This is Craig Hildebrand-Burke, on what the golden age of TV and Film adaptations means for writers. 

It’s Oscars season, which inevitably means a whole lot of arguments about merit in art occur, alongside futile attempts to compare one film to another.

And though it’s always nice to see writing awards held on the same stage as other more high-profile facets of filmmaking like acting and directing, it’s an interesting sport to realise just how much the awards season of mainstream cinema relies on previously written material.

This year, alongside their nominations for adapted writing, Moonlight, Arrival, Lion, Hidden Figures and Fences are also contending for best film, making up more than half of the most prestigious category. Since 2000, 56% of the nominations for best film have been adapted from existing novels, plays and short stories. The numbers are remarkably consistent, even when the Academy decided to inflate the category from five to ten possible films, ostensibly to bring in the blockbuster film audience who typically don’t rely on literary adaptations.

But here’s where it gets interesting. It’s hard not to notice that popular films have become overrun with comic-book adaptations in the last decade. There are – at last count – nine due for release in 2017, Logan, Ghost in the Shell, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming among them.

Between the adaptations for prestige cinema in awards season, and the adaptations for billion-dollar takings worldwide, has film just become the extreme cynical expression of double-dipping? Are comic book films simply providing another venue for their audience to experience the same story twice? Are literary adaptations just designed to boost book sales, or increase ticket sales with the inherited acclaim that a ‘based on the novel’ tag and award nominations bring?

It’s beginning to feel like we’re afraid to watch anything original at the cinema. It’s also beginning to feel like the art of adaptation has lost it’s, well, art.

Thank God, then, for television.

Book adaptations are nothing new for TV. Game of Thrones is airing its seventh and penultimate season in 2017, and despite having surpassed its source material, it’s arguable that the fan base for the books has stretched far wider than might be expected for a fantasy series as a direct result of the adaptation.

The Leftovers, too, is an adaptation that has gone beyond its original material, in this case Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel. The novel served perfectly for the first season, but the second and the final season have wholly extrapolated on Perrotta’s characters and world and created something quite new that his novel could never have anticipated.

Margaret Attwood is serving as a consulting producer on the TV adaptation of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, just as Diana Gabaldon has for the Outlander series, airing its third season later this year. And Neil Gaiman has been similarly involved with the American Gods adaptation due in April (with showrunner Bryan Fuller, responsible also for Hannibal, the adaptation/reinvention of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels), and Gaiman acknowledges that he’s only able to successfully translated a third of the novel into the first season. But he’s also including moments from the as-yet unwritten sequel, should the series continue beyond the existing novel’s plot. For Gaiman, adapting is:

‘A bit odd. What I mostly do is think about it until it’s all there in my head and then sit and just write it very fast. And the plot already exists.’

So while cinema seems to be continually offering the same types of stories and the same types of adaptations – punching and explosions or character-driven epiphanies where sad men can find happiness – television is breaking new stories with direct authorial involvement who know how the story works in one format, and are now challenged to make it work in another.

While Game of Thrones and The Leftovers have expanded on their respective novels with new stories and characters, The Handmaid’s Tale will be a self-contained mini-series, possibly designed to correct some of the mistakes from the film adaptation. Similarly, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is hoping to erase the maligned and incomplete film adaptation when it is reworked for TV later this year. The proposed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold mini-series is building on the capital gained by the previous adaptation of a John le Carre novel, 2016’s The Night Manager. Outlander, on the other hand, is freely adapting an ongoing series of books, without concern of ending.

Spies, dragons, romantic time travel, existential dread and post-apocalyptic feminism – TV is becoming the proving ground for creative adaptation.

Which is not to malign cinema too much, given that we are still receiving adaptations of Herman Koch’s The Dinner, R.J. Palacio’s Wonder and Dave Eggers’ The Circle this year, as well as Stephen King’s ridiculously long-awaited The Dark Tower, but we’re also going back to the well for another Murder on the Orient Express and World War Z.

Whether it’s a miniseries, three seasons long, or ongoing, there’s a reason why TV has become the forum for good adaptations, there seems to be only one goal: to tell good stories well.

And while we could get into an argument about how both films and TV shows are all designed to maximise on revenue, and it would be short-sighted to ignore that, what we can’t ignore is that television seems to be aiming at revenue through the quality of story being told, rather than in spite of.

The casting is more diverse, the narratives more varied, and as an example about how much TV has broken down the constraints it seemed to have for fifty-odd years, Atlanta was included in a recent video essay on the best cinematography in 2016. And while it’s not an adaptation, it does lead to the question: what is the difference between film and television?

Time. Time to tell the story. Time for the audience to live with the story and with the characters. Time that reflects the time a reader puts into a book. If film adaptations are just a quick-fix re-tread of characters and stories we know, or a shortcut to reading the book, then it makes sense that the good stories will run to television, where they can be what they need to be.

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Craig Hildebrand-Burke's picture

Craig Hildebrand-Burke

Craig Hildebrand-Burke is a writer and teacher, and has had his fiction appear in several publications, and his writing on books, film and television regularly turn up in various parts of the internet. He also cohosts the Night Shift podcast, and is currently completing his first novel.