It feels almost like a prerequisite to get that out of the way before diving into why there should be. The comic strip’s creator Bill Watterson is notoriously against the licensing of his characters in any way, shape or form; he has even engaged in lengthy battles to keep it from happening. Those decals you’ve probably seen of Calvin peeing on things? Not licensed. If Watterson feels as though a t-shirt or a wall calendar cheapens the value of his work, we can only imagine the disdain that he may have for someone wanting to adapt the work of his strip into another medium.
As a matter of fact, one of the reasons Watterson’s work is considered so iconic is how it revolutionized the original medium, let alone moving into something else. Gone were the straight comic panels, and in their place where split-screens, large balloons, and landscapes as large as could fit in a newspaper’s funny pages. So much of what he accomplished simply would not work in other forms; it is hard to be so stunningly visual using just the written word, and there is too much continuity in the story to be a portrait. It was too brief for a comic book, and too active to be hung on a wall in a museum.
Many years ago (specifically in the early 1990s) when the strip was at its peak, it was easy to sit around and envision what a movie based on it would be. For almost any person, young or old, it is so easy to live vicariously through the eyes of Calvin. Despite daydreaming regularly during school he has the knowledge of a great scholar, and still the imagination of a child yet to be jaded by the outside world. There is love in his heart, though sometimes he chooses to hide that by pretending to stomp metaphorically on hearts before eating him. (There was never such a visual of this in the strip, and yet we can picture it with Calvin as some sort of brutal warrior battling monstrous captors.) Calvin is a uniting figure, and someone that the movie industry would desperately need in an era of splintering off.
Herein lies the problem: A film would be almost destined to become one of those comic-strip adaptations that never worked. Think back to the “Garfield” movies and remember that black spot that is on Bill Murray’s resume. You are asking too much to throw Calvin, Hobbes, Susie Derkins, and some other recurring comic characters into a 90-minute story and expect it to feel somewhat similar to what you love. The joy of a comic comes in the small courses, and not in having a Porterhouse steak set in front of you with the expectation that you have to eat it all before you can leave. At first the taste is there, but an hour in and you’re ready to vomit.
Back in those glory days of the ’90s, television was an afterthought, and even less of a possibility than the non-possibility of a feature film. Now? Let’s just say that in the event a project was being pitched, Spaceman Spiff may be able to make the TV ship fly.
TV enters the transmogrifer
The problem with adapting “Calvin & Hobbes” decades ago to television, aside of course from Watterson’s very-clear wishes that no one touch his work, is that there was no way to properly execute it. When you think about a Sunday morning cartoon starring a young child and stuffed tiger, the initial impulse is something along the lines of “oh, it must be for kids.” It’s not. It’s really not for anyone per se other than people who want to laugh, to reminisce, to relate, or to feel a sense of adventure. Maybe as a six-year old boy it would make you want to be a superhero in Stupendous Man, but as an adult it would help you to remember those days. It’s not overly cutesy or moralistic, and if you go back and revisit it after several years, you will be in awe of all the references you missed the last time you read it.
To relegate the show to the spot of a Saturday-morning cartoon,which was probably the only reality for it 20 years ago, would be a disservice, and other than a certain show in “The Simpsons” and a few others here and there, the idea of an adult cartoon had not quite caught fire in that time. Adults were not ready to see an anthropomorphized tiger in their primetime lineup.
Has the climate since changed? Look at Adult Swim, Pixar finding ways to cater to older audiences in feature films, or Fox expanding Animation Domination. Adults are willing to now accept that cartoons are not just for children, but they can be art in their own right. There’s no way to effectively do “Calvin & Hobbes” as anything other than a cartoon. A live-action / CGI tiger hybrid sounds like a terrible Scooby-Doo nightmare, and it feels impossible to capture Calvin’s wisdom and enthusiasm in one child. Also, he never ages. He’s the Bart Simpson of the Sunday funnies.
Thanks to innovation and a public recognition that television is not entertainment’s second fiddle to movies anymore, we now have a medium that is far more accepting of what a true adaptation could look like, one that could tell 22-30 minute stories or even two 10-12 minute vignettes placed into a single half-hour.
With this realization, it’s all about finding it the right home.
It’s a magical world on Netflix
There are two shows over the past year that have generated some memories of “Calvin & Hobbes,” and what a TV series on it could look like: FXX’s “Man Seeking Woman” and Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.” One plays around with perception versus reality, and the other takes anthropomorphism to another level. The two are far more crude than Watterson’s work would ever be, but we do feel that the two often speak simple truths about love, identity, or trying to understand one’s place in the world that are in the same language. Sure, Calvin battling monsters or a snowman army of his own creation are funny, but some of the more memorable strips features him dealing with issues like death or the destruction of the planet. Comics, at least before this one, were the one part of the newspaper that were safe from tears.
If we ever had to pick a home that would honor the source material and produce the spirit of Calvin and company, it would be Netflix. They are to television viewing what the original strip was to newspapers; it changes the form. There are no regulations on the streaming service in terms of how long a story could be, what it could look like, how it is released, or what the content could be. The slate is clean for creators to actually create.
In terms of filling a hole in the market, there is a logistic advantage given that while there are some Netflix exclusives that cater to children, they are still working on nailing down that property that adults can enjoy unironically, with or without kids around. They may be going there with “Fuller House,” but is seeing Uncle Jesse once more really going to stimulate any imagination? While it may be on Netflix, it is a part of a genre that clings to form like, to use another comic-strip reference, Linus and his blanket.
Envision this for a minute: A product where, within the span of a few minutes, you go from an intense battle in outer space to Calvin, staring out into a blank field of freshly-fallen snow while preparing to go exploring. It could happen. This is the sort of risk-taking that has brought Netflix into household-name territory; we saw it with “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black,” and even giving “Daredevil” another chance after a failed film and turning it into a product that everyone wants to watch. Why not gamble on a stuffed tiger?
The elephant (or the monster) in the room
Is it wrong to sit here and wonder what a “Calvin & Hobbes” TV show could be, given that there is so little chance that someone of Watterson’s conviction would sign on for it? It’s possible, but it cannot be any more clear that unless he signs his name on the dotted line, it should never happen. After spending so much time being enraged over bootlegging and the actual attempts at tarnishing the brand out there, it would be completely hypocritical to advocate for a TV series that would make him feel a similar way.
The desire to see this happen comes out of a pure place of love. It comes from spending years laughing and being moved by a brilliant comic strip, one that feels as though it left so much more to tell. It is a human impulse to want more of a great thing, even if you worry that it will never live up to the hype.
Thankfully, we never have to worry about hype or expectation here. As mentioned, there will never be a “Calvin & Hobbes” TV show. What there will always be, though, is imagination, adventure, and monsters hiding underneath Calvin’s bed. These things are out there today in strips that were never written, but conceived in millions of minds.
For loyalists, these dreams and mind-comics will have to be enough.
CarterMatt Extended is a feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night. If you want to sign up for news sent to you every week, you can do so on our Newsletter page.