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


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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