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Is Literary Adaptation Better on Film or on Television?

Literary adaptations have been a cinematic staple for more than 100 years, but does TV offer the better format?

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of television series credits that include “based on the book by…” Game of Thrones is the most obvious example. Under the Dome was inspired by a Stephen King novel; the recent (and recently canceled) Backstrom was based on a Swedish book series by Leif W.G. Persson; this summer’s Wayward Pines is based on a trilogy by Blake Crouch; and The Last Ship – just beginning its second season – is based on William Brinkley’s 1988 novel of the same name.

Until recently, books tended to get adapted for the big screen. Indeed, the history of literary adaptation goes back to the very origins of film: pioneering filmmaker George Melies produced Cinderella, based on the Grimms’ fairy tale, in 1899. There have been hundreds of examples since then, but it might be simpler to point out that between 1994 and 2013, 58 percent of the top grossing movies produced were some sort of adaptation (Novels into Films: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema, George Bluestone, 2003).

In many ways, this affinity between books and films makes sense. While each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, they do share many organizational qualities. Perhaps the most important of these is the emphasis on “resolution” as a narrative virtue. Sure, we all know novels and films that don’t conclude in a tidy manner, but both artistic forms tend to tie things up neatly in the end. We might even go so far as to call their stories self-contained. Maybe a story told in book form is a bit more sprawling than two hours of film would allow, but that only gives literary snobs something to complain about. (I don’t know that I’ve ever left a theater showing of a literary adaptation and not heard someone behind me mutter “the book was sooooo much better.”)

So, are novels more suited to the film rather than the television format? Well, maybe. Among cinema’s earlier adaptations, in 1924 Erich von Stroheim decided to film every nuance of Frank Norris’ novel, McTeague (1899). His cut ran to nine and a half hours. The studio, as might be expected, cut this down to two, and the film flopped. Perhaps a TV series might have worked better, as novels often can’t be contained in the short space of typical studio film length.

Novels have found success on television in the past: ABC developed Robert Parker’s engaging Spenser mysteries into Spenser for Hire, which ran for three seasons in the ’80s. Another great series of mystery novels, by Jonathan Gash, was adapted by the BBC into the Lovejoy series (introducing American audiences to the gifted actor, Ian McShane) in the early ’90s. The BBC also produced novelist Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, which ran from 1987 to 2000 (and produced two spin-offs: Lewis [ITV, 2006-present] and Endeavour [ITV, 2012-present]). Of course, all these examples involve detective stories and all were based on novel series (as is Game of Thrones).

I’d like to approach this issue, though, from a slightly different perspective. Mikhail Bakhtin, one of the most important theorists of the novel, didn’t characterize the novel as self-contained at all. Quite the opposite: “The novelist” he writes in Novel and Epic, “is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed.” He argues that novels involve “the incomplete process of a world-in-the-making, and [are] stamped with the seal of inconclusiveness.” This description sounds more like television’s narrative format. When you read a novel, you can literally see the end coming – the pages tick by one by one, becoming a thinner and thinner stack on your right hand side. Resistance is futile.

Television series, on the other hand just don’t resolve, at least not until they must. Instead, they actively avoid resolution, delaying it to the last possible moment: the finalé (and how many of those have turned out to be satisfying?) Some soap operas have managed to milk the same plotlines for decades (See Abigail De Konik’s essay on One Life to Live in How to Watch Television). Like life, you can’t count on anything: characters may appear or disappear (see The Walking Dead), plots can be detailed and then dropped. The experience of watching television, at least in terms of the typical scripted series, seems totally at odds with reading a book.

In Bakhtin’s terms, however, we can draw a relationship between the two forms. How we do that involves his formulation of the novel as a “world-in-the-making”. For Bakhtin, the novel works as a form of virtual reality. It offers a “world” for readers to enter and experience. We don’t just read about Harry Potter, or Lisbeth Salander, or Huck Finn; we meet them, we know them, we experience life right along with them. Our emotions are tied up with what happens to them, and if that doesn’t render them “real”, then what can we regard as “real” in our lives?

Is the novel then the apex of virtual reality? Bakhtin didn’t think so. In the same essay, he also wrote, “In many respects the novel has anticipated, and continues to anticipate, the future development of literature as a whole.” What I suspect he means by “the future development of literature” is that literature develops the virtual reality machine even further: films, which give voice and image to narrative; video games, which allow participants to experience narrative even more directly and to choose the path a story takes; and television. Television’s strength, a strength it has only just begun to discover, lies in its open-endedness. It goes on for longer stretches of time, it burst the bounds of easy resolution, it feels more like real life.

Does that make television the apex of virtual reality? Certainly not. I suspect that our human impulse to create and consume art is driven by our psychological desire to replicate experience to an absolute degree. Call it a desire to play God; call it a desire to escape from the negatives in life; call it the postmodern condition – it all leads to the same place. I doubt we’ll ever give up the old forms; the poem, the novel, the play. After all, I still go back and play Ms. Pac Man from time to time, even in a world that now offers Arkham Knight. However, to the extent our creativity is tied to our urge to create experiences, it’s also tied to our technological progression.

I doubt very much we will stop pushing the generic boundaries until it’s possible to plug our brains directly into the computer and live out an alternative existence. Mark my words: one of these days, you’ll notice, in fine print at the bottom of your vision, “This life is based on the book by…”