The Book-to-TV Pipeline

Coming late to this, but last June there was an interesting article in The Atlantic about the rise in literary adaptations on television (broadly defined to include streaming services). It’s fascinating because there’s some evidence that there is so much adaptation going on that it’s actually impacting the publishing process.

Why is that? Part of it is just because there’s so much TV content being generated these days that producers are turning to extant products to fill the demand (per another, more recent article, the same demand is also creating a new boom in work for “older” actresses). But there are also certain features that are prevalent in titles that are optioned for adaptation (although not present in all), including “episodic plots, ensemble cases, and intricate world-building.” While, certainly, there are books (or short stories) that lend themselves more easily to adaptation, I think the story overlooks one important thing and gets another wrong, both of which are important in thinking about the current TV landscape.

What the article overlooks is that the definition of “television,” and what a TV show is these days, has changed radically with the rise of streaming services. Not only are there more TV shows than ever before, but they’ve gotten more compressed compared to the sprawling network series of the past. Where a new series once had to produce two dozen episodes per season (for multiple seasons), TV is now awash with series with only eight or ten or twelve episodes per season. Beyond that, the limited series – one season and done – has gained popularity, too. Those shorter seasons (and series) fit book adaptations particularly well, giving creators enough time to cover all the events of the book without the need to create ongoing stories to feed additional episodes/seasons.

Beyond that, the TV audience is so fractured at this point that bringing already-established fans from a book to the TV show is a solid way to build some viewership. To give some perspective, the 1993-1994 season of Seinfeld (the show’s fifth season) averaged about 30 million viewers, while the top episode of scripted TV last year (from NCIS) couldn’t even manage half that. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, pulled more than five million viewers for its first episode (across multiple showings), demonstrating the value of a built-in base audience. Even if the book being adapted isn’t a huge, sprawling series, it can bring a certain bit of gravitas to TV just by being a book!

What the article gets wrong, I think, is that “episodic” books are more likely to be snapped up for adaptation. This is presumably based on the idea that such stories lend themselves to the episodic nature of TV, but that overlooks the fact that TV is getting less and less episodic as we go along. Not only do lots of current short-season TV shows tell single, ongoing stories, they often don’t really bother making the individual episodes work on their own. To go back to Game of Thrones, episode breaks there were often purely down to time restraints, more than anything else. It would be hard to take most episodes of that show, pull them out of sequence, and show them to someone with any hope they’d know what’s going on or be hooked enough to watch more.

Truly episodic TV has a better chance to do that, at the risk of losing the overarching narrative drive. I’m thinking of two long-running series that I got into in the middle, because of episodes that told complete stories.

One was Babylon 5, famous for being designed to tell a five-season story in novelistic fashion. That said, each episode could generally be consumed as a discrete chunk (occasional multi-part episodes to one side), such as “No Surrender, No Retreat,” the first episode I saw. Now, there’s an awful lot of backstory in that season four episode that I didn’t learn until later, but the basics – who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, and who might be neither – were clear. There was an objective that could be obtained or not, within the space of the episode. It wasn’t merely a set of events playing out from the prior episode and into the next one.

The other was Doctor Who, for which my entry episode was “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which involves Agatha Christie and explains her famous disappearance. Now, Doctor Who isn’t nearly as tightly serialized as Babylon 5, but there was, again, a lot of lore, backstory, and character development about which I had no idea. But the episode told its own story, with a beginning, middle, and end. It was a great hook.

None of which is to say the super-serialized series that are so popular these days are doing it wrong (although maybe they sometimes do). But it does suggest that what’s drawing TV developers to literary titles is not their “episodic nature.”

Ultimately, I think it’s great that more and more books are being developed for TV series. There’s lots of great stuff out there and it beats pointless reboots of series from decades ago. The series usually bumps the popularity of the books, too, so authors get a couple of benefits from it! I’m all for more of that.

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