Jo Talks Books: Why TV Adaptations of Books Are (Generally) Better Than Films

Hi everyone! I hope you’ve had a good month since I last did one of these, I did totally mean to get this up earlier so it was out in May, but I just didn’t get around to it, so it’s going to be your June discussion post instead. I have been much better at getting these out regularly this year as compared to last, and did fully intend to have one out every month, but sometimes life gets away from you!

Anyway, as I mentioned at the end of my discussion post in April, today I’m going to be talking about Book To TV Adaptations and why I generally think they work better than films. In the last few years, I’ve definitely noticed there being a bit of a swing towards more books being adapted for TV rather than film, so I wanted to talk on here a little bit about why I think that might be and why I’ve enjoyed the recent spate of TV adaptations more than the long line of book to film adaptations which have come before. I did an article about this for The National Student about five years ago, but I wanted to talk about it again here as I figured I could expand on some of my feelings a bit more!

With TV budgets getting bigger due to the rise of streaming services and the development of increasingly better special effects technology, you can do just as spectacular things on the small screen as you can on the big screen these days, so there’s no reason why big budget epic fantasies for instance, need to be purely the purview of the big screen anymore.

The episodic nature of novels means that they naturally fit better with TV, a serialised form of storytelling, as opposed to films which are meant to tell a singular narrative in one sitting. A TV series can focus on a single book over the course of the series without the limit of a two-hour runtime like a movie, meaning that TV can get into the depths of a novel in a way that movies just can’t. You get more time to explore supporting characters, more time to delve into more minor storylines of a story that might be considered unimportant in a two-hour movie but are very important to fans and more time to establish the world which is especially important for big sprawling fantasy stories. Having a story told over episodes also means you get the same kind of “one more chapter” energy that you get when reading a book, you can have episodes end on cliff-hangers, the tension created is just that bit greater than a movie where you have a singular uninterrupted narrative.

The best example I can think of for this as there is actually both a TV series, and a movie to compare and contrast, would be A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The 2004 movie with Jim Carrey tried to do far too much, combining the first three books into one movie which meant that a lot of the smaller details from the books got missed.

The TV series on the other hand, dedicated two episodes to each book, which allowed the storylines to be developed more fully and to cover the entire book series as opposed to just the first three books, which considering that the book series is so long (13 books in all) could be much more easily covered in a TV format, which lends itself better to long book series than film does: had the film series taken off and they had followed the same format of 3 books for each film, it would have taken four films at least to cover the same amount of material and in much less depth.

With film adaptations, there is really only enough time to focus on the main characters, and the side characters, who we so often love just as much as the protagonists, don’t really get a look in. With TV shows, especially those with a reasonable episode count, or that go on for multiple seasons, you have the time to potentially take an episode to dive into some of the side characters. This is seen in the TV adaptation of 13 Reasons Why, which for all its many flaws, does expand the story beyond Clay’s limited POV in the book. As with the book, the first season (which really should have been the only one, but that’s neither here nor there) dedicates an episode to each tape, but whereas in the book, we merely see Clay’s reaction to events and the scope is very limited, the TV series delves much further into the other characters’ on the tapes. Had it been a film, I doubt this would have been the case, the focus would have largely remained on Clay with the other characters in the periphery because there wouldn’t have been the time to explore each tape in detail.

Some books are also just too big to be given justice in a film. I’ll use Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix as an example: it’s a nearly 900 page book. It’s also somehow one of the SHORTEST of the films. How does this make any sense? Now granted, I actually didn’t mind it being compressed because that book was WAY TOO LONG, but the parts they chose to cut made no sense! Cutting the bit with Neville’s parents in St Mungo’s when when find out what happened to them? That was actually a pretty critical part in the book, especially when it came to the whole prophecy thing and the fact it could have been Neville instead of Harry, but all we get in the film is a short scene of Neville explaining what happened to Harry.

I feel like as a general rule of thumb, any book over about 500 pages or so, is going to be too compressed as a movie, and needs the extra screen time that a TV series will offer. This is especially true for fantasy books where there is so much detail and world building crammed in there, that try as they might, filmmakers are never going to be able to translate all of it to the big screen. This is something that despite all of the flaws of the later series, the Game of Thrones producers understood well: that series would never have worked on the big screen because there would have just been so much that had to be cut in order to meet a 2 to 3 hour running time.

