Adaptation is a magical and powerful device. At least it can be. I think a lot of fans — me included — have gotten burned by bad adaptations of their favorite written works over the years. Those bad adaptations can, I think, make us forget how powerful a good one can be.
The FX series Fargo isn’t a literary adaptation unless you count movies as literature, which I do. (At least I think film is capable of scaling the same heights as the greatest books.) Showrunner Noah Hawley’s series, which is going into its fourth season, occupies a slightly different category of adaptation for me. It’s not a direct adaptation of any one Coen brothers movie — though it draw most heavily from the settings and themes of its namesake — but rather it’s what I refer to as a “cauldron adaptation.”
Cauldron adptations draw from an existing body of work and remix a selection of its core elements into what is hopefully a new whole that successfully stands on its own. Cauldron adaptations share a lot of DNA with pastiche, but what distiguishes them (for me) is how Cauldron adaptations draw from a discrete source, as opposed to pastiche, which tend to draw from many sources. (Suggestion and correction most welcome.) NBC’s Hannibal is maybe the greatest Cauldron adaptation of all time. (I’ll likely write at length about Hannibal sooner or later.)
Fargo has, to my great satisfaction, drawn from the Coens’ entire oeuvre to great effect. Yes, it always takes place in the snowy reaches of Minnesota, and the seasons’ story engines have always run on petty crime and the many clownish incompetents who practice it.
But the showrunners have included elements from virtually every Coen brothers movie, oftentimes turning those elements on their head. One season included a botched shakedown by two heavies, a la the opening of The Big Lebowski, but instead followed the two incompetent heavies.
(Random side note, but apparently this kind of thinking drove Quentin Tarantino’s writing of Pulp Fiction. Reportedly he loves the opening of the Schwarzenegger classic Commando, which depicts a pair of hitmen going about their business. For Pulp, Tarantino chose to follow the hitmen for the remainder of their day.)
Accordiong to Hawley, Fargo season four will draw most heavily on Raising Arizona as it follows two warrning gangs, each led by Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman. The period setting reminds me most strongly of Miller’s Crossing, The eminent Chris Rock promises to make a fine addition to the Coen universe, of course, and it’s great to see Jason Schwartzman in this milieu, as well.