Library Columns Meaghan MacPherson

“Books on TV” by Meaghan MacPherson

They say you should never judge a book by its movie, but what about its TV show? As more producers choose to option a book or book series such as “A Song of Ice and Fire” and “The Walking Dead” for film, many are electing to take them to the small screen. There are many benefits to this choice, especially for book series. A television show has a better opportunity to mimic the book’s pace than a movie. Each episode acts as a chapter to the plot, and the writers can choose how many episodes they need to tell the story, whether it be 10, 13, or 22 to a season. A television show also gives the writers time to flesh out characters’ backstories, personalities, and motivations for each arc, and the audience more time to build a relationship with the character.

The Bones series by Kathy Reichs and the Rizzoli & Isles series by Tess Gerritsen, for example, make excellent bases for television because they’re written in an episodic, police procedural formula. Both shows are based on long-running books series and therefore have plenty of source material to play with, even when the show chooses to deviate. Both the shows and book series also have humorous, engaging casts of characters for the audience to root for.

Sherlock” and “Elementary” similarly have a plethora of source material since both are based on the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but both deviate in very compelling ways. “Sherlock” adapts the original Holmes stories and sets them in modern-day London, in essence asking “What if Sherlock had the internet?” Each season is only three episodes long, but each episode is feature-length, essentially granting the audience three Sherlock Holmes TV movies each season. “Elementary,” on the other hand, is set in modern-day New York and, because each season is approximately 24 episodes long, deviates much further from the Holmes canon for a fresher take on the detective.

Not all series are prime candidates for serialization despite their vast universe. Series such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are better adapted to film because of the scale of production and relatively straightforward story arc. Each of these series has a definite beginning, middle, and end, and even if scenes need to be cut for pacing, the integrity of the story remains intact over the course of two hours. A multilayered plot, complex world, and interwoven character web like that of “A Game of Thrones,” however, would get lost in translation, and needs more time to develop in order to do the story justice.

Adapting a series to television has its own set of challenges. For instance, how faithful should the show be to the books? By remaining too faithful, the show runs the risk of boring fans who know the story already, and straying too far could potentially anger fans who love the original.

Each adaptation tackles this challenge in different ways. In the case of “Justified,” based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, because main character Raylan Givens plays only a minor role in Leonard’s books, the writers had more freedom to shape the character and series as they pleased. For Jeff Lindsay’sDexter,” the show eventually developed an entirely different continuity than the books. For instance, many characters who died in the show are still alive in the books. Lindsay explained to Digital Spy that “The show is going farther away from the character in the books because he gets further away from being a sociopath. Sociopaths don’t have feelings; they can’t. It makes it tough for an actor.”

The Vampire Diaries,” “The Walking Dead,” “Orange is the New Black,” “True Blood,” and “The Strain” also chose to deviate from their source material. About the changes made to “The Strain,” author and director Guillermo del Toro told IndieWire, “We agreed from the beginning that we would try to hit the big notes. But if you do a change that you think is good that ripples through, then you ripple it through. It’s about letting things have a life of their own. It’s a very different medium, so I watch it with curiosity. It’s Carlton and Chuck running this season, much more than the books.”

The mother of dragons “Game of Thrones” stands out from the rest for its faithfulness to the “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels by George R. R. Martin, though it too deviates, noticeably at some times, in later seasons. Popular newcomer “Outlander” also remains faithful to Diana Gabaldon’s popular novels (so far).

As refreshing as it is for book fans to see their favorite series adapted into a visual medium, it also causes significant dissonance between the longtime fans of a series and those who are experiencing it for the first time (In the Game of Thrones fandom, readers and non-readers are divided into two categories: the Unsullied for show watchers and Bookwalkers for book readers). It often causes debate between the two: If you read a franchise before it was adapted, is your fandom truer than a newcomer? Does the TV series “owe you” faithfulness to the original story? Can you not have a legitimate opinion on the show if you haven’t read the books? Can you truly appreciate and understand an adaption without reading the source–or is it actually a handicap? And do you suddenly have to clam up about “spoilers”?

Many of the books and tv series mentioned and more are available through at least one of your Heartland Cooperative Libraries. Others include “The 100,” “Hannibal,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Legend of the Seeker,” “Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries,” and “Under the Dome.” Whether you read the book or not, it does not devalue your experience with the show. James Poniewozik of Time Magazine explained it perfectly when he wrote, “I’ve been a reader and a non-reader. One experience is not better, purer or more authoritative than the other. Neither experience makes judgment of the visual version of the story more or less legitimate. They are qualitatively different experiences–but they are just that, different, and it’s impossible to have both experiences at once.”

Originally posted July 29, 2015