However there are of course, like with films, negatives to TV adaptation. For me, the main one is that a book tells a singular story. TV shows generally are intended to last for multiple seasons and that works out fine in adaptation if the source material is a series of novels, like for example, the Grishaverse, which has many stories to tell and Shadow and Bone could easily run for at least seven seasons if they adapt every single novel in the Grishaverse, and even if they only do the original trilogy + Six of Crows duology, that’s still five seasons. Something like Outlander, again, huge book series, there are apparently ten books planned in all, so that’s a guaranteed ten seasons worth of material.

However, there can be cases where a series is so popular that the show keeps going despite outrunning the original source material. Now I love The Handmaid’s Tale, don’t get me wrong, but it long ago outlived the source material of the book (which I will admit I have not read, but I know that it’s a fairly short book!) and whilst in some ways that’s a good thing (more development for the characters, the world etc), it has resulted in a strange catch-22 situation in the last few seasons where we were stuck in this vicious cycle of June attempting to escape Gilead but then having to be brought back because of plot. I hope that the events of Season 4 mean that we have finally broken out of that, but even then, it doesn’t feel like there’s a planned ending in sight. This is a major pitfall when you drag a book out past its source material: 13 Reasons Why suffered from it too, continuing on because the first season was successful, but without having the material to justify it. A single novel will generally only have enough material to justify a limited series, or a mini-series if it is a particularly short book, and continuing on past the natural endpoint can mean a decline in quality.

Some books are also just really difficult to film well no matter what the medium is. They were intended to be consumed in their original format and they just don’t translate well to the screen, despite the efforts of those involved. For me, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a good example of this, though I admit, I haven’t yet seen the new TV series, so maybe that works better (although most reviews I’ve seen indicate that isn’t the case) but the complicated interconnected timeline of the book (Henry travels back and forth within his own timeline a lot) is difficult to translate well on screen and the whole he goes back in time to visit his future wife as young girl, telling her that she is destined to be his wife, is uncomfortable to say the least). That’s not to say that time loop stories can’t work well, I recently watched Life After Life on BBC iPlayer and it was so good that I’m going to read the book, but Life After Life does take a fairly chronological approach to proceedings, Ursula is born, she lives a life and then at some point she dies and the whole thing starts over again. The Time Traveler’s Wife is very a-linear, it jumps around in various points in time and whilst of course not impossible to do on screen, it is far more difficult than chronological time loops. The story works on the page as there is infinite space to explore the complexities of a relationship between two people who are literally never quite in sync with each other, but translating Henry and Clare’s out-of-time relationship onto the screen is always going to be a challenge, no matter who adapts it.

Ultimately, whether a book works better as a film or a TV adaptation depends a lot on what the book is and who adapts it. TV adaptations can go wrong just as often as film ones can, and ultimately any on-screen adaptation is probably going to lose something in translation. But I do think TV has certain advantages over film in terms of storytelling format and more time and space to be faithful to a novel’s story, as well as to be able to explore both major and side characters in more depth than is possible in a two-hour movie. I’ve very much enjoyed the new trend of books being adapted to TV more frequently, and hope that we continue getting more great TV adaptations of novels for years to come.

What do you think? Do you prefer TV or film as medium for adapting books? Would you prefer that books were never adapted for screen as they inevitably end up disappointing? Any book to TV adaptations you are particularly excited for (fangirling about the upcoming Percy Jackson Disney+ series is not only allowed but highly encouraged)? Let me know in the comments!

I’ll have another discussion post up for you guys next month, though I’m not sure what I’ll be writing about just yet. In the meantime, I will have my regular Top Ten Tuesday post up on Tuesday, and I’m hoping to have my Spring Quarterly Rewind up at some point next week too, so plenty to look out for!


3 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: Why TV Adaptations of Books Are (Generally) Better Than Films

  1. WendyW 17/06/2022 / 3:48 am

    I agree the more intimate and length of TV shows is better for most book adaptations.

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