A lot of noise has been made about how longform serialised dramas are the ‘new novels,’ with numerous episodes that keep audiences hooked until the very end. But what books are now coming to screen and how are they being adapted?
In the era of ‘Peak TV,’ it’s commonly overheard that serialised television dramas are becoming the new novels – one story told over multiple episodes. Indeed, some series, like Netflix’s House of Cards, even name their episodes ‘chapters’ while, like books, there are surely now too many shows made for anyone to claim to have watched them all.
Yet while this is a more recent phenomenon, books have long been the inspiration for, and basis of, many television series. And with the need of every new television drama to create some buzz at its launch and pull viewers away from whatever else they’re watching, plus the added bonus of a ready-made fanbase, it’s no wonder books continue to be snapped up for small screen adaptations.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Poldark, Castle Rock, Ordeal by Innocence, La Cathedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), Vanity Fair, The City & The City, Sharp Objects, Women on the Verge and My Brilliant Friend are just some of the series based on books that have been on television this year, with the eagerly anticipated final season of Game of Thrones due in April.
Also on screen in 2019 are Les Misérables, The War of the Worlds, Good Omens, The Rook, The Spanish Princess and The Name of the Rose, while His Dark Materials, The Luminaries, Alex Rider, The Butchers of Berlin, Lord of the Rings and Dracula are all in the works.
Following the worldwide success of 2016 miniseries The Night Manager, UK production company The Ink Factory returned to John le Carré’s extensive catalogue of spy novels for follow-up The Little Drummer Girl, again for the BBC and AMC. Endeavor Content distributes. But those expecting a similar story would be wise to forget Tom Hiddleston’s rookie spy and Hugh Laurie’s ruthless arms dealer. In this adaptation of le Carré’s 1983 novel, Florence Pugh plays Charlie, a young actress who strikes up a relationship with Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), an Israeli officer who entangles her in a complex plot orchestrated by spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon).
After The Night Manager, Ink Factory co-founders – and le Carré’s sons – Stephen and Simon Cornwell sought another of the author’s works that played out on a cinematic level with a compelling story at its heart, but that was also quite distinct and different. The Little Drummer Girl fitted the bill.
“It’s a compelling narrative, it’s very anchored on the core characters and their progression through the story and it travels and evolves and has a complexity and richness to it that really speaks to longer-form storytelling,” says Stephen Cornwell. He believes the proliferation of book adaptations on TV is down to the fact that “great books tend to tell great stories,” and in turn, great stories attract great talent – from writers and directors to actors and everything in between.
“Obviously authorship and the awareness of titles also helps drive audience interest,” Cornwell continues. “It just feels like there are a lot of things converging right now that make adaptation, and particularly the literary form as the basis for longform storytelling, very natural and organic.”
Le Carré himself takes a keen interest in adaptations of his work, as his cameo as a waiter in The Little Drummer Girl will testify. He is happy for writers to reinterpret the story for the screen, rather than slavishly follow the fine details of the novel, Simon Cornwell says, noting that it’s more important to be true to the essence of the book than the detail of the plot. “A lot of that really starts with the importance of character. If you’re coming at this from the point of view of focusing on character, you begin to capture the core of the book and then you start to think about how you put that on screen.”
For Sarah Williams, the role of adapter is to be as invisible as possible, putting the author’s vision on screen with as little interference as possible. “When you’re dealing with a really good book, my note to myself is ‘invent as little as possible and try to present the story as authentically as possible,’” she says. “Keep as close to the book as you can.”
Williams first adapted a novel by Andrea Levy in 2009, turning in the script for BBC miniseries Small Island. She has now reunited with the author for The Long Song, a three-part BBC1 series produced by Heyday Television and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
“If you’re adapting Pride & Prejudice, you might favour your own take because it’s been done many times and everyone knows it. But I didn’t feel my take on this book was as important as this book,” Williams says of the story, set during the final days of slavery in 19th century Jamaica. “For me, that’s been the priority. That’s how I see it. Other people might read the script and think, ‘Oh Sarah, you’re all over this.’ But I don’t think so. People make a lot of fuss about adapting books, but all you want is all the best bits of the book in one place and put into a screenplay structure.”
