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Why Book Adaptations Make Great TV

by Shanee Edwards on October 22, 2021

Have you read a great book lately? Even if the answer is no, it’s highly likely you’ve recently watched a TV show based on one. Hit shows like Game of Thrones, Bridgerton, The Queen’s Gambit, The Haunting of Hill House, Nine Perfect Strangers, The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Foundation, and The Witcher are all based on novels – and it’s not a coincidence.

Now that streamers like Netflix, Hulu, and Apple+ are dominating the small screen, there’s a huge appetite for content that can easily and quickly be turned into binge-worthy TV. Sure, development executives still listen to pitches from TV writers and develop shows based on original ideas, but it’s a big gamble to put so much time and resources into an untested idea that’s not an IP. That’s where books come in.

Movie vs. TV Show

Fiction books not only have a built-in fan base, but they also have all of their characters and storylines fully developed. But the biggest reason to turn a book into a TV show is that books easily translate to an episodic TV format. While plenty of books do get made into movies, there’s an inherent problem in doing so. If you’ve ever seen a movie based on one of your favorite books, it’s possible the first thing you thought after watching the film was, “They left so much out of the book!,” or “The book was so much better!” This common experience is due to three factors: 

  • Books can be quite lengthy
  • Books have plenty of time to develop many characters
  • Books often have storylines that are too complicated to fit into a two-hour movie experience

When you make a movie from a book, so much of what makes the book fun and exciting must be cut to tell a concise story that will leave an audience satisfied at the end. Some filmmakers even argue that a short story is a better fit to make a film because it’s limited in scope. But making a TV series from a full-length novel is a match made in heaven. 

Because there’s so much story in a novel, a TV series can easily run for multiple seasons. Game of Thrones ran for eight successful seasons. But a book can be turned into a limited series like Nine Perfect Strangers, which had eight one-hour episodes. I’m sure a competent screenwriter could write Nine Perfect Strangers as a two-hour movie, but taking eight delicious hours to tell the mind-bending story of a new-age health-and-wellness retreat run by a sometimes charming but mostly creepy guru (Nicole Kidman), made this show one of Hulu’s most addictive.   

Nine Perfect Strangers

'Nine Perfect Strangers'

Deep Exploration of Character

TV is really the place to dig into the rocky dirt of a complicated character because you have plenty of time to include backstory. Let’s look at the lead character Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in The Queen’s Gambit, based on the book by Walter Tevis. Beth is a female chess prodigy struggling with an addiction to tranquilizers that started when she was sent to an orphanage as a child. In a movie, there might be time for one flashback scene to Beth’s childhood. Everything an audience needs to know about young Beth would need to be told in just two or three minutes. But in the TV show, nearly the entire first episode explores Beth’s troubled relationship with her self-destructive mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie) whose shocking death sends 8-year-old Beth to the orphanage. Taking the time to explore Beth’s rocky childhood gives the audience a much better sense of who she is and why she makes the choices she makes. We may not always like the choices Beth makes, but we sure as hell know why she makes them. Because we’ve had the time to get so emotionally invested in Beth, we just can’t let go, even when her journey feels like being on top of a bucking bronco. Having the extra screen time really strengthens the bond between the protagonist and the audience.

So Much Material!

Sometimes, there are multiple books in a book series. That’s great news for studios and streaming companies because if a show is a hit, there’s plenty of story to support multiple seasons, or – even better – support a franchise! This is exactly what is happening with Game of Thrones and its spinoff show House of the Dragon.

But let’s take a look at Bridgerton. This Netflix show is based on the steamy romance book series by Julia Quinn. What’s surprising about romance novels is that they are looked down upon in the publishing industry even though they sell like hotcakes and make a ton of money. Romance is a genre often seen as lowbrow literature and relegated to sad spinsters or bored housewives. But TV executive Shonda Rhimes knew better.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rhimes said she knew Bridgerton would be a hit but had to convince others. “I remember I was almost scaring people, like, ‘We have to get these crazy romance novels — they’re hot and they’re sexy and they’re really interesting,'” she said. Hot and sexy, check! Add in some racial diversity in the casting and Netflix had a huge hit on its hands.

Bridgerton

'Bridgerton'

Fantastical Worlds

Just like Bridgerton, Game of Thrones was a huge hit not many saw coming. Based on the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones was written as a reaction to TV’s frustrating limitations that Martin encountered as a TV writer in the 1980s.

Though Martin started as a science fiction short story writer, he came to Hollywood and wrote for TV shows like 1986’s reboot of The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. But back then, network TV writing was very formulaic and budgets were limited. It’s no surprise that Martin wanted to create giant stories with fantasy elements like witchcraft and dragons, so he returned to writing novels – his only option at the time. Martin told Rotten Tomatoes, “I’m going to have all the characters I want, and gigantic castles, and dragons, and dire wolves, and hundreds of years of history, and a really complex plot. And it’s fine because it’s a book. It’s essentially unfilmable.”

All that changed after HBO adapted his “unfilmable” work to a TV show. But cinematic technology like CGI had finally caught up to Martin’s imagination and the prestige cable network had the money to bring it to life. This one show essentially paved the way for a new type of television, one as entertaining and dynamic as Martin’s creativity.

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The bottom line is that books are not just fueling the world of television, but changing it for the better. Books and TV are a perfect marriage of fiction mediums. So perfect, it’s easy to say that right now is the most exciting time in TV history.  


Shanee Edwards is a screenwriter, journalist and author. After receiving her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, she was hired to adapt various stories for the screen including Apes or Angels, the true story of naturalist Charles Darwin, and Three Wishes, based on the New York Times best selfing novel by Kristen Ashley. You can listen to her interview Oscar-winning screenwriters on The Script Lab Podcast, or read her book Ada Lovelace: the Countess who Dreamed in Numbers. Follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

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