Game of Thrones is just the latest book series to find a friendly place in prime time. Ever since there were cathode ray tubes, television has had a love affair with adapting books. Afterall, a television show or miniseries based on an existing work of fiction comes with a story, a ready-made audience and in-place publicity. You can’t lose.
Oh yes you can. The fact that some novels don’t lend themselves to adaptation to the small screen is rarely a debate or consideration with networks. Plus, you can always just change the story to make it more TV-friendly.
Here are a few well-known literary works that thrived or suffered on the small screen:
THE THORN BIRDS (1983) – Based on the Colleen McCullough’s 1977 potboiler about an Australian sheep dynasty, a priest (Richard Chamberlain) and a woman he can’t stay away from (Rachel Ward), this trashy miniseries earned big time ratings and a lot of controversy (which may explain the ratings). The fact it premiered on Palm Sunday didn’t help. It is said that McDonald’s bought ad time on The Thorn Birds – but only up to the priest/girl sex scene:
BAND OF BROTHERS (2001) – Based on Stephen Ambrose’s historical book on the exploits of the American “Easy” Company during World War 2. The scrupulously researched miniseries was obviously a spinoff from the success of executive producer Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan. Many argue that Band of Brothers is better – combining real war stories with a certain amount of dramatic licence.
But even with heavyweights Spielberg and Tom Hanks on board, it was a huge gamble for HBO. Made with no stars, and a budget of $125 million, the 11-hour epic covered the war from start until well after the fall of Germany. Its episodic approach was gritty, grim and certainly not heroic. And it was a huge hit with viewers and critics, inspiring its even grimmer sequel-of-sorts The Pacific (2010):
THE WALKING DEAD (2010- ) – This zombies-take-charge drama series has a graphic novel as its source. Which is just a fancy way to say comic book. Sorry, nerds. Still, a comic book is a perfect vehicle for TV. It’s like having your TV show’s visuals already worked out shot-for-bloody-shot. The graphic novel and series differ slightly only in plot and character. And though the TV show has been on for two seasons, it has only used the plotline of the first 12 comic books – with more than 75 remaining, enough for seasons three to eight. Walking Dead fans are split on which version they prefer but I side with the TV show. What’s a good zombie story without the slow undead shuffle-and-grunt and that squishy bat-to-brain sound? Here’s a recap of some of what you may have missed so far:
THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1980) – Many have tried to adapt Ray Bradbury’s prose to the screen and almost all have failed. This four-hour miniseries is not the exception. Although penned by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Twilight Zone), it’s a dull, somewhat ponderous affair with some of the worst special effects ever put to film. As an adaptation of the book, it’s fairly faithful in parts. The big problem is the original “novel” wasn’t a novel. It was a series of short stories tied around the colonization of Mars. Astronaut Rock Hudson tries to tie all the disparate bits together with little success. Minus the poetry of Bradbury, this comes off as tough to watch:
SHERLOCK HOLMES (1984-1995) – This TV series is generally considered the most faithful adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories. How faithful? When the producers decided they wanted Sherlock Holmes to beat his cocaine habit, they first asked permission of Doyle’s daughter. Most fans cite a pitch-perfect Jeremy Brett as the most authentic Holmes ever put to screen. In all, the series turned 42 of Doyle’s 60 short stories into TV episodes. It might have done them all were it not for the abrupt death of Brett in 1995:
THE VAMPIRE DIARIES (2009- ) – This teen CW TV series was obviously inspired by the Twilight movies. Well, kinda. In truth, The Vampire Diaries is based on a book series by L.J. Smith that was around long before there were pasty, shirtless vampires. It just took the teen blocksucker craze to bring it back from the dead. The TV series concentrates on a small town and the love triangle between a girl and two feuding vampire brothers (“You suck! No – you suck!”). Initially dismissed as warmed-over Twilight, The Vampire Diaries is now among CW’s biggest hits. As for original author Smith? She got canned by her publisher and no longer writes for the book series:
THE STAND (1994) – A giant miniseries based on one whopper of a book by Stephen King, this adaptation is extremely faithful to the novel. How could it not be? King wrote the script himself. Directed by Mick Garris, it’s an apocalyptic tale in which a virus wipes out all but a handful of humans, and they all end up squaring off in a battle of good and evil in Las Vegas. Gary Sinise heads a cast that includes Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald.
I always hated the book’s climax (which involves a literal “Hand of God”). Unfortunately, the miniseries keeps that ending. Oh well. His story. His rules. The King/Garris TV collaborations also include the miniseries The Shining (1997) and last year’s Bag of Bones :
MILDRED PIERCE (2011) – Most folks remember the 1945 film noir classic with Joan Crawford. But this HBO miniseries, starring Kate Winslet, is actually based on the original 1941 James Cain novel about a Depression era mother who will do almost anything for her horrible, horrible daughter. Not sure the story is better in its expanded, five-hour form, but it looks great, and is pretty perverse in spots: