It’s true that TV shows like Friday Night Lights and Gossip Girl got their start as books. But many “adaptations” merely take inspiration from their optioned originals; MASH, for example, was based on a book, too, but ended up growing far beyond the story’s scope.
Luckilyy for literary readers, more page-to-TV adaptations are focusing on contemporary novels — and more writers are experimenting with new formats.
What may be surprising, though, is how many authors are working on their own shows. “It’s not just that novels make good adaptations,” [producer Michael] London says. “It’s that novelists make good adapters.” Right now, prominent writers are creating original cable series (Salman Rushdie, Sam Lipsyte, Gary Shteyngart, and Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman) or adapting their own books (Jonathan Franzen and “The Corrections,” Tom Perrotta and “The Leftovers”). And while many of these writers have dabbled in screenplays, their rush to cable represents something new. Novelists who used to lament the rise of television now want a chance to write for it, and that says something about the evolution of cable TV — and maybe about the evolution of literary authorship.
The publishing world is taking cues from serializations’ success, too; Salon reported that author Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves) will be publishing his forthcoming novel The Familiar in 27 volumes, a new “chapter” every four months.
We’re looking forward to seeing the way some of our favorite contemporary novels play out on the small screen. Here are a few of the adaptations we’re eagerly anticipating (and a few that we already love):
Tune in soon
Wolf Hall (HBO/BBC, 2012): Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning novel tells the story of Henry VIII’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, and is the first in a planned series of three books.
A Visit From The Goon Squad (HBO, unknown): Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Jennifer Egan’s novel centers on an aging rock record exec, flashing back and forth through time to tell the story of his rise to the top and unraveling the reasons why it wasn’t what he expected.
Swamplandia! (HBO, unknown): The surreal story of a 12-year-old alligator wrestler’s quest to find her missing sister, Karen Russell’s first novel will make an excellent show blending drama and fantasy.
The Leftovers (HBO, 2012): The Rapture is a hot topic these days, but nobody’s really wondered what life will be like for those left behind — until now. Tom Perrotta puts an extremely realistic spin on an oft-comical topic in his 2011 novel, and he’s adapting the scripts himself.
“This long-form, hour-long drama is the most exciting stuff in American pop culture right now,” Perrotta told the Times. “A TV series allows you to explore everything, to focus in when you need to focus in and to sprawl when you need to sprawl,” he says. “It’s a very novelistic medium, and you can expand the novel — you can just keep going.”
Middlesex (HBO, unknown): We’re crossing our fingers that this series, announced in 2009, is still in development; Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel explores several generations of an expansive Greek family and the life of an intersex teen in modern-day Michigan.
Miniseries you may have missed
Adapted from Michel Faber’s 2002 novel of the same name and aired as a four-part miniseries on BBC Two earlier this year, The Crimson Petal and the White is set in Victorian London and follows the growing relationship between white collar William Rackley and a young, philosophical prostitute named Sugar. As the pair grow closer, the line between Rackley’s complex family life and his affair with Sugar begins to blur. The show stars Chris O’Dowd, recently seen alongside Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids.
An oldie, but a goodie. Based on Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 novel of the same name, this 1993 BBC miniseries featured a soundtrack by David Bowie, a fitting choice given the plot: Buddha follows a mixed-race UK teen (played by Lost’s Naveen Andrews) attempting to find his place in various fringe communities of '70s-era London. Exploring race, sexuality, creativity, politics and the intersections of each, the show is a semi-autobiographical tale of Kureishi’s own coming of age.
A two-part mini-series first aired on HBO in 2005, Empire Falls was adapted from Richard Russo’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Harris, Helen Hunt and Paul Newman, the series explores a small, run-down Maine town through the lives of a restaurateur and his regulars.