Book Adaptations: Are Television Series the New Cinema?

American Gods

As many of you have probably noticed, there have been several book adaptations made into televisions series or miniseries of late and I am LIVING for them! In fact, I have noticed that overall fan reactions and critic reviews tend to look favorably on adapted television series. This has launched a property scramble among television stations and independent streaming services to create shows centered around the many books that we love. And while this is still a relatively new pop cultural trend, it does seem to be a profitable one. So what is it that causes serialized book adaptations to be more successful than their cinematic predecessors?

NOTE: There are some spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t binged or read American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale, Game of Thrones, or Anne with an E, be aware that I’m talking about them here and highly recommend you check them out.

1. Minor characters you secretly wanted more of are further developed:

Fan-fiction has often been devoted to the development of those side characters you were craving more of before they exited the story, either of their own violation or in a body bag. Series adaptations, however, are playing with this idea to elongate the show and keep the bucks flowing in. This is probably most noticeable in the American Gods and The Handmaid’s Tale series. Mad Sweeney, the down on his luck leprechaun, got more screen time than book time and was received incredibly well by fans and critics alike. He gets to go on his own road adventure with other minor characters, Laura Moon and Salim. And while I’m not a huge fan of Laura Moon’s fleshed out character in this series, some did find her likable. Critics, apparently, enjoyed her apathy.

Ofglen’s expanded storyline.

The second property has created quite the buzz given our current political climate and the additions made to this story have proven to be welcome ones as well, namely the development of the original “Ofglen” and her story. She is made a more complex character by being a lesbian, or “gender traitor,” in an environment that is incredibly homophobic and religiously influenced. Fans were stricken with grief to discover that Ofglen underwent female castration. The lines still haunt me to this day: “you cannot desire what you do not have.” Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, is also more colorful as the true antagonist of the show, helping to create the laws that currently oppress the women of Gilead. I find myself hating her more than I do the Commander at times.

2. You get to see all your favorite scenes:

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “But where’s Peeves?!” when discussing the Harry Potter movies. While a minor trickster character, people loved Peeves and any of the scenes involving him in the books. At times, he would even be the driving force behind the main story development. Televised series don’t have this problem. In fact, the most memorable scene ripped straight from the book’s pages (in all of its cringe-worthy and painful glory) comes from the Game of Thrones series. It is still one of the most talked about scenes to have graced the television scene due to the gory accuracy to the source material. I think we all know that I’m talking about “The Red Wedding.”

Now I know what you’re thinking, surely the Red Wedding wouldn’t be on the cutting room floor of a feature length movie, and you are right. What would be lost, however, is the attachment we develop for the Stark family for multiple seasons prior to their biggest blow (after Ned Stark, of course). A movie would not be able to adequately capture the hearts of so many in time to rip them apart before the movie’s end. Don’t believe me? Just check out these “red wedding reactions” on YouTube. Several fans who had read the book, A Storm of Swords, 13 years prior knew what was coming and filmed their loved ones falling apart. And no detail was missed, clocking in at just over eight and a half minutes long. I recall my own response, having seen the show before reading the books. I stared at the screen, jaw agape and speechless. My heart raced as the death toll climbed and I found myself cold though wrapped in a blanket. Once the credits rolled (with no accompanying music mind you), I finally leaned forward and cried. Hard. Having discussed this scene with readers of the book prior to the show, many expressed a similar reaction, though obviously they could imagine worse in their own mind. Still, this scene got as uncomfortably close to the source as possible.

3. Subtext can become more or less elaborate:

Books are complex and often contain various stories outside of the main one. They also include often unspoken subtext that can be just as important as the other main themes in the book. Many fans of the His Dark Materials series choose to ignore the rushed train-wreck that was The Golden Compass movie. While the subtext of this book verges dangerously close to the surface, it is still hidden enough to require a closer look. I am talking of course of the anti-establishment of religion present within the novel. Written as the opposing viewpoint to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, Pullman managed to hide is own skepticism of religion within the pages of a children’s book in the hopes that children would, essentially, question everything. How is it then that the movie completely managed to miss this? With the time constraints placed on movies, it’s hard to account for all parts of a story, so subtext is often ignored.

Anne with an E

However, one Netflix series decided to face the subtext of another children’s story head on: Anne of Green Gables, otherwise known as Anne with an E. While this series has been met with mixed reviews, primarily from fans who did not like the “dark interpretation” of the book, critics applauded it for confronting the book’s subtext, which they believed to be the trauma orphans often undergo. Perhaps, as a child, we miss these themes and focus more on the exuberant adventures of a plucky red-headed girl. If you read the book as an adult, however, you see some hidden depth’s to Anne’s personality. And it isn’t always sunshine. This is actually fairly typical of classic children’s literature, which often sought to challenge the developing minds rather than coddle them. Or perhaps it was just to entertain the parents who were asked to read their child’s favorite book for the fourth time that night. Either way, more elements of a story can remain intact when serialized.

But does this always work?

The short answer is no. To elaborate, serialized comic shows tend to perform marginally less to dramatically less than their cinematic counterparts. Strangely enough, long-form stories about superheroes, that tend to pull a bit more from the source material than the movies do, are often considered “boring.” Now, this may be in part due to the influx of properties from not one, but two comic companies that has left everyone a bit burnt out. This might also be due to the fact that comic properties generally pull very little from the source materials because there are just so many story arcs to choose from and account for. It might also be because, speaking as a member of this community, the comic fandom can be pretty darn toxic and critical at times.

Adapted YA lit seems to underperform as well, which is incredibly surprising given the vigorous and expansive reading fan base it has. I think, in particular, of the Immortal Instruments property which failed as a movie and as a series. “Failed” is obviously a relative term here as there are some die hard fans for both adaptations, but it hasn’t entered the pop cultural mainstream as some of the other properties I mentioned above have. It also captures a very select and limited audience. This may not be true of all YA lit series adaptations of course, but it feels like for every one successful series, say The Vampire Diaries, there is an unsuccessful one to match it, like The Shannara Chronicles. Perhaps some stories just can’t be translated to the screen.

Did I miss anything? Do you disagree? What other book series have you been enjoying? I’m currently watching Big Little Lies and am quite enjoying it thus far. Leave a comment below with your take!

Nicole Embrey

Nicole is currently an adjunct English instructor at various community colleges. Aspiring to be more than just a teacher, she likes to say she is a "storyteller in training." The stories bouncing around in her head range from a collection of mythical "creature features" to an intensely personal (yet fictional) story about ghosts and clairvoyance. In her spare time, she absorbs anything pop culture, often jumping into new fandoms with reckless abandon. In fact, she is a proud rêveur (which simply means her favorite book is Night Circus).

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