The writer says working with Levy has been crucial to the adaptation process, most notably on condensing the life story of strong-willed slave July (Tamara Lawrance) – told over two timeframes – into a trio of hour-long episodes that also replicate Levy’s balance of drama and humour.
“Quite often it’s structurally complex to unpick, and replacing the structure for TV can be a challenge. But the emotional strength and that bittersweet tragi-comedic tone she has, it’s my favourite kind of thing,” Williams says. “For me, what she manages to do is to take you on a very emotional road that has pain but also laughter. There are some very funny moments but it’s never trivialising the subject matter.”
The producers behind Swedish spy thriller Hamilton have taken a different approach to adaptation, however. Jan Guillou published his first novel about the character, dubbed Sweden’s James Bond, in 1986, and more than a dozen have followed. But rather than creating a period drama setting intelligence officer Carl Hamilton in the midst of the Cold War, which was ongoing when the books were first released, DramaCorp-Pampas Studios is placing the character firmly in the present day during what might be considered a Cold War 2.0. Airing in 2020 first on Scandinavian streamer C More and then on Sweden’s TV4 and ZDF in Germany, Hamilton is distributed by Beta Film worldwide and ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) in German-speaking territories.
“This is the first time these novels have been adapted into a TV series. When pitching it, the idea was really to reboot the character, the universe, the novels and the stories for a serialised format,” says executive producer Patrick Nebout. “We had extensive meetings to find the essence and the core of these novels and, from there on, to develop an original story that is relevant to a contemporary audience. So it’s not an adaptation of the novel, it’s a new origin series based on the universe and the main character of Hamilton.”
The strategy echoes that employed by co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland when they reimagined Tom Clancy’s action hero Jack Ryan for Amazon Prime Video, creating a series based on Clancy’s characters. A second season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was ordered by the US streaming giant before the first debuted in August.
Similarly, Hamilton is designed as a long-running series, with future seasons likely to leave the novels behind entirely. “In the first season, we pick things from different novels that really are part of the audience’s expectation. But then we will take the next seasons somewhere else,” Nebout says. “We leave the novels and find our own way. These series are also designed to not only touch Nordic audiences but also to travel, so we’re looking for the universal elements in the story and the characters.”
New adaptations aren’t just playing with the source material, but the traditional television format too. Italian drama Donne, based on Andrea Camilleri’s collection of short stories, plays out over 10 10-minute episodes on Rai Uno. Produced by Anele Production and distributed by RaiCom, it recreates Camilleri’s meetings and personal experiences with 10 women, recounting discoveries of seduction and sex as he attempts to “solve the enigma that is the universe of women.”
“The literary material was so rich to start with that the skill was neither to add nor remove, but only to enhance what was already incredible,” creator Gloria Giorgianni says of the adaptation. “That was the only difficulty, really.
“Creating original content is great, but adapting is even more challenging. Recreating the visual sensations of a book is an incredible challenge. But starting with a great writer, a book helps to have a set narrative structure and to have a world of reference at hand.”
Michel Bussi is the author of bestselling novels including After the Crash and Black Water Lilies, with the former adapted into a four-part miniseries by CPB Films for French network M6. Global Screen holds distribution rights. The thriller is set after a plane crashes in the Alps, with just one survivor – a baby girl. When two families claim the child as their own, a detective is hired to find out the truth.
Book adaptations are more popular than ever because “they offer rich plots and are generally more original than that usually offered on television,” according to Bussi, who adds: “Writers do not limit themselves to their imagination.”
But the author never considers a future adaptation when writing his novels, admitting to building “the most complex and twisted stories possible to give the producers a sleepless night, often using literary processes difficult to reproduce on screen. This forces the directors to be very imaginative.”
