The Golden Age of Book Adaptations for TV

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From Publishers Weekly:

Though many novelists yearn for film adaptations of their books, they quite often wind up dissatisfied with the results, and the same holds true for those novelists’ devoted fans. Movie adaptations tend to be unsatisfying. Not every author’s work gets the runtime Margaret Mitchell got for Gone with the Wind, and even that movie had readers disappointed over scenes from the book that hadn’t been included.

The truth is that a movie cannot hope to capture everything in a novel that readers enjoyed. There is simply not enough time, nor is there enough production money. Basic things like locations, supporting characters, and so-called big money shots will be radically modified or even eliminated from film versions of novels. And films are subject to scriptwriters’ and directors’ interpretations of their source material, not to mention the input of some very hands-on producers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

In the movie business, a screenwriter is not in charge of much of anything. The producer hires the screenwriter, sometimes in consultation with the director, and can fire him/her at any time and bring someone else in to do or finish the job.

The author of a book being adapted for television or motion picture purposes has even less control over what happens unless her name is JK Rowling and maybe not even then.

If the author is traditionally-published, the standard industry publishing agreement gives the publisher the sole right to decide how to exploit/sell movie or TV rights. (Regardless of whether the publisher has ever sold movie/TV/performance rights before.)

The author is just along for the ride. PG is familiar with a couple of cases in which the publisher forgot to notify the author or the publisher notified the author’s agent who forgot to contact the author and the author learned about a movie being made based on the author’s book about the same time as the rest of the world did.

25 thoughts on “The Golden Age of Book Adaptations for TV”

  1. Decades ago some comic book artist pointed out that they did million dollar special effects on each page using only pen and ink.

    Look at Tinker Tailor or Smiley’s People by John Le Carre. They did six part mini-series for the books that were a joy to watch. They took their time, and honored the books.

    Look at King. Readers will say that his books are so “cinematic”, but they don’t actually translate to the screen. They are only “cinematic” on the screen in your mind.

    The difference between the two is one writes stories that can appear on the stage or be filmed by a camera, and the other is mostly internal and can’t be captured by a camera.

    – Look at the movie version of Tinker Tailor and how it failed to capture the story vs the mini-series.

    There are ways to mix both on the screen, but it costs money, and takes time. These are examples of mixing what is captured on camera and what is internal. Each of these would fail if “voice over” or “special effects” were not part of the mix.

    Scrubs (TV series)

    Dead Like Me

    Stranger than Fiction (2006 film)

    Hannibal (TV series)

    How I Met Your Mother

    – Everything that occurs in HIMYM on the “screen” is being “told” by the narrator. I’m not sure that we ever saw actual events, it was all in his mind.

    Compare that to the movie Big Fish, where we see the actual people at the funeral.

  2. It’s nice to see someone admit – even if indirectly – something I’ve be saying for years: the narrative content of a feature film equates to that of a short story or, at best, a short novella. Book adaptations rarely satisfy because so much has to be omitted. This is why John Ford managed to base some of his best films (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) on James Warner Bellah short stories.

    Films of Pride and Prejudice are always lacking for this reason. It’s not that long a book and in many ways is ideal for adaptation: dialogue that translates directly from page to screen and no action sequences to eat up screen time (and money) where a page or two, or sometimes only a few lines, suffice to cover the event. The BBC’s 1995 adaptation managed with only very minor omissions but that was 6 hour long episodes (and no adverts, so the full 360 minutes).

    Dicken’s books tend to be much longer, so when the BBC squeezed Our Mutual Friend into the same length as P&P, despite it having nearly 3 times the word length, it didn’t really fit (I still liked the series but …)

    Peter Jackson takes a lot of stick for turning The Hobbit into a trilogy but there is easily enough narrative content in the book to cover three films – there is certainly too much to fit into one movie. Given that some action scenes are needed and will add to the running time, three films, each getting on for two hours long is not unreasonable.

    Whether the three films would be those Peter Jackson actually made is another matter though! I think that some of my dissatisfaction with his The Lord of the Rings trilogy comes from his trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot: The Fellowship of the Ring is twice as long as The Hobbit but only got one film. He was always going to have to make omissions and changes, it’s a pity that the changes he made were mostly not good ones.

    • The Rosetta Stone I use is Storm of the Century by Stephen King.

      It’s a six hour, commercial television, “Novel for Television”. They published the script in book form, and it reads like a novel.

      – They took their time telling the story, not compressing events.

      If I were going to “novelize” the mini-series I would do two manuscript pages for each minute of screen time. So the 256 minutes of screen time would be a 128k novel.

      – Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People are both six hour mini-series, and the books are about 125k each.

      When I visualize a story, I look at:

      – A 90 minute movie would be a 45k novel.

