I seem to be watching several TV shows based on books at the moment. Not that it’s in any way a new phenomenon. I was raised on The Waltons, M*A*S*H, Lovejoy, Jeeves and Wooster, BBC Shakespeare and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes. (To be honest, I didn’t even know those first three were based on books until recently.) And let’s not forget Woof! and, well, basically all children’s TV shows from my youth (or so it sometimes feels). Books, and especially series of books, are ripe for TV adaptation, where more time can be devoted to the plot than a film allows.
Of the examples I’m currently watching, I have read none of the books. There’s The Walking Dead (Tim is reading the comics and says they’re more graphic and violent than the TV show, which I can’t say appeals to me), Orange is the New Black (how have multiple series been made from one slight memoir?), Mr Selfridge (same question re this biography), Masters of Sex (this is one book I’d like to read, actually) and True Blood (I really can’t tell if I’d like the books but I lean towards not).
It seems that the books I like to read are more likely to be turned into mini-series. Recently we’ve had Jamaica Inn, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Arthur & George. And I’ll add Case Histories to this list because while while I’ve not read the Jackson Brodie novels (yet) I know I like Kate Atkinson’s writing.
There are some shows that are more loosely inspired by the books. You could put recent comic-book hero series in here such as Arrow and Daredevil (the former is slight and fun, the latter good but brutal). I loved the BBC’s Dirk Gently series and am very sad they’re not bringing it back. And of course Sherlock is in this same vein, riffing off the original stories but changing quite a lot too. Basically all the drama the BBC makes apart from Doctor Who was a book first. I quite like that about the BBC. They did some excellent modern interpretations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a few years back.
And there’s no sign of this being a trend that’s going away. Shows currently in development include MaddAdam and American Gods, both of which greatly excite me. And next week we get a new BBC production of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Then there are the instances where it’s been the other way round: books spun off from TV shows. Both Star Trek and Doctor Who have long backlists by now of this, but I’m thinking more of those awesomely terrible kids’ books I had when I was 8 or so – Gruey, The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Rentaghost – from the rare kids’ shows that hadn’t been books to begin with.
Of course the best example of this is Neverwhere. I haven’t heard the recent radio play starring James McAvoy and Natalie Dormer, and I don’t doubt that it’s very good, but there’s something about that 1996 production, with its cheap special effects and Laura Fraser as Door. Neil Gaiman wrote the book because he couldn’t fit all his brilliant ideas in the TV show, and they are both really terrific.
What are your favourite TV shows based on books?