This week’s question: What book or series of books should be made into a TV show?
While I adore Game Of Thrones the TV show, that adoration hasn’t actually made me read the books. Instead, I spend my time reading more non-fiction stuff and, occasionally, the very silly, fluffy, beach book crap. I was on vacation recently and read a couple of examples of the latter that I think would be absolutely adaptable. One, Revenge Wears Prada, is the sequel to the already-adapted for film The Devil Wears Prada. The sequel focuses on the title character, Andy, launching her own new magazine and I’m always a sucker for that whole “journalism on TV” thing, especially when it has to do with dumb fashion stuff. (cough Ugly Betty cough) The other beach book I read, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, might have a dumb title, but its look at borderline-fictional and über-wealthy families and young people in Singapore would make a fascinating TV series à la Gossip Girl—which, not so coincidentally, also started off as a book.
I recently attended a Q&A for a new book called The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel, and I thought it would have great potential for a TV series. I guess my pitch is that it could be a more female-centric Mad Men,with its historical roots and fun play with costume and sets (the photos from Life included with the book are mesmerizing between the hairdos, color palettes, and period curiosities.) People eat up stories about motley groups thrown together in unusual circumstances so they can peg whom they like or dislike: Do you prefer the vivacious blond or the quieter brunette or the steely shorthaired one? The tragedy of these women’s relationships and loss of privacy mixed with the thrills of the space program and the support the women found in each other would create a natural tension. Make this show already! I would totally watch it. It could be like The Playboy Club only, you know, not embarrassing to everyone involved.
I’m currently re-reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, one of my favorite books because it jumps from one world to the next with immeasurable grace. Bradbury is truly one of the best sci-fi writers of all time, tying otherworldly concepts into very grounded, sometimes-troubling human qualities. And because he was so prolific, and created such a salient storytelling device in the tattoos of a weary traveler, I could see this book becoming the inspiration for a Twilight Zone-style show—modern whiz-bang mixed with incredible writing and a movie-of-the-week vibe. People care deeply about the characters in Game Of Thrones, and thus finally can overlook its fantasy elements, as so many die-hard Battlestar Galactica fans wished they would during that show’s run. Now’s the time to get more of that on the airwaves, and what better vehicle than the words of a man who inspired today’s greats?
The movies recently screwed up Donald Westlake’s Parker again, leading me to think that, with his stripped-down-for-maximum-competency amorality and faceless ruthlessness, Parker may not be a character cut for the big screen, unless the director is prepared to treat him as an abstraction, as in John Boorman’s Point Blank. But the Parker series might be just right for TV, now that brutal, amoral heroes are all the rage. I’ve been fantasizing about a Parker TV series for so long that I used to think it could only happen on HBO—though given the channel’s admirable commitment to gratuitous full-frontal nudity, that might mean that Parker would have to develop a much greater interest in the opposite sex or else plan all his jobs in strip clubs. Now, though, I think he might be just the thing for the next available time slot on FX.
I’d like to see some of the works of one of my favorite novelists, David Markson, hit the small screen. Not Wittgenstein’s Mistress. That has too much character (well, one character) and action. I’d like to see Vanishing Point or The Last Novel as TV shows. Both books are made up largely of minimalist anecdotes about authors, painters, philosophers, and other historical figures. So it’d have to be a quiz show, where this information would be parceled out as trivia. I’m not sure how scoring would work. But if the aim was to reflect the experience of reading a David Markson book, the questions would just kind of go on and on until the players would start getting exhausted and sad and overwhelmed and slowly start feeling like something was happening to them emotionally. Everyone’s a winner!
I think William Gibson’s latest series, the Blue Ant Trilogy, comprising Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero Hour, would make a pretty terrific TV show. Featuring an extensive cast of characters, some nifty technology, and just enough mystery and paranoia to fit our modern times, the show could be the next Lost. Plus, each book could be a season, giving a nice arc to the 12 to 24 episodes and having the show on a firm storyline for three years. Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy would also make a pretty awesome series, but his focus on actual technology and industry in his recent novels give them just a bit more of a hook for a show. And, since we know people are willing to watch a show about human-like robots in the future, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be turned off by some cyberpunk.
