TV, Venue

Adapting Narratives to the Small Screen

Throughout history, we have been telling the same stories via different mediums. Religious teachings becoming masterpieces of portraiture, word-of-mouth stories whittled into wood or carved into stone as a visual version, novels into plays into films into television series into whatever other creative mediums await us in future. Adaptation allows for the reinvention of a story in a new light with changes made depending on who tells the story, with the core remaining the same. While it is called adaptation, transferring a story from one medium to another is almost like translating words from one language to another; you have to rephrase and accentuate details that are more visual and can be more easily expressed through action and movement and perspective, or less visual which are better expressed in poetic language and structure on a page. Never has an adaptation been completely accurate, detail-for-detail or word-for-word. Each artistic medium has its own area where it excels, but all also have areas where they lack, and some aspects have to be lost or gained in translation to make the story fit into the mould of the medium.

Television, however similar to film, allows for longer narratives to be shown than film ever could. The episodic nature of TV shows allows for better pacing and development of the story, characters, and all other elements, when done well, purely because it has more space and time, not needing to be squeezed into a two hour-ish margin to hold audiences’ attention. Television also tends to be a medium well suited for more plot-driven narratives and smaller, intimate conflicts rather than large spectacles and dramatic action more commonly seen in feature-length films.

Not every story is going to be suited for the original medium they were produced in, and not every story will thrive in anything but their original medium. Take the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, for example. It’s first literary installment, Northern Lights, achieved vast success when it was published in 1995, but the 2007 film adaptation – entitled The Golden Compass – was a financial dud (we won’t mention the video game adapted from the film). Then, the 2019 series on the BBC, His Dark Materials, allowed the magic of the books to successfully be recaptured on screen. The adaptation from novel to TV was the better choice for the narrative, due to the density of the novels, both in length and content, as well as the tales’ character development, which needs proper time and pacing to be explored. A TV adaptation also provides the adaptation with the opportunity for further seasons to adapt the other books in the trilogy, and their companion stories. 

The accessibility of TV also makes it highly suitable for adaptation, with large audiences being available to view from the comfort of home and minimal need for extra payments. However, like all forms of adaptation, things can go too far and get out of hand. Shows such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead started to stray away from their source material in their later seasons, and as a consequence the quality of the series started to decline, moving away from an adaptation, and into original content. 

With the development of fan favourites that can recur throughout a show and unique structural methods, adapting to television gives you lots of space for new creative ideas to express stories in continually fresh and experimental artistic ways.

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benjamin smith

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October 2021
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