The Rise of the Literary Miniseries

From The Week:

If you’re a voracious reader — or even a casual one — you’ll probably recognize the names of three of the big TV miniseries debuting on cable and subscription streaming services within the next two weeks. On May 17, Hulu will be making available all six episodes of its new adaptation of novelist Joseph Heller’s antiwar satire Catch-22. On May 23rd, Sundance TV will air the first two parts of its eight-episode version of Umberto Eco’s historical mystery The Name of the Rose. On May 27, NatGeo will launch a six-part, three night miniseries based on Richard Preston’s nonfiction medical thriller The Hot Zone.

Forget books on tape. These are all books you can watch.

If you’re a film buff, though — or even just an occasional moviegoer with a long memory — you might recognize these titles for a different reason. All three of these books have been adapted to the big screen before. Mike Nichols directed a flop version of Catch-22, released in 1970. The Name of the Rose, starring Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater, was a solid international hit in 1986. And a star-studded — and super-unofficial — Hot Zone adaptation drew huge crowds in the spring of 1995, under the title Outbreak.

None of the movies are classics. The Name of the Rose is the best of the bunch, even though director Jean-Jacques Annaud ditches a lot of Eco’s literary/historical criticism in favor of emphasizing the book’s pulpier murder-mystery elements. Catch-22 is visually striking, but too lumbering to be as funky and funny as Heller. And Outbreak is pretty much a total botch, replacing Preston’s scientific precision and slow-mounting terror with silly disaster picture cliches.

Are TV producers taking a second crack at these books to try getting them “right,” taking advantage of the extra running-time and more adventurous audiences that television allows? Probably — at least in part. I can’t speak to NatGeo’s Hot Zone, because I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve watched both The Name of the Rose and Catch-22, and both are very full adaptations of their source material.

. . . .

As for The Name of the Rose, this Italian-German co-production restores Umberto Eco’s more philosophical musings about the true nature of Christ and Christianity, and about whether the early 14th century Catholic Church was conspiring with their wealthy benefactors to obscure it. As an inquisitive friar (played by John Turturro) investigates the strange goings-on at a monastery renowned for its extensive library and skilled scribes, he finds himself thrust into the middle of ancient debates about poverty and public service as fiercely contentious as any modern university faculty meeting — and all of that’s before monks start turning up dead.

. . . .

The first trend is simple to explain: Success breeds imitators. In the wake of Hulu’s award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale (itself previously adapted into a movie) and HBO’s Big Little Lies, production companies and network executives may just be scouring bookstores now for any beloved bestseller they can option.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies though are ongoing series. The miniseries boom represented by the likes of Catch-22 and The Name of the Rose speaks more to the ongoing influence of Netflix on the way that people package and consume mass media.

. . . .

All these trends — from the re-selling of already-popular stories to the repositioning of every form of audio-visual narrative into binge-able chunks — has to do with catering to what audiences seem to want.

Link to the rest at The Week

If PG remembers mini-series history correctly, the first giant hit was The Winds of War, released in 1983 and shown on network television (remember that?) for seven nights in a row.

PBS had been (and, to the best of PG’s knowledge still is) making book on a variety of mini-series that were typically shown once per week over several weeks. British productions have dominated this domain since almost forever, but The Winds of War reached about ten zillion more people than anything that PBS showed.

PG has hazy recollections of The Pallisers in black and white (actually sort of gray and gray) on a television that had a smaller screen than he’s using to write this post as the first of goes-on-forever-don’t-miss-it-on-Sunday-night-because-they’ve-only-barely-invented-VCR’s British hits that seemed to always be shown on your local PBS station’s Pledge Week (“We’ll get back to spunky Susan Hampshire and chilly Plantagenet Palliser in just a minute, but, first, we’ll beg for money. Again.”)

As he double-checked his hazy recollections, PG remembered an even earlier British series that he first saw as a PBS re-run during a later Pledge Week (“We know you like quality television, unlike the down-market guy upstairs who keeps you awake by watching Gilligan’s Island at 3:00 AM, but quality television costs money and we don’t get all the money we want from the rich people and rich people’s tax-exempt foundations who are tastefully named at the end of this broadcast so their cheapskate rich friends can feel diminished. Our volunteers are waiting to accept your pledge . . . .”)

