From Series to Screen: Why Do We Watch?

One week after the finale that had many TV-based Game of Thrones fan saying “WTF?”, True Blood has returned for a fourth season with a premiere that was actually pretty lighthearted and light on the gore.  And the quick transition between two shows I watch and like has me comparing the two – not against each other, but against the book series that they’re based on.  I noticed that though both are popular, HBO shows based on books that were also popular to begin with, they have decidedly different approaches to bringing the characters to television, that I will now call The Fanboy and The Upstart (I hope those are equally condescending).  And I haven’t chosen, yet, which I prefer.

The Fanboy – Pro

Game of Thrones is a mostly strict interpretation of the first novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Though slight adjustments have been made for pacing and a different narration structure, no one could ever say that Game of Thrones is not respected by the crew behind the television series.  The love is evident in each sweeping view of the landscape, in the carefully crafted script that contains more than a little of the novel, in scenes recreated so carefully that I instantly recognized them in the very first trailer I saw.

And the rest of the fans, the ones sitting at home, appreciate that respect.  They’re excited to finally watch what they’ve only ever seen in their minds, or at least to see what another fan saw in theirs.  Only a handful of movies and television series live up to the expectations of the fans – perhaps the Lord of the Rings films (I know, there’s always SOMETHING people like to complain about), maybe the Watchmen movie… erm… Goosebumps…  Okay, there aren’t that many strict interpretations floating around out there – and one person’s Straight and Narrow is another’s Huge Liberties (with Harry Potter falling right in the muddle middle).  But when one comes along, and does it right, it doesn’t go unappreciated.

The Fanboy – Con

The problem is, there’s often a reason why people make changes when they’re adapting something from page to screen – the pacing, for example, is a completely different beast.  Whether you’re breaking up a large work into twelve increments or attempting to condense it into two hours, chances are it’ll come out uneven unless you do some tweaking.  Sadly, I point to Watchmen once again – while I loved the source material, loved delving into the extra bits and soaking up every nuance of interaction, the whole thing dragged as a movie.  There’s also a reason why the Lord of the Rings films had an extended version later – because to put the whole thing in the theaters would alienate a good chunk of the not-yet-fans who would see it.

Luckily, Game of Thrones does not seem to be suffering this fate, at least from my perspective.  Trimming and rearranging has been done sparingly, but well.

The Upstart – Pro

So let’s say you have a book series with some incredibly fun and memorable characters, in a fun and wacky setting, like the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries.  Or maybe you have a concept that’s seriously intriguing and has endless possibilities associated with it – like the Dexter novels.  The only thing is, the books get a little… strange down the line.  Or maybe they don’t quite match the tone you were going for.  That’s okay!  With a loose interpretation of the source material, you can take all the best stuff and it’s not even plagiarizing.  And since you’re not bound to keep it 1:1, you can think on your feet a little more, and let the series evolve organically.

For example, maybe everyone absolutely loves that character who gets killed off in the first novel – you can keep him around if you want to!  You can introduce brand-new characters, too, to really flesh out the world, or fully explore concepts that were only broadly sketched out in the novels.  And best of all for the viewers, even if they’ve read and loved every book in the series, they don’t know what’s going to happen!  They’re tuning in, not just out of loyalty, but to get answers, just like everyone else.

The Upstart – Con

That is, of course, assuming you haven’t alienated or royally pissed off the fans of the books.  I have a personal example – The Vampire Diaries.  I read the first Vampire Diaries novel when I was only seven years old (yes, completely inappropriate, oh well).  I know those books backward and forward.  When it was first announced that my childhood favorites (which were actually out of print for years) were now going to be resurrected as a TV series I was incredibly excited – until I saw the casting.  And watched the first episode.  Yes, I know the series has grown incredibly popular, and hey, it’s just a dumb teen series based on some dumb teen books, but it was so incredibly different I couldn’t even see a glimmer of what I loved.

There’s also the risk that none of the changes you make will actually be for the better.  That’s why I call this approach The Upstart – because I envision someone who’s absolutely sure that they can take a popular book series and make it better.  Maybe they can – after all, I certainly enjoy the series Dexter more than the books – or maybe a good source will now be wasted.

Reviewing the pros and cons of both methods, I can’t say with blanket certainty which I prefer.  I think, ultimately, the approach doesn’t matter so much as doing it well.  Is it fun seeing my imagination come perfectly to life on the screen?  Sure.  Is it exciting not knowing what’s going to happen next week?  Absolutely.  But as long as it’s good television, I’ll keep watching.

What about you?  What are some page-to-screen adaptations you’ve loved – or loathed?

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