Nancy: Who Did It Better? Books Turned Into TV Phenomena

Have you ever seen the columns in entertainment magazines where they show two celebrities caught at different events wearing (gasp!) the same outfit? The column writer typically opines about who wore it better and why. A quick google search showed that these columns do, in fact, exist in the digital world, opening up the floor for everyone with a keyboard and an opinion to weigh in on the matter.

We humans love our comparisons. Remember compare and contrast writing exercises in elementary school? Comparative Literature?  Ever been given the advice to pitch your book by comparing it others already out in the marketplace?

Recently, I recalled a high school lit project that required us to pick a topic from a list of maybe 10, develop a thesis around it, and use the books we’d read by that point in the course to support it. I chose to write about whether classic books or movies made from classic books were better. (Spoiler alert: It was a literature class. This one came with a built-in answer, especially if you liked getting A’s as much as I did.) So, yes, using two classics, A Tale of Two Cities and Wuthering Heights – both books I loved in high school, by the way – I came to the astonishing conclusion that the books did a better job of presenting themes, metaphors, and character studies. (Remember, this was back in the bad old days when kids were inculcated with the rather stale advice that these were ALL THAT MATTERED in stories). We had to do supporting research for our theses, and I was able to find multiple scholars who shared my ‘view’, most of them scholars of literature.

I even managed to watch two versions of ToTC and one of WH, although as this was early days of VHS and LONG before streaming on the internet, I don’t recall how or where I watched them. They were all in black and white and were abysmally slow, so I didn’t feel all that badly about drawing a rather foregone conclusion. Fast forward about 10 years, and I saw a movie that hadn’t existed when I was in high school: the movie version of Wuthering Heights with Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes. It was, in a word, phenomenal. To this day, it remains my favorite part that I’ve seen Fiennes play. Had this movie existed when I did my tenth-grade paper, I would have faced a moral dilemma. I thought this version of the story brought depth to the characters the book never achieved. And it was hauntingly beautiful to boot.

Hollywood has long looked for books, classics as well as bestsellers, and even the occasional small press gem, to make into movies. But in the past several years, an exciting new trend has emerged that takes this approach of translating a book into a visual medium to a whole new place. The advent of big-budget endeavors from the ever-growing list of TV networks making original content. And these days, books are likely to get the treatment of a season-long series, allowing these stories to be told the way nature and the authors intended: in long form, with chapters (episodes), building on one main throughline, surrounded by intriguing subplots, often ending a season the way the author ended the book. I have fallen in love with so many of these stories, first in book form, then in TV series form, and while in most cases the book still edges out the screen version for me, I’m still thrilled to see the screenwriters’/directors’/actors’ takes on these stories*.

I’d be hard-pressed to discuss books made into TV series on a romance-focused blog like 8LW without mentioning Outlander. What a book, what a series. To be honest, though, as much as I loved the first book, I never got into the rest of the series. I read the second book, then wandered away from it. When the series came out on Starz a few years ago, I added it to our binge-watch list. My husband, who hadn’t read the book, had no choice in the matter. I’ve only watched the first season thus far, but it managed to stay very true to the core stories while cutting some of the excesses (many of them descriptive, where film has the advantage of a picture being worth a thousand words). The changes the creators did make worked well for the series format. Over at Storywonk, Lani and Alistair provided an amazing episode by episode deconstruction of the series story, with references to similarities to and changes from the book. If you have watched or watch it in the future, and I highly recommend you do, the podcast is well worth your time as a companion piece. (For those familiar with the changes at Storywonk, Lani and her older daughter Sarah will be picking up the podcast over at Chipperish next fall for the next season.)

Another, more recent book I loved was Tom Perrotta’s Leftovers. I read it after hearing Perrotta talk about it on NPR, and was hooked by the central mystery (2% of the world’s population simply departed one day) and the fact that it is never solved. The story isn’t about what happened to those who disappeared, it’s about what happened to those left behind, those left over. I was leery when I heard HBO had picked up the rights to the story, but much cheered when I learned Perrotta would be one of the creative forces behind bringing the story to the small screen. As I’d hoped, the network did an amazing job of telling the book’s story in season 1, remaining not entirely true to the book, but ending with the same major events and dangling threads.

I must admit, I feared season 2, as this would be entirely new territory. And heaven forbid they ever reveal the answer to the mystery. That would forever ruin both the series and the book for me. But season 2 broke new ground and moved forward a few years in the story world, no doubt because it returned to the creative spring of Perrotta’s mind and asked ‘so then what happened?’ about these characters. The third and final season is now airing, moving the story forward again in time and space, and *fingers crossed*, shows no signs of breaking the story promise of leaving ‘the departure’ unsolved.

