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.
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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.
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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.
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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: