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How to adapt a book series to a TV series. Or not.

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There are several ways to go about turning a book or a series of books into a TV series. A lot depends on the books, of course, but it also depends on how the series producers and writers feel about the adaptation. The results of each choice are considerably different. And the success of failure of the adaptation doesn’t necessarily reflect on the source material. Here’s some of the most common ways I think book to TV adaptation is done, with examples.

Books? What books? Bones

Kathy Reichs’ series of novels about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan was supposedly the basis for the TV series Bones. However, the screenwriters did nothing more than borrow the name and profession of the primary character in the books. Nothing else was carried over. The show, truthfully, is a remake of the earlier Crossing Jordan, with pretty much the same characters (the plucky heroine who solves murder mysteries, the law-enforcement partner, the strict but still flexible boss, the geeky co-worker, the best friend, etc etc etc).  This did not keep Bones from being a very watchable show, and indeed, I watched most of the shows in its ten-year run (as I watched all of Crossing Jordan years before). But, since I also read all the books, I know that TV Temperance Brennan is absolutely positively not literary Temperance Brennan, and never the twain did meet.

Books, a place to begin: Longmire

The adaptation of Craig Johnson’s Longmire series of mystery novels starts with the core cast of characters and their location in Wyoming, takes out some less-often-seen characters, adds in some primary characters not found in the books, and then sends this group of people off on whole new adventures. It differs from Bones in that these are the people in the books. They just go off in different directions. There are some changes to the relationships that form a central part of the novel series, and Walt and Henry are noticeably younger than their literary counterparts (yup, I read all those books too).  With the exception of one or two episodes the plots of the shows are not drawn from the books, so there is no expectation that any original story has to be followed. Most of all, it’s easy to accept the actors who were cast to play these characters, even if their appearance does differ somewhat from the books, because the screenwriters stayed true to the original concept while striking out into new and literarily-uncharted territory. The show just posted its final season on Netflix and wrapped things up in an appropriate manner, while the books continue and the current one has ended in a spectacular cliffhanger.

Books are so pesky: Outlander

Sometimes someone buys the rights to a series and appears to be determined to make a faithful adaptation. However, as time goes on, the producers become more and more convinced that they know better than the author did. It’s a given that a certain amount of abridging and reshaping is essential for a TV adaptation, because a lot more nuance and exposition is possible in a book, especially books as lengthy as those in the Outlander series.  However, cutting out scenes and characters that set up very important parts of the later story, removing characters who play a major part later on, transforming characters into something they never were, taking characters whose physical attributes forms a major and ongoing part of the narrative and casting actors who look nothing like them, and changing the storyline willy-nilly as time goes on gives the lie to the notion of faithful adaptation. It works OK for people who’ve never read the books, but this series of books has a large and devoted audience (disclosure: I started reading Outlander before the first book was even published and have inhaled every one of the books as they have hit the press) and the book readers know when the screenwriters are playing footsie with the plot. Which has been happening more and more often as time has gone by. This is just the third season and it’s beginning to look like Jamie and Claire’s story will be unrecognizable by the time the series ends. We shall see.

Books, remixed: Bosch

Michael Connelly did the adaptation of his Harry Bosch novels for the TV series, and chose to take the plots of the novels and remix them to make entirely new stories. Thus, if you’ve read the books (I’ve read ’em all, see the pattern in the post?) 🙂 you may think you know where the storyline is going, but it ain’t necessarily so.  The timeline is completely different, due to the decision to make miniseries Harry younger than literary Harry, which made it necessary to make the secondary characters younger as well and adapt the stories to a present-day setting rather than the past that the novels inhabit. (Harry Bosch will always look like Dennis Farina to me, no matter how good Titus Welliver is in the role, sorry.) There are elements added that are not in any of the books that were combined to make the episodes. Italian gangsters are changed to Armenian gangsters, for example, and Irvin Irving is African American and not a complete jerk like his white literary inspiration. Characters from later books appear earlier, and the resolution of some plot elements is changed. None of this detracts from the quality of the series, which I am sure is entirely due to the author having complete control. I’ve read thousands of mysteries in my lifetime and by this time there are precious few authors, no matter how good they are, who can keep me guessing till the end. I can nearly always figure out whodunit….  but not with Michael Connelly’s books. The one time I actually picked out the bad guy before the book ended I was literally hopping up and down for joy.  🙂

