Think of some of your favourite TV shows, both home-grown and from across the pond. No matter what genre you enjoy, using my incredible powers of deduction (watch and learn, Sherlock), I can easily gather that at least one or two of them are based on books. Maybe even TV shows you had no idea were originally books, for example Orange is the New Black, Dexter, or The Leftovers. And, of course, the more well-known adaptations, such as Game of Thrones, from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Sherlock, based, of course, on Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. (I say of course, however I did once see a terrifying post on Tumblr in which teenage fangirls were moaning about some guy named Arthur Colon-or-Something Doyle’s rip-off of their beloved TV show. I despair.)
I’ll be honest: I don’t need the brains of Sherlock to know this. TV writers and producers have been ripping off – sorry, adapting – books for years. As long as there have been TV adaptations, there have been bibliophiles to slam them. It seems TV writers and producers cannot win: they ruin a much-loved book by casting the wrong actor, or change the book’s plot too much or too little; change and ‘ruin’ the conclusion – the list is endless. So how, then, would a TV writer go about making the perfect adaptation, both pleasing fans of the original novel, and gaining a wider audience of TV viewers? Like all puzzling questions, I’ll refer this to Sherlock.
Whilst it’s true that there have been some awful TV adaptations (two words: True Blood) and, as fellow literature students and many others would probably agree, a TV show can never really be as good as the original book, but the quality of adaptations has greatly improved in recent years. Why? Because writers no longer attempt to remake the book exactly, and instead put their own spin on to it. Take Sherlock. Rather than yet another cheesy remake of Doyle’s stories featuring the original plot and Victorian setting, Moffat brought the Victorian sleuth into the twenty-first century, creating one of the BBC’S biggest, most successful dramas to date. Based loosely on individual novels or short stories – for example the pilot A Study in Pink is loosely based on the first novel, A Study in Scarlet – and taking certain elements from the plot and modernising them such as the ‘hounds’ in the episode The Hounds of Baskerville being – spoiler alert! – delusional visions induced by drugs, rather than the literal hound in Doyle’s novel. The series becomes unique in its own right, creating its own plot and twists, and developing the characters in accordance with contemporary society, whilst still retaining much of Doyle’s original characterisation and ideas. It is an affectionate nod to Doyle’s literary classics, not a cheap rip-off.
Many people, however, believe changing their beloved original book is a bad thing. For example, fans of George R. R. Martin’s original novels have criticised Game of Thrones writers for departing too far from the original book in recent seasons. However, if they had stuck completely to the book, would it not become boring for those same fans? By bringing something unique to the script but still maintaining Martin’s original characters, settings, and the majority of plots, the show becomes entertainment in itself rather than an on-screen version of the same story someone has already read. It then appeals to the much wider audience of TV fans across the globe, not just simply book lovers.
With the recent announcement that Netflix is creating an adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events, books I’m sure most of us loved growing up, the question is what kind of adaptation will it be: good, bad, or ugly? Will it be simply an on-screen version of exactly what happens in the books which will, undoubtedly, have at least some fans kicking up a storm since no adaptation can ever be exactly the same? Or, similarly to one of their biggest adaptations, Orange is the New Black, will the show simply be based on the characters and narrative, but allowed to blossom into an original, highly entertaining drama in itself?