As a book nerd AND a TV nerd, I’m loving the fact that my two favorite entertainment sources are dovetailing in new and exciting ways all the time. Book-based series are dominating the airwaves in a way that they haven’t in years, with yet more coming up. This week saw the premiere of HBO’s new series The Leftovers, based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name, in which a suburban community deals with the after-effects of a Rapture-like event. Later on this summer, Starz will air Outlander, a series based on Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular time-travel romances.
And, of course, that’s not the last of them. This fall, Michael Connelly’s hugely successful Bosch novels are getting the series treatment (which seems a little overdue). In the coming months we’re also going to see series based on Susannah Clarke’s behemoth Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Guillermo del Toro’s vampire novel The Strain.
But “based on” can mean a lot of different things. There are plenty of shows that stay fairly faithful to the books that inspired them. The most obvious recent example is Game of Thrones, which has adhered to the broad strokes of George R.R. Martin’s novels while managing to almost always be as awesome on the TV screen as it is on the e-reader screen.
But for every book-based series that plays it straight, there’s one that goes entirely off the rails. Sometimes this casts certain elements of the book in a new light, or builds on the universe in a way that almost feels like a great sequel, or takes the story in a whole new direction that even the author likes better. And sometimes…well, sometimes, you get a hot mess (or, worse yet, a lukewarm one).
In that spirit, I give you:
Three Book-Based Shows That Improved on their Source Material:
Orange Is the New Black
Let’s kick it off with the series you all know is currently closest to my heart, Orange Is the New Black, which draws upon Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name. And honestly, Kerman’s book is not terrible. It’s a quick and interesting read, especially if you haven’t seen the show yet. But compared to the tension-and-scandal-filled ensemble show that OITNB has become, it’s a little tepid. (To be perfectly fair, just about anything would be, given the roller coaster that was Season 2.)
There are three or four scenes from the book that have made it onto the show, and the book does contain people named Piper, Larry, Crazy Eyes, and Pennsatucky…but that’s about where the similarities end. Series creator Jenji Kohan has managed to pinpoint the tiny details of the story that can be fleshed out to create maximum drama, and she’s gone there every time. From the moment Piper’s ex, Alex, turns up as an inmate in the same prison, it’s clear that the show is going to bear very little resemblance to any actual events.
And considering the relative conventionality of Kerman’s voice and experience, that’s not a terrible thing. The biggest problem in prison, Kerman says in her memoir, is the boredom. Clearly a little creative license was in order.
Novelist Jeff Lindsay’s initial concept of a serial killer who targets other serial killers is absolutely brilliant, and totally TV-worthy. His actual novels? Not so much. If Dexter‘s producers had played Lindsay’s novels totally straight, we would have wound up with something too dark, too twisted, and too weird even for premium cable. So after loosely basing the first season of Dexter on Lindsay’s first novel (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), Showtime gave us a Drastically Different Dexter in subsequent seasons, and trust me, we are so much better off because of it.
The show’s female characters, in particular, benefited from the breakaway. For instance, the LaGuerta of Lindsay’s novels is an incompetent harridan who is killed by Dexter fairly early on, rather than the ambition-driven mercenary (and foil for the Morgan siblings) she can be in the series. Also, in the books, Dexter is almost contemptuous of his longtime girlfriend Rita Bennett, and despite allegedly having no sex drive whatsoever, he mentions how hot his own sister is so many times that even Jaime Lannister would tell him to simmer down. I don’t know much about Lindsay outside of his books, but I do think the man may have a bit of a problem with women.
Dexter himself was better on the show, too. His gradual discovery of his own humanity is far more compelling than the adventures of an irredeemable sociopath finding ever darker and grosser elements among his fellow sociopaths – which is pretty much what we get in the books. The villains created for the series are much more psychologically intricate (and much less slasher movie caricatures) than the ones Dexter faces in the books. Trust me, even Season Six was better than the drug-fueled cannibal cult Dexter fights in one of the later novels.
The Dead Zone
When I first learned that USA, of all networks, was going to adapt one of Stephen King’s best novels into a series, I’ll cop to being pretty skeptical. King’s novel is a set piece that purports to explore the mindset of a political assassin, and everything wraps up so neatly – how on Earth could that translate to a series?
Turns out, it translated pretty well. A talented cast and great writers took the bare essence of the novel in an entirely new direction. In the series, Johnny’s still bewildered from missing four years of his life and coming to terms with his new abilities; Sarah’s still torn between her current life and the life she could have had; Greg Stillson is still a chilling Big Bad.
But that’s about where the similarities end. Turning King’s premise into a sort of procedural drama in which Johnny uses his powers for good, working in concert with his romantic rival, brings satisfying tension that proved sustainable throughout all six seasons, and the Stillson arc tied it all together.
And while this isn’t an analysis of shows adapted from movies, I have to add here that Anthony Michael Hall makes a far more believable everyman than Christopher Walken ever did. I love Walken, but he’s just so Walkeny.
…And Three That Didn’t:
Okay, let’s get the controversial choice out of the way right out of the gate. I expect to take a lot of heat for this. Please keep it civil and don’t sic your werepanthers on me.