Books, tell it like it is: Poldark

This is the second PBS adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark series. I never saw the original, because in those days PBS stations were most commonly found on UHF channels, and our only TV was so old it didn’t have a UHF tuner. Strange but true. So I came to the current show with no preconceptions. I had not even begun to read the books yet, but eventually I remedied that by buying a complete set and digging in. What I found is that Poldark, unlike other adaptations, stays true to the original. While some plot elements are abridged or condensed, which is always necessary, and some of the actors look nothing like their characters as described in the book, the writers clearly know and love the books and have striven to make the adaptation look and feel like the books it’s based on. And the complexity of the storylines is never thrown away for the sake of “entertainment.” It’s easy to get swept up in the story, and the people are real. All the actors are first rate. To my way of thinking this is how an adaptation that stays true to the books should be. No plotline hanky-panky. What a concept.  🙂 It’s always a wrench when the series ends for the season and then we have to wait and wait for the continuation. At least I’ve got that whole set of books.

So, is this the way it looks to you? Am I way off base in the way I see some of these things? I would really like to hear your opinions.

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36 Comments

  1. Great article. I didn’t know Bones was based on a series of books. I will look for them at the library. I have read and watched all the other series you referenced. I’m very disappointed in the way Outlander season 3 has been adapted. Hope for a better season 4. Thanks!

  2. Once I gave up really caring about the show, it got better. I disliked the campy bits – the Boogie Woogie across Scotland, the Batman Music while Claire the dress designer whipped up a perfect gown. I guess it’s how you feel about the essence of the source material. For me, Outlander is the story of Jamie and Claire played against the historical times they lived in. Frank was unlikeable, Joe was in on the secret, and Jamie and Claire were a well matched couple. Both brilliant, and strong and stubborn, equal partners in every way. This Super Claire is unlikeable and annoying. PMS on overdrive. The dumbing down of Jamie it truly disappointing. I wanted Masterpiece Theatre and got Monty Python. I have accepted it, and just don’t think of it as the real Outlander anymore. It’s still a good romp.

    • I always liked Frank and I thought he got a raw deal. He loved Claire so much and once she stepped through those stones he never got her back. I think Tobias Menzies did an absolutely brilliant job of portraying Frank and Black Jack in the shows. His acting talent is worlds better than a lot of people around him.

      Masterpiece Theater and Monty Python…. brilliant! 🙂

  3. I’ve only watched Outlander and Poldark and only read Outlander. So far I think the Outlander series is still pretty true to the books, and I actually like most of the changes they make, e.g. Murtagh the undead. I didn’t get the negative perception of TV Claire as some viewers have, but there have been a few out-of-character scenes for Jamie already in this season that just stuck out like sore thumbs for me. He just sometimes seemed so petty, cocky, and plain dumb to me, and not the Jamie that I know and love. If I were Claire, I’d be doubting my decision to come back through the stones and leaving Brianna for good when he acts like that…

    Definitely agree that the writers sometimes think they know better than Diana when they really don’t fully understand the characters deep down. Diana has said it’d be funny if she publishes the feedback she gave the writers during the drafting stage of the scripts (which I took to mean that she made the same comments as the fan criticisms). Unfortunately, they sometimes just brush off her suggestions. I hope the series won’t become unrecognizable because I love the show and would love to see all 10 seasons.

    • “Murtagh the undead.” I love it! I know the screenwriters are under no obligation to explain themselves, but oh, how I sometimes wish they would.

      I think Murtagh is going to marry Jocasta, his beloved Ellen’s sister, because Duncan Innes is pretty much a nobody, at least so far. But we’ll have to wait and see.

  4. I’m only familiar with three of the shows discussed in the article: Bones, Outlander, and Poldark. And, of those three, I’m only familiar with the latter two book series, so I can’t compare all of them. But, I have to say, no way is Poldark as faithful to the books as this writer implies. The series has left out important characters, it has cut out much of the community around the main characters, thus making everyone other than the leads seem rather flat, and — most importantly — the show has left out the humor. Plus, some of the important characters definitely don’t look like how they’re described in the books. So, no. Poldark is not the most faithful despite being a series of books which is much shorter (in page length) from Outlander. And, I mention that because one of the reasons one couldn’t possibly expect Outlander to be more faithful is that these books are so long and rich, it would be almost impossible. (Let me add here that I loved the Poldark books — the first seven. They are wonderful.)

    Furthermore, I saw the 1970’s adaptation of Poldark and they did manage to include more of the significant characters, keep the community surrounding the main leads in it, and include the humor. I actually enjoyed the story more back then, even though the show also went off book more often. But, for me, the show kept the spirit of the book and that is far, far more important than being completely literal.

    • Of course the book stories have to be abridged to fit in the TV format, and not everything can be included. That’s a given. I don’t find the humor lacking, though. The series made some things more clear to me. In the book I was not sure whether Ross and Elizabeth’s sexual encounter was rape. In the series it’s clear that it wasn’t. I did mention that some actors don’t look like the characters in the books.

      I wish I had been able to see the original Poldark series. It was nice to find out that the actor who originally played Poldark was cast in this new series as well.

      • In the later books, Ross thinks to himself that he had taken Elizabeth “against her will”. That’s our definition of rape, though I’m not sure that Ross realized he was raping her at the time he did it.

        The three main female characters of the Poldark novels (at least the first seven novels), Demelza & Elizabeth & Caroline, are respectively dark-haired, blonde and auburn-haired in the books. In the first TV series in the 1970’s, Demelza had carrot-red hair, Elizabeth had blonde hair (mostly wigs), and Caroline had sort of chestnutty brown hair. In the current TV series, Demelza still has carrot-red hair, Elizabeth has very dark hair, and Caroline is a radiant pale blonde. But the characterizations remain pretty close to the ladies of the books. (though I think Elizabeth in the 1970’s TV version was closer to the book character, more sympathetic and gracious; while the current TV-Elizabeth is more sultry, sulky, and occasionally simmering)

        I think I prefer the Ross & Demelza and Elizabeth of the first series; but Eleanor Tomlinson is doing a fine job as Demelza. I’m ambivalent toward the current TV-Warleggan because he looks so physically unlike the book character (he looks like book-Francis and current TV-Francis looked more like book-Warleggan) and the actor/writing characterizes him a bit differently; however, he has a great sneer. I really like current TV-Dwight & Caroline a lot; and the casting/acting of young Geoffrey Charles is terrific; the kid is perfect in the role.

        I have the original 1970’s Poldark series on dvd; and I am enjoying the current version of it on TV. Hoping they’ll do the last five books (There are 12 books in all, bringing us over 30 years of Poldark ups and downs)…

        • I am definitely going to have to seek out the original Poldark adaptation. I had never known the story before now and I clearly missed a lot.

          I think the actor playing the slimy Vicar is perfect.

  5. Nope, you are not off base: You are totally spot-on in terms of Outlander .
    The whole “we know better than the author ” is something that I have been saying for weeks.
    Truth be told, I thought “Claire” was unrecognizable pretty much from the start of the season.
    She’s been written as a selfish b-ch, making Frank the poor, long-suffering husband. And once she went back to the past… well I won’t get into it.
    Suffice it to say, many of us feel as you do.

    • Oh, I’m glad to hear that! 🙂

      Yes, the series Claire is far too strident, I think. And she doesn’t give out the feeling of quiet self confidence that Book Claire does. I think they could have done a lot better casting the actress. But given that they cast blonde, voluptuous, green-eyed Geillis as a scrawny redhead… yeah. Sigh.

      And Claire treated Frank horribly when she came back. Although I do think that the screenwriters made Claire’s final goodbye to Frank a lot more loving. That part, I really liked.

  6. As Scrooge would say, “Bah Humbug”! The Outlander writers and all those involved with the production are creating a masterpiece adaptation of the book series. One can see they are all dedicated to the Outlander in every way. Please stop the incessant criticism. They owe no one an explanation, excuse, or apology. I would like to see the the series go further, but this just stirs up problems which I’m sure will have influence on the decisions of Starz/Sony.

    • No, of course they don’t owe anyone an explanation and I know that “The books are the books and the shows are the shows.”

      However, miscasting essential characters (like Geillis Duncan) and completely changing the nature of others (Archie Campbell and Margaret as skeezy fortune tellers, really?) was not necesssary. And no, they will never explain why.

      And this is my blog. I can criticize whatever I want. I know that the Outlander section on CompuServe regularly boots out critics… but we ain’t there.

      • Completely changing the nature of others — did someone say Faramir? I don’t think I can ever forgive that…

        • You’ll notice I did NOT get into Tolkien adaptations. 🙂

          That’s because the Tolkien books are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me and I hve not yet been able to force myself to read more than a few pages of any of them.

    • Amen! Best adaptation if a book series I have ever seen made!!

    • Bravo! I too have read all the books and I am overjoyed with the excellent production values of Outlander including some of the minor changes that really do not impact the overall story thus far.

  7. I think the first two seasons of Outlander did stay pretty close to the books however I have noticed a marked change in Claire and Jamie’s personalities this season Claire is always feisty and stubborn but not the superwoman she is in this version where she has all the sensibilities and PC correctness of a 2017 woman . Point of the last episode of season 2 where she talks about Roger’s “physique” . That is a woman born in 1918 and was a young mom in the 1940’s and 50’s one who is trying to be more modern however still has her mannerisms . Jamie is so dumbed down I admire him in the books he is always one step ahead of Claire and that is part of his charm and FUNNY they are both funny but there is none of that its all hysterics or angry Claire and clueless Jamie. Poldark is much more to the actual story and very well done. I read Outlander series well before ever reading or hearing about Poldark . Outlander I like the actors but they need to save this titantic and not worry about attracting the young girls to the show and keep to the material yes adapted but true to the character’s.