The earlier series that PG watched later was about a repressed and grumpy guy named Soames who could never get Irene (or maybe it was Fleur) to marry him. Soames seemed to be at the center of The Forsyte Saga , but a grumpy British guy was more interesting than whatever was running on the other two channels on Sunday nights.

Speaking of PBS:


23 thoughts on “The Rise of the Literary Miniseries”

  1. The Pallisers was pretty well done, IMHO. I was less taken by The Forsythe saga, but I was pretty young and might have a different opinion now.

    I recently bought on disk and watched the whole bloody Winds of War. It struck me as clunky, with the usual unresolved ending of the novels of its type, but still watchable.

    I think the original models for the genre were soap operas. Today’s miniseries roam all over the genre map.

    • Soap operas are certainly an apt comparison, Karen.

      The end of The Winds of War was supposed to make you buy the sequel, War and Remembrance. 🙂

  2. “Forget books on tape. These are all books you can watch.”

    Um… that’s a stretch there.

    • Irvin Shaw and John Jakes, too.
      When I first heard of the Kent Family Chronicles I thought it was a DC production. 😉

    • I was thinking Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), too. But I forgot about QB VII, which ran two years earlier.

      Also worth noting, the two-part Lace, which didn’t air until ’84. Why? It contains perhaps the finest line ever uttered in television history: “Incidentally, which one of you bitches is my mother?”

    • Yes. And I recall seeing commercials for buying VHS cassettes of the miniseries, “Shogun.” I wonder if that’s on Blu Ray … but more seriously, I thought mini-series based on books were commonplace. Every other week in the 80s and early 90s, it seems there would be a miniseries on TV based on Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon, or Danielle Steele. And “The Thorn Birds.”

      I rarely saw any of these (too young to be interested), but still. I didn’t know the concept of literary miniseries needed to “rise,” it’s already fully-baked. You can see them on Netflix; a while back I watched “The Five” based on a Harlan Coben novel.

      A miniseries has always seemed the ideal format for adapting a novel. TV shows and movies work better with short stories, but novels need a miniseries.

      • The genre was very characteristic of the late 1970s and 1980s, but not really earlier–at least not in American TV. While I don’t think it was the first, Roots in 1977 was a huge hit. All those 1980s miniseries were attempts at replicating that.

      • “Shogun: Complete Mini-Series, Blu-Ray” – $25.49 at Walmart.

        Movie studios did manage to figure out the long tail quite a few years ago.

        Wups! Just checked Amazon, which had it at $34.99 – then went back to general search, and they are now at $24.48 – which is now what Walmart has it at. Price wars are so fast these days.

    • It certainly wasn’t made to be a mini-series, but the first movie I remember being split over multiple nights on TV was “How the West Was Won.” Of course, nearly three hours run time turned into close to five hours once commercials were added. Oh, and “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben-Hur,” and the rest of the older epics that theaters had to put intermissions into.

  3. As a foreigner I’ve found these remembrances of American TV fascinating, and I’m surprised how many of them I’ve at least had the chance to see (some quite recently on obscure cable channels, though I’ve passed on many of them).

    I do find the term “mini-series” something of a puzzle though. To me its natural meaning is “Star Trek TOS with fewer episodes” whilst what you are describing seem to be straightforward serials (taking the term “serial” to have the same meaning for TV as for literature, basically a single story split over a number of episodes/magazine issues). Does this mean that I can call Dr Who a “series of mini-series” when I’m in the USA?

    Did American TV really not have serials before the 1970s? This sounds most unlikely, so was it marketing hype or was there a real difference in what came to be called mini-series? I certainly watched plenty of TV serials in the UK from the late 1950s onward, including the aforementioned Forsyte Saga back in 1968.

    Of course the BBC made a small industry of turning books – by Austen, Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and the like – into serials (I have vague memories of seeing a six episode version of P&P back in 1958 and at least two more since then). I think that they had always done radio serials and it was natural to continue this on TV.