I’m mostly seeing fiction here, but some great TV and film has come out of non-fiction recently—Boardwalk Empire and Gangs Of New York come to mind, but also historical dramas like The Tudors and The Borgias. I recently read Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World, which makes the argument that, far from being the brutal invader of the popular imagination, Khan was a profoundly civilizing influence, as he build a continent-wide exchange of goods and ideas, while promoting religious freedom and meritocracy. But I think a great historical TV drama could be made not out of that book, but out of its sequel, The Secret History Of The Mongol Queens, which tells the story of how his daughters-in-law struggled to keep the empire intact after Khan’s death. One of them, Mandhuhai, led armies on a series of successful campaigns, even riding into battle when she was pregnant. Another, Sorghanghtani Beki, saw her husband miss out on succession, and so groomed her four sons to be leaders and maneuvered them into the halls of power. In the right hands, the story has enough intrigue and warfare to be Game Of Thrones without the zombies. Although, it could use a title that makes it sound less like a Bravo reality show.
Scott Von Doviak
HBO almost did it a few years back, but ultimately decided not to go through with a series based on James Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy. Granted, adapting American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s A Rover for the small screen would pose certain challenges. Taken together, the three books span the years 1958 to 1973, and ensnarl just about every major event in that period of American history short of the moon landing (unless I’m forgetting that) in its increasingly convoluted plot. But is it really any more complicated than Game Of Thrones? There are probably more similarities than differences when you get right down to it. As Dwight Garner memorably wrote in Salon, “Reading Ellroy can be like deciphering Morse code tapped out by a pair of barely sentient testicles,” and I’ll confess to not knowing what the hell was going on about a third of the time while reading those books. At least a TV version would help me keep all the characters straight. Alas, American Tabloid is now just another movie project James Franco has attached himself to, which means we’ll have to wait for that to fall through before entertaining any fantasies about HBO resuscitating this dream project.
It’s not super well-known (yet), but Chris F. Holm’s series The Collector—comprising Dead Harvest, The Wrong Goodbye, and The Big Reap—is something I’d love to see come to the small screen. Hard-boiled, weird, and poignant, the series is about the reluctant soul collector (and world savior) Sam Thornton. Technically it’s urban fantasy, but Holm has a great ear for crime-fiction grit and rich yet dialed-in prose. And Thornton is one of the most quietly gripping characters I’ve run across in a long time. When the herd has moved on from Supernatural and The Dresden Files, and is maybe looking for a show that weds that kind of fantastic fun to something more in tune with the moral dilemmas and harrowing mood of Breaking Bad, The Collector would do the trick nicely.
The thought of Randall Miller’s forthcoming CBGB gives me a stomachache, but I’d love to see a premium-cable take on Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings On Fire. The title and the marquee names—caricatures of Patti Smith, Joey Ramone, Iggy Pop, and David Byrne get the spotlight treatment on the book’s cover—imply that Love Goes To Buildings On Fire tells a birth-of-punk-centric story that’s been told countless times at book length. However, its most interesting passages take leave of the Bowery to fold a wider breadth of sounds and scenes into its portrait of “Ford To City: Drop Dead”-era New York: developments in salsa pushed forward by Fania Records, nascent hip-hop culture, the experimental works of Downtown composers. Yet for all of the superb reportage that went into Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, what convinces me it would make a great TV show is the way Hermes uses the half-decade that “changed music forever” as a vehicle for telling the story of an American city that very nearly ate itself—but didn’t. Drawing on the author’s own teenaged experiences, there’s a secret, ensemble-ready narrative waiting to be brought out of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire. This show’s most interesting characters wouldn’t be the people onstage at CBGB, but rather the kids hanging around outside the door, or the graffiti writers racing to be the first to tag an entire subway train. And translating the book to the screen could do one thing Hermes’ words, no matter how expressive or descriptive, never can: Matching the actual music to the moments happening within and around it.
There’s a magical world I imagine sometimes where both Game Of Thrones and Veronica Mars are huge phenomena, and some network executive says “Quick! I need a fantasy mystery show! What have we got?” and somehow, a fantasy geek with knowledge of long-out-of-print cult novels stands up and suggests Barry Hughart’s Bridge Of Birds. It’s the first in a trilogy of light-hearted novels set in “an ancient China that never was,” half-history, half-legend. Protagonists Master Li, a venerable sage with a slight flaw in his character, and Number Ten Ox, his strong, handsome, and occasionally dense young assistant, travel around China solving unsolvable supernatural mysteries. It would work perfectly as an episodic procedural with an increasingly important season-long arc, perhaps involving the main plots of the three novels. All the pieces are in place for a fantastic mystery show that’s part X-Files, part Terriers, in a setting underserved by most American media. It would also be the most expensive, lowest-rated show of all time, but hey, I’d watch the hell out of it for its 12 episodes before cancellation.
