Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
It’s happening again. That show I like is coming back in style. I am of course referring to the cult sensation, Twin Peaks, which after twenty-five years has been revived for a third season on Showtime. But this isn’t the first time Twin Peaks was given a second chance. In 1992, just one year after the show’s cancellation, director David Lynch brought his creation to the big screen.
Showtime’s revival has been met with joyous celebration, but Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me opened to booing at the Cannes Film Festival, jeers from critics and ambivalence from audiences. Even the show’s few remaining fans didn’t seem to know what to make of the big screen version of Twin Peaks. A quarter century later, the movie, like the show, has enjoyed a critical reappraisal with many now viewing Fire Walk With Me as an under-appreciated gem. That may be true, but as an attempt to extend the life of Twin Peaks mania, it was a critical and commercial failure.
You can’t adequately discuss the movie without first talking about the show that inspired it. When Twin Peaks premiered in April of 1990, it was unlike anything else on television. We could spend some time listing all of the show’s many innovations and influences. Then entire genre of television procedurals owes a lot to Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost. But Twin Peaks‘ influence is broader. It brought a more cinematic aesthetic to the lowly medium of television. Since Twin Peaks, TV shows have become increasingly more ambitious. The creators of many of today’s most popular and respected shows are quick to cite Peaks as a direct influence.
Initially, the show exceeded all expectations. Critics hailed Twin Peaks as groundbreaking. Viewers were hooked on the series’ central mystery. They needed to know who killed prom queen Laura Palmer. More than that, the show tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist and made stars out of its young, attractive cast. After debuting as a midseason replacement, the show catapulted Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn and Madchen Amick to the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Success for Twin Peaks was short-lived. During the show’s much-hyped second season, Lynch and Frost were distracted by other projects. Fans grew impatient with story lines that felt like filler. Eventually, the network forced Lynch to give viewers what they wanted and reveal the identity of the killer. Once that happened, the show lost its hook. Cancellation followed.
But Lynch wasn’t done with the world he had created. The limitless nature of long-form storytelling was what had attracted the director to TV in the first place. He had more stories to tell. In the dark days before Netflix, that meant taking the show to the big screen. Unfortunately, the show’s weak second season soured the public on Twin Peaks. Viewers were ready to move on and so was a lot of the cast.
When it came time to make a Twin Peaks movie, Lynch found he was limited by the availability of the actors who arguably owed him their careers. Kyle MacLachlan agreed to reprise his role as Agent Dale Cooper. But fearing type-casting, he asked to reduce his participation to an extended cameo. Flynn Boyle and Fenn were no shows. But Sheryl Lee who portrayed the doomed Laura Palmer was available.
There were other ideas for a Twin Peaks movie that might have been a continuation of the series. But Lynch decided with the cast he had available, his best option was to go back to the beginning. He reasoned that if the prequel performed well at the box office, there would be opportunities to continue the story in sequels.
The show had already told the story of Laura’s demise, but not directly. We heard other characters talk about their experiences with the mysterious character. They read from her diaries or played back recordings of her voice. Laura even appeared in visions, but we never actually saw the living breathing girl. Fire Walk With Me would tell Laura’s story for the first time.
As it turns out, that’s not the story fans wanted to see. The show ended with a killer cliffhanger (several actually) in a bid to spur viewers to demand a third season. The relatively small group of fans who watched Twin Peaks to the bitter end (myself among them) wanted to see what happened next. Even among fans of the show, there wasn’t much an appetite for a prequel.
Many critics at the time considered Fire Walk With Me to be exploitative. Since the audience knew Laura’s fate, critics and fans alike questioned the value of rehashing the sordid details of a young girl’s tragic murder. Fans complained that the movie lacked the show’s quirky sense of humor. While some members of the show’s ensemble cast made appearances in the movie, most were pushed to the sidelines or cut entirely.
If you think about the movie as Laura’s story, it makes sense that characters like Shelley or the Log Lady would become bit players or that humor would take a backseat to darkness. She is a protagonist who is slowly being crushed under the weight of her family’s secrets. As is often the case where David Lynch is concerned, the Palmer’s perfect image masks something dark and ugly. Over the years since Fire Walk With Me was released, it has become a touchstone for many who suffered similar abuses in silence.
But if you’re looking to revitalize your flavor-of-the-month TV show as a series of movies, this isn’t how you do it. The movie was impenetrable to the uninitiated. Fans were put off by the movie’s dark tone and the feeling that it was rehashing a mystery they already knew well. The timing was off. Lynch, who had been celebrated at Cannes when he arrived just one year earlier with the uneven Wild at Heart, was out of style after the cancellation of Twin Peaks. And he would remain in cinematic exile until 2001 when Mulholland Drive brought the director redemption.
(Ironically, Mulholland Drive had originally been conceived as a Twin Peaks spinoff around the popular character played by Sherilyn Fenn. So, in a way, there was a second Twin Peaks movie.)
The idea of reviving Twin Peaks was floated from time to time, but it was usually shot down by Lynch himself. While Lynch spoke with affection for his creation, he still seemed to be stinging from the cold reception Fire Walk With Me received. For a long time, Twin Peaks was not available on DVD. Then slowly, you could sense Lynch thawing. He oversaw the release of the series and the movie on Bluray in 2014. That’s very out of character for Lynch who refuses to revisit his sci-fi opus Dune for a director’s cut.
Little by little, the stars came into alignment for the show’s long-awaited return. Time had been kind to Lynch and Twin Peaks. As countless shows cribbed from Peaks, TV finally caught up with a series that was ahead of its time twenty-five years ago. As a movie that was intended to launch a series of follow-ups, Fire Walk With Me was doomed to fail. But as means of extending Lynch’s creation beyond the confines of what the medium would allow, Twin Peaks succeeded. If the new episodes can deliver on the same level as the movie, I’ll be a happy fan.