Bussi will discuss his novel with the writers at the start of the development process, but then leaves them “completely free” to take the project in their own direction. “My stories are based on some fundamental pillars that must be preserved. It is quite easy to agree on them with a screenwriter or a producer because they are a bit like the DNA of the story,” he says. “Then the removal of certain chapters or certain characters for the needs of the adaptation is often a necessary crime.”
Keeping the DNA of the source material was also essential in making Swedish drama Kristina Ohlsson’s STHLM Requiem, based on Ohlsson’s detective novels. The 10-part series, with five stories told over two episodes each, follows an unconventional criminologist solving cases as part of a special investigations unit within the Stockholm police.
Black Spark Film & TV producer Piodor Gustafsson says Ohlsson’s background working with the police has ensured gripping, factually accurate plots. Even so, “there’s a lot of things you have to take out because they’re inner thoughts, or events move away from the main character, so we have to simplify and create characters that work all through the 10 episodes,” he says of the drama, produced for TV4, C-More and ZDF and distributed by ZDFE. “There were a lot of changes but I believe we kept the main feeling in the books. Kristina’s very happy about it, so I think we did something right.”
Gustafsson says adapting a novel means “you always have to be very brutal in the beginning and only use what you think is extremely useful to build your series.” But then the director, in this case Karin Fahlén, can use the book to inform the visual style on screen. “We’re not dependant on Kristina’s approval but we want her to be happy, so she’s involved in reading the scripts, and also the writers ask her questions.”
Fahlén continues: “With good books, you get a universe laid out in front of you when you read them. I think that happens to all of us. I could only follow my own vision, what I saw, and then I had a close collaboration with the set designer and the photographer and we found we almost didn’t have to talk. Things flowed really easily and we found our universe.”
Kate Brooke is used to stepping into different worlds, whether it’s the early 1900s with Mr Selfridge, Renaissance Italy with Medici: Masters of Florence or creating a dark thriller in crime drama Bancroft. For her latest project, however, she plunged into a world of witches, vampires and demons with the adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s fantasy novel A Discovery of Witches. Produced by Bad Wolf for Sky1 in the UK, it has been renewed for second and third seasons following its launch this autumn.
This was the first time Brooke had dipped her toes into the fantasy genre, with a story that introduces a variety of supernatural species all living together in plain sight and addresses political and evolutionary issues that she says feel incredibly contemporary. There’s also a love story between lead characters Diana Bishop (a witch played by Teresa Palmer) and Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode’s vampire).
A Discovery of Witches didn’t lend itself directly to adaptation, however, owing to its first-person perspective and huge amounts of backstory that comes with each character. Brooke sought to introduce characters earlier on screen so they are already familiar by the time they become more central to the story. She also decided to give Matthew 50% of the narrative, which involved building the character beyond what was in the book. “But that’s fun for an adapter because you can begin to bring your own imagination and meld it in Debs’ world. Obviously I was always in contact with Debs about that,” Brooke says.
What’s notable about many adaptations today, including A Discovery of Witches, is that they might have been considered too niche or even impractical to make several years ago. But the explosion of content on screen means networks are now more open to genre drama, particularly fantasy and sci-fi, than they were previously, while technological and financial advances also mean exciting new worlds can be realised with the cinematic quality audiences demand.
The rise of serialised television means books that come with deep mythologies can also be retold, with writers not forced to cram everything into a feature-length running time.
Brooke believes there’s a safety net to adaptations because people know the story has an end. “It’s much easier to commission an adaptation but I do think we need to continue to engage in new writing,” she says. “There’s so much content, there’s a fear that sometimes original pieces don’t push through.”
But Stephen Cornwell says original series and adaptations can inform each other. “A great adaptation can inspire someone to do a great piece of original storytelling,” he adds. “I don’t think they are in any sense in competition with each other.”
tagged in: A Discovery of Witches, After the Crash, Karin Fahlén, Patrick Nebout, Piodor Gustafsson, Sarah Williams, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Cornwell, STHLM Requiem, The Little Drummer Girl, The Rook, The Spanish Princess