    • It wasn’t till I started reading the Poldark books that I noticed how much of Outlander was inspired by Poldark. It’s clear Diana is a major Poldark fan.

      You have a very good point about attracting the young girls. I believe that more Outlander fans are more mature people. At least that’s my sense of it.

      If Brianna were real, I’d be about two years younger than she is. 🙂

  8. Poldark did make some changes…sex between Ross and Elizabeth was not consensual at any point during the act in the book. Those were easier books to translate to screen. The Outlander series is vast by comparison. I’ve read the Outlander series and love them all, but when I’ve indulged in a wee bit of skimming, the TV writers have also done their version of skimming. And I don’t mind a bit. The end result is a brilliant series that is also a feast for the eyes and ears.

    • As I mentioned in a previous comment, I was not sure whether the sex between Ross and Elizabeth was consensual from reading the books. In the series it’s more clear that it was, if not 100% consensual, at least not rape.

      Both Poldark and Outlander are visually stunning.

  9. I think you are spot on. I have read the books for all the adaptations mentioned in your article except Poldark. And, unfortunately, your assessment of Outlander is exactly right. This season, especially, so much has been fiddled with (including the character and natures of the lead actors) that by the next season, just to keep up with all the changes, I don’t think book readers will recognize Outlander. I find that very sad as the books are spectacular and so much more could have been adapted to the screen. Only time will tell. Thank you for your insights.

    • Thank you. I’m glad others feel the way I do about Outlander. As I said, I started reading the series before it was even published (Diana posted a lot of excerpts in the old CompuServe Literary Forum) and I’ve got first editions of every book in both the Outlander and Lord John series. I’ve re-read all the books multiple times.

      So many changes just seem to have no point other than to make it clear that the writers have not read the series. As another commenter pointed out, they owe no one an explanation…. but I would like to hear why Murtagh didn’t die at Culloden. Does it mean that he rather than Duncan Innes marries Jocasta? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

      • As someone who hasnt read the books yet I havent found any problems with the series. After reading comments from some who have read the books it seems that the writers are going for a more realistic storyline rather than Dianas more romantic one -. I for one think Jamies & Claires portrayal this season is very realistic & human after an absence of 20 years apart & Im fine with that. Im going to read some of the books after this season& hopefully doing it this way Ill enjoy the detail without worrying about how different it is.

        • I hope you’ll come back and give us your thoughts on the books after you’ve read a few. 🙂

        • Since you are happy with the series the way it is, you may NOT want to read the books. The book series is spectacular, the TV show has its moments, but I think you will be less satisfied with the TV show. Claire was born in 1918, came back through the stones in 1968 and is now in 1766, and would not have 2017 “feelings”. The screen writers of the TV show are adapting it the best way they can while throwing in more modern attitudes and also trying to give more of Jamie’s perspective since the books are from Claire’s point of view. Nothing wrong with that, but it moves the story away from the books and some of the characters.

          • I have noticed quite a few anachronisms along the way. Especially in the Sixties segments. I graduated from high school in 1968 and my dad was a college professor, so some of the things Claire did after she came back to the present had me shaking my head. I think the screenwriters are too young to have any direct experience with the Sixties.

  10. I love Poldark but have never read the books.I’m planning to. I’ve read the Outlander books and I watch the show. I think of the changes as a way to move the plot along in a story that becomes more adventure laden than the books. Each book is around 900 pages so I see the books as filling in the details. Each book could take 3 seasons to complete and people would still miss certain parts of the books. They are that rich. I truly adore them both. Of the 39 shows only one show seemed a little off to me. There were 38 better than I could imagine. Even Diana Gabaldon wishes she had created Angus and Rupert.

    • Of course not everything in the books can be included. As you point out, just the first book alone could take multiple seasons. It has to be abridged or it flat-out won’t work. It’s just that some of the changes don’t make much sense to me.

      Angus and Rupert were in Outlander, the book, so Diana did create them. Their stories were changed a lot for the series. In the book Angus looks kind of like Andre the Giant and he doesn’t leave Leoch. Rupert in the series is a lot like Rupert in the book, they did get that right–but one of the most powerful scenes in Outlander (the book) is Rupert’s death before Culloden. Why didn’t they feel it was worth putting on screen? Who knows?

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