When Fargo debuted in cinemas in 1996, it became an instant classic and catapulted the Coen Brothers into the spotlight.
The film was hailed as a modern masterpiece, with vaunted critic Roger Ebert declaring it to be one of the best films he had ever seen. It made close to $60,000,000 off a production budget of just $7,000,000 and earned Frances McDormand an Oscar for Best Actress and the Coens an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
In short, it was a hit and a TV adaptation was quickly put into production in 1997. Of course, we know now that the pilot went nowhere and it's only now that Fargo is enjoying a second life as a TV series. The original 1997 pilot resurfaced online recently and the story and casting behind it is pretty bizarre, to say the least.
To begin with, Marge Gunderson - the role made famous by McDormand - was played by Edie Falco, who audiences would know primarily as Carmela Soprano from The Sopranos. The TV pilot was set a month after the events of the original film, with Marge still pregnant and investigating the murder of a pharmacist who was shot by a complete stranger to help him jump a car battery.
The script of the pilot was written by Bruce Paltrow, who had previously worked as a writer / executive producer on '80s classic TV series St. Elsewhere and was the father of Gwyneth Paltrow. More interestingly was the pilot's director - Kathy Bates. Yes, that Kathy Bates. The Coen Brothers had nothing whatsoever to do with the pilot and weren't even listed as executive producers, something Noah Hawley rectified with the current FX series. The only person from the original film who was involved was Bruce Bohne, who played Marge's sidekick Lou.
Watching it now, it's clear why this particular Fargo didn't work and the more recent one did. Aside from the fact that the film managed to turn its overall cheapness into a part of its texture whereas the TV show just lived it with forcibly, there was also the mistake of casting Edie Falco in the role.
Even though we immediately associate her with The Sopranos, it's clear that she was wrong for the role and McDormand's performance casts a pretty big shadow. The current series was clever enough not to walk into the same trap, instead capturing the same tone and feel of the film and setting up a completely unique story in the same universe.
As failed pilots go, the 1997 Fargo isn't that bad. There's been far worse ones, including the fabled Game Of Thrones pilot that nobody has seen and the L.A. Confidential one with Kiefer Sutherland as Kevin Spacey's Jack Vincennes. It's more a kind of hubris, thinking that one of the best films ever made could be so casually continued without even bothering to consult or bring aboard the original creators.
The unaired pilot was only screened once, in 2003, on Canadian TV channel Trio - which, funnily enough, also aired the L.A. Confidential pilot mentioned earlier.
Some things fail for a number of reasons, some reasonable, some not so. The 1997 Fargo pilot is one of those things that fails for the right reasons.