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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.

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Posted on May 19, 2017, in Movies, movies that were supposed to..., TV, twin peaks and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Too bad David Lynch was considered out of style for a while then, but I still dug “Lost Highway”. I enjoyed this film reviewed here, but I can also understand why it was a bit denounced.

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    • I remember seeing FWWM in a mostly empty theater. I enjoyed it, but it was so different from the show… I didn’t fully know what to make of it until I watched it again many, many years later. I do find it funny that the movie is being reappraised today in a much more positive light. It was seen as an abysmal failure in 1992. Now many are calling it a masterpiece.

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      • Well, revisionist history is a beautiful thing (well, actually at times it can be downright ugly, or just plain wrong), and sometimes it takes the passage of time for something to find its comfortable place. That’s why I’ve always believed the majority opinion isn’t always the right one.

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  2. daffystardust

    As I’ve discussed with you before, I was one of the few who were happy with the unhappy ending of the second season and didn’t need any follow-up on it. I understand why most people felt like they wanted a more satisfying resolution, though.

    The idea that Mulholland Drive was initially was supposed to be a spin-off starring Sherilyn Fenn leaves me wondering how much the story changed once that idea was scrapped. Mulholland Drive is so dark and so full of uncomfortable revelations that seem like they might not have been in place under the spin-off concept.

    Something Twin Peaks-related that I just found out this morning is that Kimmy Robertson, the actress who played secretary Lucy, also provided the voice for the feather duster/chambermaid in the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast. Obviously, this is the kind of info that I geek out over.

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    • I can respect the idea that the cliffhangers at the end of season two were an acceptable ending, but I never found it to be satisfying. For one, I knew it was never the interent of the show’s creator. That ending was written as a way to drum up demand to save the show. Had the creators known that their gambit was destined for failure, they would have done something else. I have probably made the argument before that while Twin Peaks was dark, an unhappy ending was out of character for the show. Agent Cooper’s inherent goodness was always supposed to win out in the end.

      But that was the ending we got. I could never quite accept it, but I had to live with it for a lot of years. I kept hoping someone would come back and give the story a proper ending. There were some efforts made. I read some pages of a comic book David Lynch ultimately shot down. I always thought it would be amazing if the show could somehow be revived after 25 years given there is a line in the show indicating 25 years would pass. But I never really believed it would happen or that Lynch himself would return to direct.

      As you suspect, the TV version of Mulholland Drive changed a lot over time. Audrey was ditched because too much time had passed. But the first half of the movie was actually filmed as a TV pilot. When it didn’t get picked up, Lynch filmed additional footage and made it into a movie. Only Lynch could have pulled that one off.

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