    • I think a better way to think of a mini series would be as a multi-part made-for-TV movie. In general, you could edit the parts together into a four to eight hour movie without seeing much if anything of the seams between “episodes.” However, because TV producers weren’t willing to devote that much time to a single show, and rightly or wrongly they didn’t think that the audience would be willing to watch that long, they cut the movie into roughly two-hour chunks and showed them on different nights.

      Some of the BBC literary adaptations I’ve seen would definitely be considered mini-series in the U.S. I don’t believe that Dr. Who would, although I can’t give you a firm reason why.

      • Dr. Who is a multi year ongoing series. Mini series were meant to have definite endings. If HULU had ended HANDMAID’S TALE after exhausting the (exhausted) book in the first year, it would be a mini series. Once it was extended and renewed for a second season it became an ongoing.

        The same with THE BRIDGE.

    • In the US, when talking of “serials” in the context of video, it conjures up the movie theater serials of the pre-TV era.

      So, while technically the early Dr Who series were serials, nobody in the US would describe it that way. In US terms, the variety of shows tend to fall into a few pigeonholes:

      – daytime soap operas (orjust soaps): never-ending serial with a common setting and related characters, overlapping narrative arcs that do “end”, and generally melodramatic acting

      – ongoing TV series: collection of weekly stories with a common setting and theme, regular cast in the same roles, with a (tradionally) clear cut ending. The show is degined to be open ended and go on as long as audience size (and ads) will support it. The target benchmark is 100 episodes or about five seasons. Some have have made it for a decade or two but most fall short of even five season/years. For decades the episodes were meant to be self contained, meant to be watched in any order, and rarely referenced previous episodes. Over time recurring guest stars and characters their brought a sense of order. By the late 80’s Shows like HILL STREET BLUES, DYNASTY, ST ELSEWHERE, and Star Trek The Next Generation brought an actual chronology into play (with occasional season-ending cliffhangers) and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER brought the Season Arc as a unifying theme for a given season. Individual episodes are still expected to feature closure of at least one narrative arc, though two and three part extended episodes are fairly common. so are “filler” episodes that don’t directly advance the season arc. These days it is rare to see a (scripted) show that doesn’t have a season arc structure. even the LAW AND ORDER type procedurals have adopted it to an extent. A good example of an almost classic show is CBS’s BLUE BLOODS. A near good example of the modern Season Arc show is any of the CW fantasies, say THE FLASH, SUPERNATURAL, or LEGACIES.

      – TV movies were, like their theatrical counterparts, self-contained narratives crafted to fit the straitjacket of broadcast standards: fixed length, narrative “beats” timed for commercial breaks, lowest common denominator audiences, and advertiser friendly (non-cobtroversial) subject matter.

      – Mini-series were meant to be limited run “event” shows with a definite ending. The early ones ran weekly but they quickly switched to a back to back single week format. Most were based on books but some started out on video and spawned books later. And they weren’t all fiction. Some of the most memorable and enduring were non-fiction, typically running on PBS.

      Over time, as ongoing series have evolved, the episode count has shrunk form 40-something to 30-something to 26 and currently 22-24. More recently, with the rise of first DVD bundle sales and more recently, streaming, broadcast adopted the practice of “half-length” summer shows at 10-13 episodes which then spread to the regular season and to streaming originals.

      Finally, the complaints of “Netflix Bloat” and shows trying to stretch a limited story over too many episodes without inserting “change of pace” filler episodes (most notably the Netflix Marvel superhero shows) has broken the episode-count restriction. The newest streaming shows run as long as the story requires (rather like ebooks) or as long as distributor strategy requires. THE ORVILLE on FOX and TITANS on DCU UNIVERSE both held back filmed episodes from their debut Seasons to architect a “better” narrative arc for the followup season. Similarly, shows that perform unusually well or somewhat poorly, will have their season length cut or extended. An ongoing example is DOOM PATROL, originally programmed for 12 episodes but when its reception went through the roof, three more episodes were filmed to better address the season arc. Its hard to tell which are the “filler” episodes because they fit seamlessly. Finally, both the CW and Disney (for their upcoming streaming service) have adopted budget-based season lengths for shows that are particularly expensive to produce because of CGI or cast costs or both. And, of course, HBO’s last two seasons of GAME OF THRONES have reduced episode counts because the episodes break the “standard” episode length as well as being extra expensive to produce.

