For the last decade or so, if you wanted to praise a TV show, you praised its novelistic construction or pointed out how it was “Dickensian” or something, just to indicate that the broad sweep of a good TV series is a very different thing from the tight focus of a good movie. Even a legitimately epic film series that tells one story, like Lord of the Rings, is far more focused and tight than the novels, which have room to be sloppy. TV shows, like novels, can kind of go all over the place, chase down things they find interesting or just wander down plot dead ends and follow characters down long rabbit trails. The analogy isn’t perfect (most procedural series are more like short story collections featuring recurring characters), but it works more often than not for serialized shows. It’s even kinda fun to imagine these series as novels written by some of the greats – The Sopranos by John Updike, say, or Mad Men by John Cheever or Lost as some weird short story collection by Ray Bradbury.
But actual novels adapted to TV series are fairly rare (in recent TV history, there’s True Blood and Bones, which is only an adaptation in the vaguest sense of the word). Sure there have been a ton of novels (mostly potboilers) turned into miniseries, but usually, when there’s a popular novel, the film rights are sold, not the television rights, despite the fact that crafting a two-to-three hour film of a novel will often lead to a situation where lots of readers’ favorite parts are excised to create a leaner story for the big screen. More often than not, films of novels just try to hit the Cliff’s Notes of the story and end up pleasing no one (unless the novel in question is so disreputable the film’s creative personnel feel they can muck with it freely – see: Godfather, The).
Novels succeed largely based on how evocative the worlds they create are. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, a good novel is one you want to get lost in. This is the primary quality novels share with TV shows, and when some critic calls The Wire Dickensian, what he or she really means is that the series creates a world that captures the broad swath of humanity in Baltimore like Dickens captured the same in London. Films, of course, can suggest worlds, but if they’re going to build them, they almost have to do so at the expense of character or plot. As a rough example of this, think of how hampered the first two Harry Potter films were by their constant desire to cram every fun bit from the books into the films. Now imagine them as 10-episode TV seasons, and you begin to get an idea of why so many networks are pursuing the idea of adapting novels as TV series.
That said, I’m not sure the recent spate of novels being chosen to be adapted as TV series are natural fits for becoming series as opposed to miniseries. I do fear that they’ll either be expanded so far that they lose whatever focus the original novels had or that they’ll focus so firmly on adapting absolutely every little thing in the book at the expense of pacing. All of that in mind, let’s take a look at five novels announced as TV series and see if it seems likely that they’ll work.
Flash Forward (ABC, picked up to series): Flash Forward, based on the Robert Sawyer novel, is probably the least likely of these series to be a faithful adaptation. While the other four novels discussed here come with some sort of critical acclaim, Flash Forward is more or less a fun popcorn read, and ABC and executive producers Brannon Braga and David Goyer have mostly just stripped its central conceit – on one day for a couple of minutes, everyone on Earth experiences a flash forward of what they’ll be doing at some point in the future – and changed everything else, even how far the characters look into the future (in the TV series, it’s a matter of months; in the novel, it’s over two decades). Because the series will be so different from the novel, it has a pretty good chance of both angering novel loyalists but also being a pretty good TV series (and early reviews are mostly kind). The one problem here is going to be the central conceit. Once you catch up to the flash forward, will there still be a show? If the series gets a full first season, we’ll find out. Chances of succeeding: Pretty good
A Song of Ice and Fire (HBO, ordered to pilot): Based on George R.R. Martin’s lengthy, long-delayed epic fantasy series (planned to sprawl over seven books), Song is the potential series that has most excited both book and TV fans, if Internet buzz is any indication. Martin’s series, indeed, seems like a good fit for HBO (the network initially described it as “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth”), and the author, a former TV writer, will be intimately involved in turning the novels into a series. Each book will equal one season of the show, and the first announced bit of casting (Peter Dinklage as Tyrion) seems almost too good to be true. The books are dense but not so dense that their events can’t easily be conveyed in a 12 episode TV season, and the plots are intriguing with well-drawn characters. That said, the big question here is going to be expense. Once the series leaves the rather intimate first novel behind, will it have the ratings to justify the money needed to build the worlds of the later novels? Chances of succeeding: Solid
Carter Beats the Devil (AMC, in development): If there’s any series I desperately want to succeed on this list, it’s this one. I dearly love Glen David Gold’s novel, and early 20th century America seems like a potent world to build a TV series in. But if there’s any series I’m less convinced will work as a series on this list, it’s also this one. Carter is a good, good novel, but there’s not quite enough there to sustain much more than one season of television, unless you expand an already expansive novel to a point where it will burst. Carter works because its entire structure works like one of the magic tricks its protagonist performs, distracting readers from what’s going on but always keeping everything tied together in the end. A series, which would have to expand the story necessarily, would lose much of that quality. This would be better off as a miniseries or movie. Chances of succeeding: Low
Red Mars (AMC, in development): Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series is one of those hallmark series in the world of hard science fiction, which made it seem odd that a network like AMC would bring something that could be a pretty technically oriented SF thinkpiece to its slate. AMC, of course, is the hottest network in TV right now, and its big shows (Mad Men and Breaking Bad) don’t exactly play by normal TV rules. But getting their older audience to sit still for lengthy discussions of the ethics of terraforming other worlds seems like a tall order. However, most of the early press releases around the show make it sound as though it will focus more on the colonists of Mars than the ethical issues of the science. As a soap opera about space colonists, this could work, but I’m not sure it would have an audience as a more faithful adaptation. And expense, again, will be an issue. Chances of succeeding: Could go either way
Middlesex (HBO, in development): The announcement that Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer-winning novel would become a pilot for an HBO series came as a shock to many. The much-loved novel has bounced around the world of potential film adaptations for a while now, and, as with Carter, while the novel is dense, it doesn’t immediately suggest itself as a TV series. Unlike Carter, though, I’m more convinced this one can work. It’ll be shepherded to the small screen by playwright Donald Margulies, and the book’s world is just expansive enough to suggest other directions the story could go while not so expansive as to make the series too unfocused. It’ll be tough to figure out a way to juggle all of the various branches of main character Calliope’s family tree (and to find an actor capable of essaying that role) while still making the show recognizable as the same show from week to week, but HBO is a network that has always done sweeping dramas about American families very well, and Middlesex fits that description to a T. I’m cautiously optimistic. Chances of succeeding: Pretty good
That said, I’ll be surprised if all four of the latter choices make it to series. They all carry some huge risks, especially in the financial arena, and networks are being more cautious than usual recently. Still, stick up for your pick out of those five as the series you most want to see in comments. And while you’re at it, pick the book you’d most like to see turned into a TV series. I’ll say I’d love to see a series of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, running over four eight-episode seasons. The period Perlstein covers (roughly 1964 to 1972) has been covered to death in film and TV, but his sweeping focus would make for an interesting take on the era, and while Nixon has been analyzed to death, he’d provide a compelling enough figure to anchor the show and keep it from getting too sprawling.