How many times have you heard a producer describe a series as "a 13-hour movie" or some variation on that phrase? It's become a cliché with little meaning, beyond suggesting a vague sense of shame that making a TV show isn't prestigious enough, even 20 years after the debut of The Sopranos. And the mindset behind such statements can produce series that do feel like movies padded and stretched to sluggish extremes with little regard for the advantages inherent to making individual episodes (as anyone who's trudged through, say, the shapeless mid-season episodes of most of Netflix's Marvel series can attest).
At first, Amazon's new series Hanna seems to be taking that idea even more seriously than most shows. The series adapts a 2011 film directed by Joe Wright and co-written by Seth Lochhead and David Farr, the latter a veteran theatrical director and playwright. Farr's the driving force behind the Amazon version, but that's hardly the only connective tissue. In its early episodes, the series seems determined to follow the original film beat for beat — only at a much slower rhythm, given that Wright's version clocked in at less than two hours and barely stopped to catch its breath for a second of its running time.
If you've seen the film, this can be a frustrating experience in the series' early episodes, which do nothing wrong — and do much right — but can't help but stir a sense of déjà vu. Stepping into a role originated by Eric Bana, Joel Kinnaman plays Erik Heller, a soldier-turned-black ops specialist who, in the series' opening moments, is seen breaking into a top secret facility in Eastern Europe to steal a baby. He's able to reunite the infant with her mother, but then his troubles only get worse thanks to the tireless pursuit of Marissa Wiegler (Mirielle Enos, making this a reunion with her The Killing co-star Kinnaman), a shadowy U.S. intelligence operative stationed in Europe. The girl's mother dies in the escape, leaving her alone with Heller.
Flash forward 15 years: Heller's spent the time between playing dad under trying circumstances, opting to raise the girl by himself. Single parenthood is never easy; when you're trying to do it in a cave in the middle of a Polish forest, it's harder still. Nonetheless, he seems to have done all right by the kid, training her in everything a teenage girl needs to know: hunting, hand-to-hand combat, guerrilla tactics, and how to fake being a normal kid by being able to rattle off the names of great American films and favorite Beatles songs — even if she's never heard a note of music or watched a movie. But Heller, who knows she'll be hunted down if they ever leave, has his reasons. And though the girl would likely have had only a number had she stayed at the facility, at least here she has a name: Hanna.
He's given her what he can, but it's not enough. Much of the first episode concerns Hanna's urge to explore the larger world that's been kept from her her entire life, an urge that has immediate and potentially catastrophic circumstances.
Star Esme Creed-Miles (who bears more than a little resemblance to her mother, Samantha Morton) has the unenviable task of taking over a role made famous by Saoirse Ronan, but she doesn't have trouble making it her own. In the forest she seems restless but at home, a girl who's adapted to her extraordinary circumstances. Let loose in the world, she looks out of place. Yet part of her upbringing has involved passing as an ordinary person and she's quite good at it — even if the life a normal teen has been something she's studied as an academic exercise. Creed-Miles' uses her eyes to suggest she's feeling some sort of powerful emotion even if she's masking precisely what that emotion is from those around her.
She has to mask a lot over the course of the series, which lets her loose on a globe-trotting cat-and-mouse chase that spans Morocco, England, Germany, and elsewhere before ultimately bringing her back where she started. It would be unfair to spoil the details of that chase, though, again, its first stops will look awfully familiar to those who've seen the Wright film. Less familiar are the stylish action scenes, which have a cool, airless feel to them that sets them apart from Wright's action set pieces. And by the season's mid-point, the resemblance has grown even more distinct. One episode essentially drops Hanna in the middle of a teen British soap opera and watches as all hell breaks loose. The more Farr's series diverges from the original, the more it emerges as its own, distinct work.
That's especially true when it uses the extra time to explore some themes only suggested in the film. This is, at heart, a coming-of-age story, one that suggests no one can live in the innocent forest of youth forever. "I can't control my body and it does all these things and I don't know why but it's who I am," Hanna tells Sophie, an English girl she's befriended. She's specifically referring to her body, which has some extraordinary qualities due to her origins, but she could be expressing the lament of any teenager who doesn't feel fully control of the person they're becoming.
There's also the question of whether nature or nurture shapes a person's character and whether people can change, a concern that extends to the adult characters as well. Where Cate Blanchett plays Wiegler as a fearsome force of nature in the original film, Enos's version of the character grows more complex, and shaded, as the episodes progress. She seems at first like a pitiless monster, and though that only shifts by a few degrees, Enos makes those shifts seem tectonic, playing her as a woman who knows she's committed horrible acts but has started to wonder if maybe she could recover her soul. (Noah Taylor, on the other hand, has a lot of fun playing a thoroughly irredeemable jerk after showing up mid-season).
In the end, Amazon's Hanna ends up feeling less like a remake than a remix, taking the essential elements of the film, recombining them in new, intriguing ways, and creating something new in the process — particularly in a final stretch that throws out the source material entirely (and sets up a potential second season that, promisingly, would have to work without any sort of road map). What's more, it plays like a TV series, with each installment working like a chapter, and each building to an unfailingly gripping action climax. It may start off pretending to be a movie, but Hanna clearly understands that there are things TV can do that movies can't.
Hanna premieres Friday, Mar. 29 on Amazon.