      – A 120 minute movie would be a 60k novel

      BTW, The two examples where the novelizations are better than the massively compressed movie are:

      Superman Returns – 154 minutes

      – roughly 98k novelization by Marv Wolfman, 636 words to 1 minute

      Man of Steel – 143 minutes

      – Roughly 79k novelization by Greg Cox, 552 words to 1 minute

      • A 8-10 episode streaming series would work out to a 300-360 kiloword mega novel.
        That is emerging as the optimum streaming show length.
        That is…interesting.

        • I literally see all the stuff I do as either a TV episode or a movie or mini-series, so it always confused me when I could not get a feel for how long it fit on the screen, then what that should be on the page.

          – That’s why I would try to find examples of screen and page that made sense to me, like the examples I gave above.

          A huge part of what I’ve got laid out is episodic television.

          Basically, I am trying to “novelize” unproduced TV series. This is not a new idea. A number of people have been doing just that since around 2013, with various levels of success and consistency.

          This is what I’m working with, based on two classic manuscript pages(500 words) per minute of screen time:

          – A 42 minute episode, an “hour” of commercial TV, is a 21k novella.

          – Four, 42 minute, episodes at 21k, is a 84k volume.

          – Five, 42 minute, episodes at 21k, is a 105k volume.

          – Six, 42 minute, episodes at 21k, is a 126k volume.

          – Seven, 42 minute, episodes at 21k, is a 147k volume.

          The POD book is limited by the number of pages, cost, thickness of spine. A 400 page book, cream paper, is about an inch thick. I try not to exceed an inch spine.

          Once I know the size of book I want, I can decide what a “season” would be:

          – 25 episode season, would be five, 5 episode books.

          – 24 episode season, would be six, 4 episode books.

          – Or, 24 episode season, would be four, six episode books.

          As an example:

          Hannibal was 13, 42 minutes, episodes, so I could print:

          – Two books, one at 6 episodes, and one at 7 episodes, season # (6, 7)

          That is an evocative sequence, (6, 7).

          – I see Season One as ((1, 6), 6), Season Two as ((6, 1), 6), and Season Three as (6, (6, 1)) and variations per season driving the small six episode arcs in the series as a whole.

          That “1” episode could be a “pilot” or a “interlude” or the season “finale” or a series “coda”. All that makes each book it’s own “arc” to help structure the “season”.

          – Notice, Season Two has the first book be (6, 1) because I don’t want to start a book with an interlude. The interlude fits best at the end of the book.

          I also looked at the classic Wheel Series that ABC would do, they would have three series of alternating episodes in a “season”, like Banacek, Columbo, and McCloud.

          wiki – Wheel Series

          – That’s three, 8 episodes per character, so a 24 episode series.

          The reason I look at a “three character” Wheel Series is to force me to see that there is more going on in that Verse than just one character.

          Banacek was 90 minutes of commercial TV, which is 72 minutes of actual screen time.

          – A 72 minute episode is a 36k novella.

          – Have four 72 minute episodes, 36k, per volume, that’s 144k, with only one character per volume for two volumes per character to complete the series.

          – That way people can “binge watch” the character they like.

          Once I know what the episode size is, and how it fits in POD, I can decide how many episodes per season I want. That gives me a framework to build the series on, story arcs, etc…

          It helps drive the series.

          • I wanted to add, that the two classic manuscript pages = one minute of screen time feels right for most of the stories I see. I have seen four classic manuscript pages in some cases.

            Resident Evil: Retribution – 96 minutes

            – Roughly 96k novelization by John Shirley, 1k per one minute.

            The movie is so compressed that it take four classic manuscript pages to capture each minute of the screen.

            He even has an error from the script lovingly in the novelization. At one point Alice gets clothes from a drawer, but does not put on boots. She is walking barefoot until she suddenly has boots. They never mention the glitch.

            Reading the novelization is one to one to the movie. It doesn’t feel like it’s padded like some novelizations do.

            • No need for ads.
              Also shorter ones: MANDALORIAN season one was mostly 35 minutes each + plus recap and credits.
              And with irregular beats too.
              Much like ebooks, length is determined by the story, not the schedule or ad placement needs.
              Which is a good development.

              It’s only nominally TV by now.

              And there are two types of streaming series emerging; a true episodic series that *benefits* from weekly releases, giving viewers time to ponder the ongoing narrative, and the single narrative best suited for Bingeing. (And example of the latter is PRIME’S ABC MURDERS or any season of BOSCH, while HBOMAX’s WATCHMEN really benefitted from time between episodes.)

              Of course, we’re still seeing cases of “Netflix bloat”, where producers sign up for a dozen hour long episodes when they only have enough story for four to six hours. (LUKE CAGE, here’s looking at you. No wonder Netflix cancelled the whole string of them.)

