Why TV is the Best Place to Adapt a Novel

The first question that follows a novel’s initial success is normally, “When will it be made into a movie?” Why not TV?
Tv Novel Adaptations
By  · Published on August 10th, 2017

The first question that follows a novel’s initial success is normally, “When will it be made into a movie?” Why not TV?

Filmmakers have been borrowing stories from prose forever, but why cut a story meant for 300 pages to 120 minutes when there’s a better medium for adaptations out there? Before selling the rights of a story to be made into a movie, writers should consider adapting for television.

Complimentary formats

Novels have chapters for multiple reasons. They give us a much-needed break when reading longer stories. Ending a chapter at a plot’s most dynamic moment (the good ole cliffhanger) makes us want to continue reading. They offer perfect transitions for changes in perspective or time. Good writers construct their stories with chapter breaks in mind, sometimes from the very beginning of the writing process. So, to throw that format of a story out the door can dramatically change how an audience receives a story.

Television’s episodic format is a match made in heaven for novel adaptations. Elongating the story just as chapters in a book do, episodes offer a pause for the audience that longer stories need. Episodes end with a hint of something exciting to come in order to convince audiences to continue watching. They also direct audiences when to take a break from watching, whether it be their choice during a binge or the dreaded week long wait during a series’ run. Just as the author of the original story intended, audiences are given a chance for reflection without just distracting them with a new scene, like a film would.

‘The Dark Tower’

Room for more

The number one complaint of audiences who are familiar with the original story is that too much of it is missing in the adapted film. There are aspects of novels that simply can’t be translated onto the screen, but a considerable amount of cutting is needed to adapt a novel to a film. Subplots are cut and characters are even erased in order to fit a story to a film’s time limit.

Diminishing a story at all is going to be felt by fans of a book, but also by audiences who haven’t done their reading. Each aspect of a story (if well-written) contributes to the depth of a protagonist and should lead up to the climax. All scenes are imperative to the story or they should have been cut even before the final draft. When you cut a lot out for a film even a viewer new to the story can feel that something is missing from a story if they don’t understand a character’s motivation or why an event happens. If cutting a story to fit the time limit of a film ruins the audience’s understanding of the story, it may belong on TV instead.

I consider world-building that also expands understanding of a character and contributes to the plot an art form in itself. When authors spend that considerable amount of time constructing the world—and the readers imagining it, only scratching the surface of a universe is disheartening for fans of the book and movie alike.

This issue with adaptation is something our own contributor Jacob Oller addresses in his review of The Dark Tower, the latest Stephen King adaptation. Yes, it allows audiences to see the world King created, but only “hints at the mysteries and mythologies of the books.” The film doesn’t just adapt one book in the series, but multiple. It’s no wonder it fell short in the eyes of the book fans.

There simply isn’t time to include everything that’s in a book into a movie, or a TV show for that matter, but the latter offers much more space than a film. It’s also more conceivable for a TV show to expand on a story through multiple seasons than building a franchise to cover an entire series, despite Hollywood’s long love affair with sequels.

Full of character

Stories with complicated and complex characters are what we crave. Chipping away at their depth to fit into a film can change how audiences perceive them. They may come off as stupid or rash if we only see a few their actions that the author wrote.

Imagine cutting Big Little Lies into a feature film. We’d lose a lot of understanding when it comes to the characters with fewer scenes and less time to get to know them. Week by week (or one long binge session that consumes your day), audiences get to know the characters in a TV show or mini series in a delayed way that’s similar when you read about the characters in a book. Getting to know the women of Big Little Lies in this way is imperative for the pay off at the end of the series.

These stories were meant to be consumed this way, over a longer period of time. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they will do better (story wise) when given that time. It’s not like adapted TV shows aren’t doing well. Big Little LiesThe Handmaid’s Tale,  and House of Cards earned Emmy nominations this year. Disappointments like The Dark Tower may be avoided if writers look to TV first.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_