A lot of my favorite books end in a spectacular, definitive way that seems more suited to film than television, so this prompt had me thinking for a while. I love the idea of seeing some of my favorite books onscreen in a great adaptation—Haruki Murakami’s work is built for a creepy, dreamlike cinematic interpretation, and all of John Green’s novels deserve to be brought to a wider audience. At the same time, though, I like watching a television series that feels like it can continue, rather than just expire at the conclusion of the story. In that sense, I’m looking for an immersive atmosphere and compelling characters. I think Junot Díaz’s stories could make a fantastic television series. It wouldn’t even be difficult to produce—the settings are all real, after all. The (mis)adventures of Yunior, as he grows up in the Dominican Republic and Washington Heights, New Jersey, would make for a haunting, beautiful season or three of television. It would certainly be experimental; a bit off the beaten path. But the right treatment would showcase the spare elegance of Díaz’s prose and find the humanity in each story, each character, each episode.
The last thing the world needs is another show about homicide detectives, but despite that fact, I can’t answer this with anything other than Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Set in an urban Dublin homicide unit but focusing on crimes that take place in more of the suburban areas surrounding the city, French’s novels are far more interested in the people who investigate the crime than the crime itself and how the detectives’ personal secrets intertwine with the secrets of the people they’re investigating to form a sort of Hannibal-esque rot around the edges of Dublin. Each book follows a different detective in the squad (who is always familiar to the reader, having popped up in earlier books as a supporting character) making them perfect to form a sort of anthology crime series focused on a different detective and case each season, avoiding the sort of viewer fatigue that can come from having to twist the same main characters into a shocking new case each season (or the same case in more than one season, ahem, The Killing). The best of these books is the first in the series, In The Woods, a fantastically claustrophobic meditation on how the things that happen to us as children define our whole lives. In The Woods’ lovely character study and wonderful sense of place would be the perfect way to kick off a modern crime series that treats both the victims and the detectives who fight for them with the supreme humanity they deserve.
I’d love to see Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy on HBO, if only to resurrect the anthology show, but like a lot of my favorite books, I can’t imagine wanting to live in that world for seasons on end. For instance, it would take some real vision to make season two of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, though I’d love to see someone pull it off. I wish I knew more about sci-fi or fantasy epics. It’s been too long since I’ve had a good space opera. A friend recently recommended me a book that’s “like Game Of Thrones only super gay,” which is pretty much all I want from television these days. Also I haven’t read it yet, and not knowing what comes next is so exciting. So I’d pick a book based, not on plot but on tone or style. Go easy on the scold narrative in Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? and just give me years and years of Seussian misfortune. Pair it with Adventure Time. Television solved.
My 10-year-old self would want another shot at an Animorphs series, this time on the CW or some network more inclined toward incubating strange genre television. But my favorite television adaptations of books aren’t ones that need to strictly adhere to source material. I prefer something along the lines of Friday Night Lights, which keeps the spirit and underlying socio-economic elements of H.G. Bissinger’s book and Peter Berg’s film and then moves off in a different direction to build out a television show. In that vein, I’d like to see a television adaptation of The Last Shot, Darcy Frey’s book that follows urban youth basketball players on Coney Island—most notably future NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury—in a Hoop Dreams style. It’s similar to Bissinger’s book in that it’s less of a pure sports book than it is social commentary. But I think its television translation would do for basketball what Friday Night Lights did for football, begetting a show that used a Texas institution as a jumping-off point to depict how families are affected by the weight given to sports.
I don’t know if there’s enough material for a series, but I sure as heck would love to see a visualization of What’s Your Poo Telling You? by Josh Richman and Anish Sheth, M.D. I’m serious. Dr. Oz talks about poop all the time on his show, but it’s about as entertaining as watching mushrooms grow. Richman and Sheth not only categorize every kind of poop you can imagine, but do so in a way that is not only funny, but also informative. They could even make this into a cartoon; if Charmin can build a successful animated campaign around the phrase “Does a bear shit in the woods?,” this can’t be too much of a stretch.