              New storytelling mediums tend to create new forms.
              But it takes time for the new forms to evolve.
              (Early TV dramas were effectively filmed plays.)

              Anything that does away with artificial restraints, like word counts or ad-driven story beats is a great thing.
              Now we need creators to embrance the new flexibility and use it wisely.

            • Harald Johnson said: Although I’m seeing more and more episodes ~60 mins in “original streaming” shows.

              Yes, find the Form, tell the Story.

              I pick a “form”, 60 minutes commercial(42) or streaming(55), and a set number of classic manuscript pages per minute of “screen time” and stay within that structure. That limit gives me room to play. I even see a series of 22 minute episodes, highly compressed like HIMYM.

              – For some reason I need to be able to “see” the story in my mind as if it was on a screen to help me feel the size and shape of the story.

              And Felix is right, it’s scary when I start looking at what is now possible. By thinking of “novelizing” an unproduced TV series, I’m not interested in people actually producing them. I’ve already moved past that point.

              I found a number of examples that did this over the years:

              There is Shadow Unit, the story is good, but they were not consistent in their limits:


              Then there are the stories by SerialBox like Bookburners. They are up to season 5 now.


              This is the article by Max Gladstone about it. Not all of his links still work.

              Introducing Bookburners & Serial Box!

              For Season 1, they were rigorous to do one classic manuscript page per minute of “screen time” but the quality of story varied. They did not have a consistent voice across episodes. Plus, the paper book was ridiculous, 800 pages!

              Each page was a manuscript page, so 250 words. A fifty minute episode was fifty pages, thus 800 pages. Yikes! They made no effort to make the paper books work. They want you to get the individual e-episodes.

              They did not maintain a consistent 50 minutes per episode, or continue 16 episodes per season.

              Bookburners was one of the first series they created. I look at their list now and it boggles my mind.

              Then I just stumbled across this last month.

              The Beam: Season One

              This is from the sample:

              Welcome To The Golden Age Before you begin reading The Beam, there’s something you should understand: It’s not like an ordinary series. It’s so much more exciting than that.

              The two of us are huge fans of what we think of as the “second golden age” of television. TV really stepped up its game a handful of years ago, bringing movie-quality stories to the small screen, led by paid networks like Showtime and HBO. The first I (Johnny) watched end-to-end was The Sopranos. But now those great shows are everywhere: Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones … you name it.

              The Beam — and some of our other work — brings that experience to your e-reader.

              Platt, Sean. The Beam: Season One (p. 2). Sterling & Stone. Kindle Edition.

              They wrote whole series based on the episodic TV model. I have the first one on my to-be-read pile, so that I can see how consistent they are.

              I look at their website and they have a ton of books and seem to be self publishing gurus.


              Who knew.

              • “– For some reason I need to be able to “see” the story in my mind as if it was on a screen to help me feel the size and shape of the story”

                Exactly—”cinematic writing” per Ray Bradbury, et al.

                Will be saving this comment and studying it later. Thanks!

  3. Last year I finally got around to reading Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago after it had been sitting on my Kindle for years. I enjoyed it very much. It was interesting to note that while the novel and the 1965 David Lean film do share a few scenes in common, Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt basically took Pasternak’s characters and wrote their own story around them.

  4. I tried to reply to allynh but was prevented by a strange Wordfence error. This is a test posting to see if it recurs.

    Anyone else seeing this?

  5. Yes, I can see your mumble. And now I’m going to abuse the comments section with an experiment by posting the second and third paragraphs of my missing comment (remember this is in reply to allynh’s 2pm comment, and the discussion has moved on since then, and my second paragraph makes little sense in the absence of the first one):

    I guess that’s why I tend to think of a two hour production as a novella, say 40k words (though the Hugo awards would call this a novel, reflecting their history as awards for serials in SF magazines).

    As for novelisations, I put forward Douglas Adams turning his 162 minute radio series into the 46k novel of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, so he only needed 284 words per minute, which I guess shows how much the movies you mention were compressed (and that the radio serial was not, or anyway that the novel didn’t need to expand it).

    WHICH HAS WORKED so Wordfence is objecting to my first paragraph, but for the life of me I can’t see why. I’m tempted to carry out some kind of binary search process to pin down the exact problem but this feels like it would be an abuse of the comments process.

    • Yes, that’s what’s so fascinating.

      Adams took his time telling the story, because it was Radio. There were no pictures flashing across the screen, so one classic manuscript page per minute of air time works well.

      Here’s an old classic that is close to eight minutes long, yet it encompasses an amazing number of events:

      Chicken Heart (Science Fiction-Type Horror)

      I could do one classic manuscript page per minute of screen time on Storm of the Century, but it would feel tight, yet he took his time telling the story.

      When this movie came out the compression was so great, the rapid cuts so fast, that it took me watching it several times before I could actually understand the story.

