verdict.

However, the last few months I kept hearing about how Cobra Kai is such a great series on Netflix while Netflix kept popping it up as a suggestion for me.

I decided to give it a chance. Boy, was I in for a surprise! I binged on all four seasons in a week!!!

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to capitalize on a film’s big-screen popularity with a TV adaptation, and the television graveyard is overrun with the failed tries (My Big Fat Greek FamilyFerris Bueller, and Serpico comprise the entryway to a massive cemetery).

It’s rare for a TV show based on a movie to become a hit. But it has happened. In fact, film-to-TV adaptations aren’t just successful, they’re arguably iconic: M*A*S*H & Buffy the Vampire Slayer are good examples of it and today Cobra Kai joins this club.

Pulling off a successful film to television adaptation is a tricky business. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and M*A*S*H*” are stellar examples of TV adaptations because they expanded and elevated their film origins.

The question we need to ask ourselves as writers is … what do you need in order to turn a successful movie into a greater successful TV show? What did these successful shows have in common?

When you look at IMD rating the first Karate Kid scores 7.3 all the others scored less, while Cobra Kai scores 8.6. I’m not saying IMD is an ultimate benchmark for evaluating quality of a movie or show, but it’s a good one. It proves Cobra Kai outperforms the original movies.

Let’s see what we can learn from this example.

Lesson #1 – Keep the Same Talents – For starters, in each of the successful TV show adaptations they kept the creative talents from the movie involved in the TV show. Whether it would be the writers like Joss Whedon in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or following the same characters depicted in the movie like in M*A*S*H or even using the film’s theme song “Suicide is Painless” as its iconic title credits.

In Cobra Kai they took it one step further by using the same actors that portrayed those characters many years way back.

Main Lesson- Create continuity to the original material, which would lead to immediate connection.

Lesson #2 – Challenge Expectations – surprise your audience. Make the show unlike anything they’ve seen or expected it to be. 

M*A*S*H  tackled the dark humor of war in a way no other series had, all while bringing to the mainstream one of the most honest depictions of wartime’s tragic realities—ushering what’s become the popular “dramedy” genre.

Buffy‘s unique melding of camp, horror, action, comedy, and heartbreaking teenage drama set it in a class of its own when it premiered.

Cobra Kai in its way revisits the rivalry between Danny and Johnny (with Zabka and Macchio reprising their roles), but smartly subverts viewers’ expectations by telling the story from Johnny’s point of view. It’s not anymore a teen movie but resonates with older audience as it tells the story of how unpredictable life can be.

Main Lesson – Make sure you turn the tables on the audience expectations, whether by creating a new genre or reversing the roles of the original storyline.

Lesson #3 – Go Deeper – Following the above point, a good adaptation to TV will deal with issues that go deeper than the surface mentioning in the original movie.

In “Cobra Kai” we get to examine the effects of bullying and violence and how these traumas manifest in each of the characters.

Years later, we realize the bruises Danny and Johnny carry are more than skin deep and shape how they interact with each other and their loved ones. With Johnny, we come to understand that his mistreatment of Danny was rooted from his own low self-esteem due to neglect from his mother and emotionally abusive stepfather.

For Daniel, his lower middle-class upbringing motivated him to give his wife Amanda and their children the trappings of the upper class he never experienced as a child.

This makes the show more than only entertainment, it allows us to rethink on social issues and the effects that they have in our lives.

Main Lesson – don’t be afraid to deal with social/ethic issues on a deeper level.

Lesson #4 – Be Relevant – A good adaptation would also take in account the time period it is set into and the changes that have taken place. What “Cobra Kai” gets so right is the way women and girls are being portrayed.

While in the original movie the only role for women was the typical one of the “Love Interest” (Elizabeth Shue), in Cobra Kai women are shown in various ways.

Whether it would be the powerful role of Amanda, Daniel’s wife (Courtney Henggeler), who is running his business and is the “voice of reason” in most cases, but at the same time can be just as badass as any other Karate student. Or the conflict between Sam and Tory that shows us that violence isn’t reserved for only boys — female rage can be just as brutal and toxic.

Main Lesson – Make sure your adaptation is updated and does not freeze in time by trying to be “loyal” to the original movie.

Lesson #5 – Question the Stereotypes Cobra Kai breaks the barrier between “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys”.

Even the worst villains like John Kreese (Martin Kove) or Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) have a backstory that we are exposed to and make us understand the reasons to their actions. It’s the new type of villains whereby we hate how they operate but we still understand why they do it.

Breaking the stereotypes is even sharper in how the conflict and rivalry between Daniel and Johnny is presented.

Each trying to defend their philosophy of their Karate styles. Both appear as inflexible and rigid to the point of hurting the people they love and even themselves, which leaves us, as an audience, wondering who is the “Good Guy” and who is the “Bad Guy”. That makes it into a much more interesting show to watch than a clear-cut decision on those issues.

Main Lesson – Find how you can break some stereotypes and discover new ways of presenting characters and issues.

Do you agree with my observation? What other points would you add to making a TV show better than an original successful movie?

Would love to get your input in the comment box below.

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