My daughter was the one to tell me a Liane Moriarty book, Big Little Lies, was being made into an HBO series. I rushed to read it before the series launch so my daughter and I could watch it and discuss. We both loved the actors they chose for the women’s part, were ‘meh’ about those chosen for the men, wanted to throw things at the TV when they added a story element that did not exist IN ANY FORM in the book and seemed totally unnecessary, and cheered when the end, while slightly different, stayed true to the intent of Moriarty’s ending. This series was widely touted as a 7-episode, limited run series. Until, of course, its wild success meant HBO had to consider making another season. With the story from the book completed in season 1, they now enter Leftovers territory, where the story will have to break new ground. Moriarty has been tasked with coming up with story ideas for a new season, so I’m nervously biting my nails and hoping for the best.

Why all the sudden ruminations on books made into TV series? Well, here in the States, this week will see the launch of two new book-based series that I am chomping at the bit to watch. A series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale will premiere on Hulu this Wednesday (26), with Atwood on board as a consulting producer, and a Starz series based on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods will premiere on Sunday (4/30) (with Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday – yay!). Gaiman has reportedly been ‘very involved’ in the production, and could even write an episode!

If I had to write that 10th-grade lit paper today, I might have a problem on my hands. While watching a TV series based on a book will never take the place of actually reading the book for me, recent series have proven what a great fit episode-driven series can be for translating books to screen. Opening up the author’s sandbox to other creative types in many cases allows deep dives into subtle elements of the book, or expands the story world to bring new and exciting perspectives to it. The books-to-series that have worked best for me are the ones that kept the authors involved in the creation and direction of the small-screen story. I’ve found that if they’ve proven I can trust them with the stories in the books, I can trust them to remain true to the most important elements of those stories in the series.

What’s your take on books made into TV series? Have you watched any of the series mentioned here, or others that you recommend? And is anyone else chomping at the bit to see the treatments of Atwood’s and Gaiman’s stories on screen?

*I have not included what is possibly the biggest cultural phenomenon in book-to-TV history, Game of Thrones. The reason is simply that I haven’t read the books or watched the series. Not my cuppa. But for those who are ferocious fans, may you win and not die :-)!

4 thoughts on “Nancy: Who Did It Better? Books Turned Into TV Phenomena

  1. I haven’t seen any of these books-to-series, but I did watch a bunch of True Blood, based on the Charlaine Harris novels featuring Sookie Stackhouse. I loved the books. I loathed the TV series, although I tried so, so hard. The first season wasn’t terrible, but it went downhill from there, and at the advent of each new season until season 5, I tried a couple of episodes, hoping for better. What they did was take Sookie, a complex character who liked clothes, knew how to cook, was loyal to her friends, and brave in the face of danger despite her fears, and in the TV show, give her all the girlie qualities, and gave all the “manly” qualities to her insane girlfriend. In the TV series, all the men were written okay, but all the women were written awfully, with way too many episodes ending with Sookie wearing a tutu and weeping at her grandmother’s grave, saying she didn’t know what to do. Gag me with a spoon.

    • I have so many friends who loved the Sookie series. I have to admit, I read a few of the books but never really got invested in it. I did watch the HBO series (mostly), but it didn’t work that well for me after the early seasons. I do remember hearing, though, that one of the storylines in the book – Bill attacking Sookie when he was dying or not in his right mind or something? – when translated into the TV version made it less clear that he raped her. And the fact that she continued dating him in the TV series added to that feeling of downplaying this horribly violent event. I could see this choice being driven by non-readers who were Bill/Sookie shippers. I do wonder what Charlaine Harris thought about that particular choice. (Personally, I wanted Sookie to get some pets and new hobbies give up on men of all species.)

  2. You know, I think I’ve only seen two book to (mini-)series adaptations. One was Roots, and I was really too young to remember it, except I did like the show as well as the book. The other was Pride and Prejudice (the BBC series). I loved the series, and it really enriched my appreciation of the book. I’d read P&P in high school once, and possible once as an adult. But after seeing the mini-series, I watch the series and read the book at least once a year. I can’t really tell you which is better. The dancing is better on TV (-:. The book allows my imagination more free reign.

    Book to movie adaptations are a different story. Sometimes they are two almost entirely different works of art (Howl’s Moving Castle), which is fine. I like both, but on different terms. Gone With the Wind might be another — the movie has great cinematography, which no book will ever match (my brain doesn’t really work in Technicolor), but I miss the subplots, and Scarlett’s first two marriages.

    One time, and I think it was Crichton’s Rising Sun, I thought the movie was better than the book. The movie added a third racial dimension, which really blew my mind. The racial dichotomy in the book just felt a little tired and old.

    A lot of times, though, the book is better than the movie. I liked the Star Wars books even better than the movies when I was very young. I wonder how they’d feel if I read/watched them now?

    • I wonder it it has taken this long for networks to start buying book properties because of cost. Thinking about something like the miniseries Thorn Birds, that had to be really expensive to make, and you didn’t get a whole season out of it (I think networks use to show them over the course of a week or two?). Anyway, when I was younger, if I saw a miniseries, I would always mean to read the book, but I’m not sure I ever did. Frex, I’ve only seen Roots, not read it.

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