I’ve frequently said how much I’d like HBO to turn Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland into a four-season, 32-episode series, each season detailing a new section of Nixon’s career and the rise of an America that made his comeback from what appeared to be utter obsolescence possible. I’d also love to see a series set in Charles Stross’ Accelerando universe, a world where humans have created technology that effectively makes us immortal and allows us to let us be whatever we might want to in the moment, to the degree that our outward appearances change like we might change our clothes right now. (Hey, if a lead actor is a problem, this would make it easier to dump him from the show, no?) Those stories (and the novel Glasshouse, which is set in the same world) pop with so much imagination that I imagine the right TV writer could get seven or eight years out of them, and TV could use more good sci-fi. But since this question seems prompted by Game Of Thrones, let me throw out a fantasy pick, too: I’d love to see HBO follow that show up with adaptations of Joe Abercrombie’s novels. There are occasional issues with the books (particularly the incredibly dark tone, which seems almost worthy of parody here and there), but they feature vivid characters, a well-thought-out low fantasy universe, and some great plotting. Even better: After an initial trilogy, the books turn into three one-offs, to be followed by a concluding trilogy, so there would be ample variation in storytelling form, which could be exciting.
It’s been bandied about as a possible television series on several occasions over the years, but now that Game Of Thrones has become a full-fledged pop-culture phenomenon, this would be the perfect time to bring the Wild Cards series to the small screen. Edited by George R.R. Martin, Wild Cards is an ongoing series of novels and short stories which take place in an alternate history where, in 1946, an alien virus is dropped over New York City, rewriting the DNA of the humans who contract it and killing 90 percent of them outright, but of the remainder, 9 percent become deformed (the so-called Jokers), and the remaining 1 percent—“Aces”—gain superhuman abilities. Some of the stories follow a traditional superhero format, while others meld sci-fi attributes to otherwise real-world events, but the whole thing is a lot of fun, especially when there’s exploration of how history has changed as a result of the Wild Card virus, including Fidel Castro coaching the Brooklyn Dodgers and Frank Zappa Jr. as the vice president of the United States. Given that Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers couldn’t get green-lit as a series on FX and Alphas only lasted for two seasons on Syfy, maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but given how happy HBO must be with Martin right about now, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t at least consider letting him take a shot at bringing Wild Cards to TV.
If there’s room for one more epic fantasy series on TV, I’d like to see David Eddings’ Belgariad get the small-screen treatment. The series focuses on a young farm boy named Garion, who slowly discovers he is the centerpiece of an ancient prophecy that will eventually pit him against a maimed and evil god. The books follow his development as a man and as a powerful warrior and sorcerer as he slowly learns more about who and what he is. At the same time, he’s crossing the entirety of the world the books are set in, experiencing all of its strange and wondrous things, from sinister snake people to demon-worshiping savages. Sure, it’s just another workthrough of pretty standard fantasy tropes and the hero’s journey, but it’s a much different take on those tropes than something like Game Of Thrones, with an equally epic sweep and cast of characters. It’s beautifully executed and a hell of a lot of fun, which never hurts. If the show could capture half the magic of the books, it should be a guaranteed hit.
Laura M. Browning
Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, a compelling take on love, vampires, and cinnamon rolls, could be a fantastic TV series if audiences were willing to indulge just one more vampire fantasy. Besides a vivid and interesting world that’s not too far off from our own, there are plenty of loose ends to keep TV writers occupied for a while (and McKinley will not be writing a sequel). The protagonist, Rae Blaise (known as Sunshine), would invariably be compared to Buffy, but is that such a bad thing?
Also, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a collaborative book between YA authors John Green and David Levithan about, yes, two teenaged boys named Will Grayson, would make for a touching and light-hearted drama. The Wills meet improbably in a Chicago porn shop, and the chapters alternate points of view, which would make for some interesting television (apparently the two authors actually wrote the first several chapters separately before showing them to each other). Finally, Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City contains its reasons in the subtitle: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America. The sensationalized murder-mystery and the period intrigue surely have a few seasons’ of great television in it.
Granted, film and television adaptations for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series have been teased, then fallen through, several times over, but I always thought the series was far better suited for television than film. With TV, there would be more room to allow for the telling details King likes to weave into his characters, details that would surely be sacrificed in the name of brevity for a movie version. And even if TV writers decide to stray a bit from the novels (as does Game Of Thrones), the feudal, magical, wild West society in which the tales are set offer almost infinite allegorical possibilities. The comics series I would most like to see become a television show is probably Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan. Everything about the protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, screams dramatic anti-hero, and there are enough twists and turns in the narrative to keep every season compelling. Besides, that mindfuck of a series ending would surely keep people arguing for a while.