      Much as with books, digital distribution is breaking a lot of video production constraints and giving creators additional options to produce the product they want to produce, free of word counts, broadcast restrictions, or genre prejudices.

      Peak TV is as good for genre viewers as ebooks are for genre readers.

    • Well hold my calls, someone is wrong on the internet 🙂

      Actually, we have a “two countries separated by the same language” issue. What you call a series in Britain, Americans call a season. So, you’d say “Dr. Who, series two,” but Americans would call it, “Dr. Who, season two.” And “Dr. Who” is a TV series to us, but you could also call it a TV show. An ongoing TV show would be air new episodes twice a year, or the fall season and winter season.

      Whereas, an American miniseries is usually designed to only be a few episodes over here, and they only air once (unless they’re classics or something). They’re telling a single story over a few days, and then they’re done. They don’t come back for a “fall season” or a “spring season.” That’s what Pride and Prejudice or Roots slot into.

      I notice that British TV seasons are remarkably short, a mere three or four episodes, whereas it’s normal for American TV shows to do twenty episodes in a given season, like Star Trek. Though certain types of “prestige” shows — where the focus is on telling a tight, overarching narrative in the entire season — tend to be a mere eight or 10 episodes. Think of Stranger Things. You could probably it an extended miniseries.

      Most TV shows over here didn’t have a single narrative told through the whole season, but rather each episode in a season was independent of the other. This changed in the late 90s. Now it’s normal for episodes of TV dramas to be interdependent — each episode could tell it’s own story, but the narratives will tie in and impact / be impacted by future or past episodes.

      We also have radio-turned-TV serials; we call them soap operas. I know General Hospital and The Young and the Restless are still around. I believe both started on radio. They have ensemble casts living in a fictional town, with a prominent family or two (the Quartermains on General Hospital, or Victor Newman and family in The Young & the Restless.

      In contrast, I notice Spanish and Korean “telenovelas” (serials) are more like a mix of an American miniseries — they’re telling an overarching narrative — and a TV season (they take place over more than 20 episodes). But they end when the overarching narrative is done, whereas American soaps go on for generations of viewers. I saw GH and Y&R when I was a kid. When I spotted them recently on TV, I notice they brought back characters that had left when I was still in high school.

      • Some mexican (and turkish) soaps are evolving into shorter runs and multiple seasons.

        The very long telenovelas are getting harder to script and recycling “classics” with new character names and settings isn’t drawing the same audiences. Plus its getting harder to retain the audiences night after night (or day after day in some cases) and improving the quality of the acting is raising costs. (So is moving production North of the border for security reasons.) So: shorter is better. As quality inproves, costs go up, and something’s got to give.

        Economic problems in Argentina and Venezuela have limited the output of both so a lot of channels in the region have taken to dubbing (cheap) turkish imports to fill the gap.

      • Thanks to everyone who replied and for your interesting and enlightening comments.

        I think that Jamie is right to bring up the old “two countries separated by the same language” issue, though we do often talk of “seasons” these days. And I was teasing a bit in my references to Dr Who.

        My “serials” are a sequence comprising a limited number of episodes which tell an (almost always predetermined) narrative, which stops at the end and which doesn’t have another season (though if successful and based on a book with a sequel another serial might follow). They do not mix “monster of the week” episodes into the story arc, a la Buffy (even for the purpose of foreshadowing).

        And yes, in Britain both seasons and serials can be very short, ludicrously so in the case, for example, of Sherlock. However, you need to remember that a 60 minute show on the BBC gives you almost 60 minutes of narrative TV. So two of my favourite serials, Pride and Prejudice at 6 episodes, and Our Mutual Friend at four, both run to almost 360 minutes; this is certainly enough to include almost everything from the former though the Dickens did involve some compression.

        And Jamie, British serials do not disappear once shown, they get repeats, appear on cable channels years later and are of course put out on DVD and for download from Amazon and/or Netflix.

        • Hulu has a ton of UK content.
          For a while there it was pretty much the only exclusivity they had.

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