      G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (2009) Official Trailer – Channing Tatum Movie HD

      The same thing happened with the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot.

      Star Trek (2009) Official Trailer – Chris Pine, Eric Bana, Zoe Saldana

      The more information that has to be transmitted on the page to capture what is seen on the screen, the more words it takes.

  6. Watching the election results, the visuals tell me things in a few seconds that would take far more time to convey in a narrative.

    But the blather from the talking heads could never be conveyed in any visual.

    Each medium is better than the other at some things. And that affects time.

    • You actually watched the results? In the UK I’ve taken to voting and then ignoring the news media entirely until I can be sure to get the result: this avoids hours of talking heads and general waffle as people try to fill in the space whilst they wait for real news. The one loss is that you miss the moments when the commentariat realise that the polls have screwed up once again and that the wrong people(#) have won, though you do at least also miss the pollsters’ excuses. (Doing this is easier in the UK as the final results will be in well before postal votes have stopped being accepted in the USA.)

      (# that is the people despised by “great and the good” and the metropolitan elites: there are times when it’s been a bit of a bummer as I actually agreed with the elites, but their chagrin when the great unwashed ignore them is some consolation.)

      • In the US there’s the matter of mail-in votes and mailed-in military ballots from overseas, and making sure they’re both properly counted, which isn’t guaranteed in quite a few precints, going back to Florida 2000.

        And the innevitable lawsuits that can and likely will follow.
        There’s better ways to pass the time, if not writing, gaming or watching streamed video (ENOLA HOLMES on NETFLIX is a delight. So is PALM SPRINGS, on Hulu, I think.)

        By now, the trainwreck incoming is unavoidable.
        Best to ignore it as long as possible.

        • The UK has postal votes as well – including overseas ones from the military and from qualifying British citizens living abroad – and at the last few elections about 20% of the ballots cast have been by post. However, the rules are fairly strict in that you cannot apply for a postal vote within 14 days of the election date and that the postal ballot must be received by the close of polls on the election date (so no question of votes being received after the polls close).

          The main problem is that the ballot papers cannot be issued until the list of candidates is finalised so that there are only about 28 days to get the postal ballots out and get them back. Not a problem in the UK – though it can be tight if you only apply at the last possible moment – but it can cause problems for overseas residents. It is also possible to vote by proxy which can avoid postal delays.

          Fortunately, the only lawsuits that follow are usually ones in which the the Electoral Commission accuses candidates and/or parties of spending more than the legal limits.

          I realise that this is down to individual states in the USA and suspect that, if a state laid down at set of rules like those in the UK, people would sue and both state and federal courts would probably let them. But then we are still very old fashioned and our ballots are pieces of paper on which we make crosses in boxes – luddite really, but no worry about chads (so old style ballot box stuffing would be possible, but not hacking the voting machines).

          • It should be that simple but it isn’t.
            Not with 50 states, each with their own rules and processes.
            And not with two parties obsessed with different priorities; one focused on ensuring the qualification of the voters, the other obssesed with maximizing the number of voters.
            Chicanery has long been common, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. The voting dead have decided at least one national election (1960) and hundreds of local oves over the decades; missing ballots are routine, and the old joke “vote early and often” has its roots in real practices.

            Simple paper sheets and indelible thumb ink are proven world wide but are rarely used in the US. Both parties are fault.

            The party of maximizing voters has been loosen rules for decades, bit by bit. Voting by mail now starts early. Ballots are deemed valid as long as they are posted by midnight election night and granted up to a week to arrive. Early voter ballots are collected by harvesters who go to homes to collect them and turn them in for the voters. Any chicanery reported is deemed ” voter” suppression.

            In many communities, paper was replaced by punch cards–leading to the fights over intent of 2000–electronic voting machines and in some places by phone-voting and internet voting.

            There is big money all over: in making and distributing ballots, in “get out the vote” drives, in “persuading” voters to support the party (one documented case in Mikwaukee had video of party operatives paying homeless, cigarrette cartons most commonly, and escorting them en masse to the polls to ensure they voted “correctly”).

            Since the registration of voters is purely local, often at county level instead of state or national level, it is has been common for people who move to show up on registries in multiple locations. College students are known to vote by mail in their home locations and in person where they go to school. Laws requiring photo identification prior to voting are contentious because they “impose undue burden” on voters.

            Even more complications and irregularities abound.
            Lawsuits all over.
            Lots and lots of billable hours racked up by consultants and lawyers.
            “Election operative” is a full time job year round, every year.

            Bottom line is complexity and dysfuntion is intentional.
            As the saying goes, “In Chaos there is opportunity”.
            Or, “What a way to run a country! Oy!”

  7. I read a while back that Canada used paper ballots and boxes, and managed to count the vote just fine. Anyone know if that is true?

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