Have You Seen What TV Has Been Doing to Books Lately?

Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman in ‘Big Little Lies’/Photo © Hilary Bronwyn/HBO

This seems to be the year when everyone’s guilty secret has become a commonly accepted fact: Television – especially “premium” television that isn’t dependent on corporate sponsors – has become preferable to cinema. Put another way, there’s more great TV being released right now than great film. And, as is true with great film, the greatest series are adaptations. What’s interesting is how far these shows often stray from their antecedents narratively – though rarely do they stray thematically.

While “the book was better than the movie” is the default response to movie adaptations, more often than not, viewers of TV adaptations aren’t as well acquainted with source materials. (This isn’t a slam on TV watchers so much as an acknowledgement that, even now, better-known books usually are adapted to silver rather than small screens.) And while time limitations are the most common reason that film adaptations omit beloved book details and plotlines, television often veers “off book” for exactly the opposite reason: The episodic format usually extends eight to twelve hours per season as opposed to the ninety minutes to two hours accorded to most films. In the case of “American Gods,” the Amazon series based on Neil Gaiman’s eponymous novel, for example, this means that the first season focuses only on one-third of the book. Alternatively, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series, poised to air its seventh season, roughly draws upon many books in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novel series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” just as that network’s “True Blood” series improvised upon Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels.

With television’s unique format, you also have the opportunity to fully flesh out subplots and asides, fabricate entire backstories and characters, and, in some cases, change plot elements entirely. With a serial, visual medium, chances can be taken that honor the tone of a book rather than its plotline; Jill Soloway’s outré “I Love Dick” doesn’t just expand upon Chris Kraus’s experimental novel; it highlights the female gaze and desire in ways television has never seen before. That series feels more like an art installation than a book or a TV show. And the controversial Netflix series “Anne With an E” could not be more different in tone and plot from L. M. Montgomery’s beloved YA classic, Anne of Green Gables. Focusing on the darkness surrounding the young orphan, only her tenacity and deep passions remain consistent.

Of course, every art medium is different, so what works on page does not always work on screen. The HBO series “Big Little Lies” changed the ending of Liane Moriarty’s best-seller, and explored the husbands in greater depth, perhaps because showrunner Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild”) felt likable male characters were required. Far greater changes were afoot in the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s beloved dystopian feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. As the book is written, Gilead, the uber-conservative religious nation that supplants the United States of America, is all-white. But making an all-white television show in this day and age, even if to demonstrate extreme racism, would not only be ill-advised but deeply offensive; the last thing we need right now is the visual normalization of an Aryan nation. Instead, showrunner Bruce Miller’s Gilead is racially integrated, and hones in on the erosion of women’s rights – an issue that, sadly, becomes more relevant by the day (not that racism does not).

In general, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” though actively endorsed by Atwood (she even has a cameo in one episode), goes places the antecedent only hints at. An entire episode is dedicated to the history of domestic spy Nick (Max Minghella), for example, though he is hardly a central presence in the book. By fleshing out the backstory of all these characters – by taking them out of their neo-puritan garb and having them order Ubers and check their iPhones in flashbacks – we see how easily a line can be drawn between our world and a world wherein women are mere vessels and tools. It’s a powerful translation of material.

Perhaps the most ambitious and far-reaching TV adaptation of late is “The Leftovers,” whose final episode aired last month. It is based on a spare, psychologically and philosophically interrogative novel by Tom Perrotta that imagines a world in which two percent of the population has suddenly disappeared. The author co-created the series with “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof and, especially after the first season, takes us places both thematically and narratively that his book never covers. At times David Lynch-like, at times a wry comedy, at times a mystery cop thriller, at times existentialist dystopia, the show traveled continents, decades, and even between life and death. But with Perrotta in the writers’ room, I never worried that the series was going places that betrayed its antecedent. Instead, I appreciated how the show opened a door to a world that we’d only glimpsed in the book.

Many of the more innovative adaptations of this year – “Big Little Lies” and the Netflix Series “13 Reasons Why,” for example – will be granted second seasons though they’ve already told the book’s complete stories. The question looms, then: Where will these shows go now that they’re off the authorial maps? It’s as if fan fiction is being created by the most talented fans around and, frankly, I love all these innovations. They call the bluff of adaptations in the first place, which, I argue, should honor the essence of a story rather than its quotidian details. Every art medium is different, and a book worth its salt deserves all kinds of fantastic reincarnations.