How 'Hanna' Went From High-Concept Feature to 8-Episode Amazon Thriller
The series about a teenage assassin marks the first big-to-small-screen adaptation for NBCUniversal International Studios.
A “pan-European coming-of-age thriller” is how NBCUniversal International Studios executive producer Tom Coan describes Hanna, Amazon Prime’s new drama, which bowed Friday on the streaming service.
Based on Joe Wright’s arty Saoirse Ronan-starring 2011 teen-assassin action fairy tale for Focus Features, the small-screen adaptation — with original co-writer David Farr returning as showrunner — spent several months in 2018 shooting across an array of exotic-sounding international destinations, moving from the studios of Budapest to the snowy mountains and hinterlands of Slovakia to southern Spain and across to the dusty sands of Morocco.
For The Hollywood Reporter’s set visit in early August, on shoot day 109 of 112, the location wasn’t quite so glamorous. On a quiet residential street in the fairly unassuming town of Bushey just north of London (perhaps best known as the birthplace of Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon), production decamped to a house on a quiet residential street to shoot a party scene.
Lack of necessity for a flight or stamp in the passport to one side, this scene actually turns out to be one of the most important when it comes to differentiating Hanna the TV show from Hanna the film. Over several takes, lead star and newcomer Esme Creed-Miles — plucked from more than 400 girls casting directors saw for the title role — walks down some stairs to find teenagers dancing, kissing and drinking (some with fake beers, some not).
“We wanted to make this about a character journey rather than a high-concept thriller,” says Coan.
So where Hanna the feature packed action and adventure into its 111 minutes as Ronan’s genetically enhanced teenage assassin — trained as a killer since the age of two — evades her ruthless CIA pursuers (led by Cate Blanchett) across Europe, the small-screen series, over eight 48-minute episodes, gives Creed-Miles’ Hanna more time to explore her own internal story, becoming the adolescent she was never given the opportunity to be before.
“It’s the journey of Hanna that wasn’t possible on film,” says Coan. “A teenager’s coming of age experience — the first time they’re trying to break outside the boundaries of their parental upbringing and the confinements of the world, and their growing awareness of themselves and the beginning of self-agency.”
The origins of the TV series began more than five years ago, as London-based Coan and colleagues at NBCUniversal International Studios began to search through Universal's film catalog, which includes Focus Features, to find adaptable IP that could be fit the brand. Hanna — which was critically well-received but didn’t set the box office alight, earning $65 million off a $30 million budget — instantly jumped out as a suitably global opportunity.
When Farr, who since went on to pen the screenplay for the smash BBC/AMC spy thriller The Night Manager, threw his weight behind the project, the wheels truly got moving, and once it was packaged, Amazon swooped in with a straight-to-series order.
There’s been no shortage of movies based on TV shows, but the reverse route is a far less trodden path, with Hanna the first attempt for NBCU International Studios.
"I’ve tried a bunch of times," admits president Jeff Wachtel, who moved to London to take up the role from Michael Edelstein in mid-2018 after serving as chief content officer (and greenlighting the likes of Mr. Robot and The Sinner). "The only real example that people use of a good film that became a good TV show is M.A.S.H., and that was a loooong time ago!"
But Wachtel admits the current peak TV landscape, where reboots are a “significant part of the mix,” is one that’s likely to see it happening more often, with buyers seeking comfort from a piece of known IP that suggests — even if it’s not necessarily there — some sort of advantage over competition.
With Amazon under no obligation to release its viewing figures, the success of Hanna may never be known. But Coan says it was always conceived as something that had legs beyond just one season, particular considering the opportunity to explore the coming-of-age element. “The possibility of telling an ongoing story was one of things that excited David Farr the most,” he says.
And with Hanna now out in the wild, Wachtel claims the search is now on for further big- to small-screen adaptations to develop, a particularly enticing prospect given that NBCU’s international stable includes the likes of Working Title and David Hayman: "Let your imagination run wild."