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Big screen little screen: the art of book adaptations

The art of adapting works of literature for either the cinema or television is one fraught with tension. While it is easier to get a project off the ground that has a pre-existing audience, said audience will have an attachment to the work and tear you, the adaptor, to pieces if you get it wrong. There is also the problem for studio executives that just because the works already have an audience, it doesn’t mean they will pay a huge amount to see them as adaptations on the big screen.

Back in the 80s and 90s, this often would lead to various adaptations of now quite popular works being shunted off to the small screen to be made into low-budget miniseries. These included 1988’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Stephen King’s It (1990), both of which have had fairly successful cinematic reincarnations in successive decades, even though the original shows tend to have fanbases held in place through their sincere delivery and nostalgic appeal. That being said, the idea that TV is for low-budget adaptations and the only way of seeing a work truly brought to life is through the cinema screen is one which has changed. 

Its first season is definitely revered as an adaptation, but there is always the risk of successive seasons milking the world without making a satisfying season

Part of this comes from a history of Hollywood adaptations not living up to expectations and the general consensus is that with rare exceptions (Jaws), the book is better than the film. There’s the problem that films often have to trim content from the book, something fans of the Harry Potter books are able to speak about at a length comparable to The Order of the Phoenix. Other issues stem from studio demand being put upon a book adaptation: take any Dr Seuss adaptation. Another component is the rising popularity of television as an art form in the late 2000s. If audiences will flock every week to see prestige original stories like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad on the small screen then it struck those in charge that they may also want to see beloved works being given the lengthy TV treatment.

With TV there is the chance to present all the material that’s in the book and even expand, give minor characters compelling arcs, show more of the world and even go beyond the events to create events that the reader hadn’t even dreamed of. One show currently doing this for instance is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which after covering the book’s content in its first season has carried on the tale of the world, albeit with a mixed critical reception. Its first season is definitely revered as an adaptation, but there is always the risk of successive seasons milking the world without making a satisfying season. 

TV’s golden age continues, with more adaptations and more freedom than ever before to adapt the weird and wonderful

The Man in the High Castle TV adaptation could also be accused of doing this. Both shows are beautiful, bleak and stylistic, but their works are open-ended and coming up with a satisfying ending is proving a challenge in both cases. TV can spin off into unsatisfying territory, film can cut works into unappealing shapes. Both mediums have their advantages and failures. 

Sometimes the choice is as to which one is easy to make. Game of Thrones could never have been done in film. It always had to be a TV series, and the fact it was granted as luscious a budget as it was meant for a long time, we were able to be fully engrossed in the world of Westeros. Similarly, the new attraction on the market His Dark Materials is more than making up for the missteps of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, adding new material while also having the time to faithfully adapt Philip Pullman’s novel. 

Ultimately which medium works depends on the story, its length, its needs both budgetary and in terms of its characters. Some books aren’t finished and therefore can be continued, whereas others say their piece and shouldn’t be forced to say any more. TV’s golden age continues, with more adaptations and more freedom than ever before to adapt the weird and wonderful. No matter what, we’re spoiled for choice in a way we haven’t been before. 

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