Adapt Nation: Living in the Golden Age of Lit TV

It’s the great irony of the moment: the triumph of digital technology has made television a reader’s paradise. For those of us who love reading great fiction, we are living in an era of Peak TV.  Gone are the days when loving books and loving TV were mutually exclusive. With the rise of streaming services from Netflix to Hulu, as well as premium cable networks, there’s a larger demand for adaptable content than ever before–and yes, with sincere apologies, the word “content” here includes works of literature.

I recently moderated a panel of book scouts and film rights experts, who spoke about how subscription services are particularly keen on adapting books for multi-part television series rather than films: it makes good economic sense to offer a product (yes, sorry for using that word, too) that viewers will want to return to again and again. With the success of series from Big Little Lies and Sweetbitter to The Handmaid’s Tale and Patrick Melrose and the recent premier of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects on HBO, it’s clear that the scope of the kinds of works considered for, and thriving on, TV is large. As literary scout John Delaney said, “Yes, the streamers are still looking for traditional big blockbuster books. They are also looking for stuff deemed less conventional. It’s a widening, not an exclusion.”

Those of us who have found transformative experiences in reading novels and memoirs have been been taught by long experience to be skeptical of the value of screen adaptations of the books that have really meant something to us (I had such high hopes for Ron Rash’s arresting historical novel Serena but on screen the tension fizzles away and it becomes simply a vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence to wear nice dresses). But it’s not just recent counterexamples like Patrick Melrose that challenge us to think differently: if the diversity of books that have recently been optioned for TV are any indication, literary adaptations are likely to bring us the most creatively risky television we’ve yet seen, even in the age of showrunner-as-auteur. As Joy Press writes in a Vanity Fair piece about why literary authors find the TV-writing world so appealing, “Prestige dramas and idiosyncratic comedies put a premium on nuance and experimentation, on complex characterization and scintillating dialogue. In other words, all the things for which literary fiction is known.” Some standouts among recently optioned literary to whet the appetite: A Black Mirror-esque adaptation of Carmen Marie Machado’s National Book Award nominated story collection Her Body and Other Parties, a TV show based on Victor LaValle’s literary horror novel The Changeling, and a megawatt production of Celeste Ng’s bestseller Little Fires Everywhere that Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington are adapting for Hulu.

It’s true that the revolution in streaming media has meant that some of the time people might have spent reading novels now gets absorbed into binge-watching, but the unexpected corollary is that television’s newfound power to draw us into complex stories means that we’re at last ready and willing to follow storylines that are – well, novelistic. Multiple-episode (even multiple-season) arcs mean that viewers get to spend a lot more time in the world of the book than we ever have before. As author Nathan Hill says in Entertainment Weekly about the upcoming adaptation of the The Nix, the complexity of his novel makes it ideal for TV: “I think we could do The Nix in two hours, but you’d have to cut it so much that the story would effectively no longer be The Nix, really.” For sweeping, Dickensian epics, television allows subplots and secondary characters to get the time that allows them to take on the kind of life they have on the page.

When it’s done thoughtfully, having viewers immersed in the world of a novel can be a boon to both book and show. For instance, HBO’s version of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers truly flourished when it got beyond the action of the novel and went to a place far beyond the boundaries of the author’s original storyline. They achieved an actual kind of catharsis that the el never allowed.

By contrast, the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale is as beautifully acted and shot and presented as the first season, but the action of the nightmarish dystopian drama picks up just after the book has ended, and the post-Margaret Atwood season is simply overwhelming. There is torture and trauma — terrors we’d only pictured in our heads while reading the novel portrayed viscerally on the screen. And knowing that it still has a third season to come, the watching of The Handmaid’s Tale has begun to feel just like our current news cycle–every time I think it couldn’t get any worse, it gets worse. Watching what happens in the world beyond the book begins to feels like an exercise in masochism more than anything else.

“I was thinking that a life is just the history of what we give our attention to,” says the protagonist of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. “The rest is packaging.” Showtime’s Patrick Melrose miniseries pays attention to all of the right moments from the books, the ones that make Patrick’s story so tragic yet delightful. Each episode is devoted to one of five novellas, and each is tonally perfect, externalizing its hero’s thoughts in a way that never feels forced. It’s exactly what you’d want if one of your all-time favorite novels was adapted.

Now a word of caution: I am still in mourning because Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, a marvelous novel set in a failing theme park in the Florida Everglades, never made it to HBO, even though I imagine the TV version would be weird and atmospheric and magical in particular for costume designers and set decorators to work on. Of the hundreds of literary works that get optioned for TV a relatively small number get made. And then, even when they do, often they don’t last. Consider Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, based on one of the seemingly trickiest novels to adapt — given its utter lack of plot and its near-claustrophobic academic interiority. For one glorious season Amazon’s Jill Soloway-led production altered some details but managed to make an entire world that complemented the book’s heady vibe ofboth intellectual and sexual ardor. Alas, it only survived for that season. And as Peak TV reaches its upper limits, there’s no telling when the bubble might burst. In the meantime, let’s hope that the HBO miniseries based on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is as breathtakingly profound — and profane — as the books.