It’s true that Charlaine Harris’s novels are not high literature, but I devoured a whole stack of them like candy a few summers back, and I have to say, they are a lot of fun in a way that the show often misses entirely. They’re kind of a quirkier, richer alternative to Twilight, with a colorful setting and a liberal dose of humor.
The books succeed mostly due to Sookie Stackhouse’s unique narrative voice and Harris’s eye for detail. Sookie begins the Southern Vampire Mysteries as a naive, shy small-town girl who’s widely regarded as the local eccentric, and her character begins evolving rapidly once she gets to know her first vampire. The second you change Sookie, you’re telling a different story. True Blood‘s Sookie is far more sociable and savvy. As a result, her character development over seven seasons of True Blood has been relatively uncomplicated, given the insanity that’s always unfolding around her.
Apart from Sookie herself, True Blood‘s universe did eventually wind up as layered and complicated as the books’, but instead of mining Harris’s gigantic realm of fascinating minor characters and subplots, the show has frequently forged its own path, with mixed results. There are entire arcs that seem tacked-on and pointless. Where the introduction of a new supernatural element (be it maenads, were-creatures, or witches) was frequently mind-blowing in the novel universe, in the show it’s often just one more thing to keep track of.
(Also, no Bubba? What’s up with that, True Blood?)
About a Boy
This is possibly a cheat, considering that this NBC sitcom seems equally informed by Nick Hornby’s novel and the Hugh Grant movie it spawned, but all the same, it’s not nearly as good as either the book OR the movie. This definitely isn’t the fault of the leads, who are not only doing their best with what they’re given, their chemistry is probably the main reason the show’s getting picked up for a second season.
Still, the characters they portray have strayed pretty far from Hornby’s original vision. Minnie Driver’s Fiona is far too well-adjusted, which I imagine is so that the show can match her up with Will someday if they run out of other ideas, but her relative normalcy makes Marcus’s weirdness a little more subtle (and a lot less exasperating!) than it was in the book. A lot of TV Marcus’s problems are now typical tween things that any kid would have to deal with – first kiss, school projects, fitting in – rather than, say, killing a duck with a heavy loaf of bread.
It’s Will who suffers the most from rewrites, though. Changing him from someone who’s living off of royalties from a song his father wrote to someone who’s living off of royalties from a song he wrote gives him actual skills and potential ambitions. If Will already had something he cared about, it’s not really About the Boy anymore, is it? Altering the central conceit of the series this much wouldn’t necessarily preclude it going somewhere interesting, but the writers don’t even seem to be trying.
All things considered, if they’re going to make a series based on Nick Hornby’s work, I’d much rather have seen David Walton and Minnie Driver as Rob and Laura in a sitcom reboot of High Fidelity. (A Jack Black cameo is optional, but highly encouraged.)
(Hornby fans take note: a film adaptation of A Long Way Down, starring Aaron Paul, hits theaters this month.)
Under the Dome
Stephen King’s novel about a small town trapped under an impenetrable, invisible barrier was widely considered his best work in years, so there was a lot to live up to when it came to adapting it for television. Casting Dean Norris, fresh off of Breaking Bad, as Big Jim Rennie was an encouraging sign, as was a frequently-played promo that featured a cow being neatly severed in half. Given the source material and talent, this series could have been great.
Unfortunately, Under the Dome lived up to precisely none of its potential. It surprised everyone by veering away from Stephen King’s framework almost immediately, which could have worked out if they’d found a better story to tell than King’s, or, really, any story at all.
Instead, the show quickly degenerated into a plodding mess with utterly no sense of pacing and no book touchstones for faithful King fans to fall back on. And the one element of the book that the series DID end up keeping (namely, the idiotic deus-ex-machina explanation of the Dome’s origins) was actually the biggest thing wrong with King’s novel. The big reveal made LOST‘s convoluted Others backstory seem downright masterful. (Yeah, podcast listeners, I can’t get through an article without slamming LOST either. Come at me.)
When the series ended up getting renewed for a second season, it absolved Under the Dome‘s writers of having to, you know, resolve anything, thus Chester’s Mill’s inhabitants seem curiously unconcerned with getting out from under the Dome. Where power struggles, mob mentality, resources, and environmental concerns ensured that life under King’s Dome imploded on multiple levels within weeks, CBS could well drag theirs out for years to come.
So how will The Leftovers and Outlander measure up to their source material? Tom Perotta’s penchant for anticlimactic endings makes his work an ideal jumping-off point for a series, and this universe in particular is ripe for new storylines. I suspect the series will diverge from the novel early on, and with Damon Lindelof involved, we know it’s not going to go anywhere we might expect. If the show can avoid getting too elaborate too soon, and if it can stay far away from revealing an explanation for the Rapture-like event that kicks things off, it could have some staying power.
My hopes are not quite as high for Outlander, though I’m still on board. Casting appears to be spot-on and Diana Gabaldon’s involvement bodes well. Still, if the series makes it to season 3 or so, without giving anything away here, they’ll pretty much have to deviate from the novels unless they want to drastically retool everything about the show (which is never as easy to do on TV as it is in books). I think Outlander could be fun short term, but it won’t have the multi-year appeal of, say, Game of Thrones.
What are your favorite book-based series, and which shows do you think most successfully deviate from the source material? Let us know!