For the past few years, the small screen has deployed a winning strategy, using mind over might to win over discriminating viewers unsatisfied with the anemic and substance-free films filling multiplexes and even art houses. Innovative and daring shows like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards,” “Girls,” “Game of Thrones,” and the sudsy bubble bath that is “Downton Abbey” have proven that the best entertainment often arrives in small packages.
But now that we’re in the midst of pilot season, the tube has taken an unexpected detour away from the esoteric and challenging material that has spawned recaps that read like doctoral dissertations to the cannibalistic comfort food of 1990s bestsellers that have already been road-tested on the big screen. Last week NBC finally nailed down an April 4 premiere date for “Hannibal,” a crime drama based on Thomas Harris’ series of thrillers centered around an erudite serial killer with a taste for human flesh and a good Chianti, which formed the basis for several films, most notably the 1992 Best Picture winner, “Silence of the Lambs.” Shortly thereafter, Minnie Driver signed on to play the charmingly batty single mom who attempts to raise her own son along with the manchild next door in the recently announced TV version of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, the 1998 literary excavation of the Gen X male psyche, the 2002 big-screen version of which starred Hugh Grant and Toni Colette.
While neither of these shows feels particularly fresh or forward thinking, there’s no reason to write them off as reheated ten-year-old leftovers just yet. In each case the source material delivers the kind of compelling characters capable of triumphing over a stale concept and cultivating a devoted following of viewers. In fact, if either one of these series finds even the most modest purchase on success, you can bet that TV producers will flock to the last decade’s bestseller list to replicate the formula. Here’s our list of bestsellers bearing big-screen movie adaptations most primed to fly off the shelves and onto the small screen first.
Bridget Jones's Diary: Two years ago, NBC flirted with the idea of serializing the travails of chain-smoking singleton Bridget Jones. But the proposed show has yet to make it beyond the gates of development purgatory. Helen Fielding’s Austenian saga of a charming diarist perpetually sabotaging her shot at true love with a taciturn stand-up guy has the makings for an entertaining diversion. However, it runs the risk of looking as dated as Bridget’s Christmas sweater when compared to the unflinching honesty about the indignities modern mating we've come to know from Lena Dunham's "Girls."
Like Water for Chocolate: Laura Esquivel’s 1992 novel follows the travails of a young Mexican woman who channels her romantic frustrations into cooking up delectable feasts after her mother forbids her from marrying her soul mate. Mexican director Alfonso Arau turned the book into a sleeper art-house hit that turned cooking into an erotic act followed by a climactic meal as sensual as any love scene. Given the widespread captivation with cooking shows and the lack of ethnic diversity on the small screen, Chocolate has all the ingredients to satisfy viewers hungry for an original take on doomed love.
Waiting to Exhale: In 1995, director Forest Whitaker turned Terry McMillan’s ensemble piece about four African American women grappling with the reality that a good man is hard to find into a sentimental blockbuster, powered by an underserved audience. There’s no reason that quartet’s search for romantic stability wouldn’t prove just as compelling and commercial to a similar group of TV viewers starved to see their reality reflected on the small screen.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Clint Eastwood based his eponymous 1997 film on John Berendt’s nonfiction investigation into the mystery surrounding the murder of a male prostitute in Savannah, Georgia. This show would deliver a weekly dose of Southern Gothic eerie eccentricity. With its broad palette of colorful characters, ranging from lowlifes to drag queens to high society matrons, if done right, this drama would combine the dark poetic tension and mystery of Flannery O’Connor with a quirky slice-of-life peek at a tradition-bound community trapped in time.
The Perfect Storm: Yes, Sebastian Junger’s 1997 account of the sinking of the Andrea Gail ends with the tragic death of the fishing trawler’s entire crew. But this show would focus in on the old salts still living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and braving the increasingly stormy seas, Captain Ahab-like, in search of a lucrative haul of swordfish. The Crows Nest bar, where the fishermen and their wives gather to let off steam and regale each other with survival stories, would form the central location, and the seafaring adventures could be told in flashback. What might make this show a slam dunk, however, is the widespread obsession with changing weather patterns and the increasing frequency of so-called perfect storms, as we saw with Sandy.