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From Sherlock Holmes to Gossip Girl, television has always loved books as source material. But recently it seems like every new series announced comes from the hottest novel or work of pulp fiction.
Of course, there are deep historical connections between serialization and various media: the popularity of episodic storytelling builds on the tradition of the serialized novel. But as cable networks pump out arty shows like Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (all based on books), it seems like virtually any book is ripe for a TV conversion, from Andrew Ross Sorkin’s tome on the financial collapse (Too Big To Fail) to Jonathan Franzen’s masterwork The Corrections (possibly being developed by Noah Baumbuch).
Why is this happening? There are bunch of reasons why books are even more in vogue now than they usually are.
Clearly the main reason to adapt a book for television is its fanbase — unpopular books rarely get made into TV shows. But it’s not just about numbers. Having fans means networks get demographic info as well: they know who will be likely to watch a show based on who’s reading the books. This makes marketing the series a lot easier. You know young women will tune into Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl. Of course, the relationship is rarely one-to-one. The Walking Dead, among the most popular series on cable, has expanded far beyond comic book followers, as has True Blood, whose current ratings are dramatically higher than those from its first season.
With ratings expectations pretty low for both broadcast and cable — though rising for the latter — you don’t need the sales numbers of Harry Potter to warrant a TV show. (And film studios often swap up those massively popular titles). Networks want guaranteed buzz and audiences, but they don’t need as many as they used to, and pay cable nets like HBO care almost as much about innovation and prestige as ratings — hence The Corrections.
Persistence of Drama
Book-to-TV conversions work better for serious content, and despite the much-touted “return of the sitcom,” dramas are still pretty popular, especially, once again, on cable. For the dozens of channels trying to establish their brands in a competitive marketplace, dramas can bring critics and ratings alike: AMC being the ideal example. If you’re new to original programming, developing series from pre-existing properties is a good way to ensure some level quality, like Netflix recently did with House of Cards (a British TV series and novel) and BET did with 8 Days a Week (adapted from The Come Up book series).
Producing Quality TV
While some may wonder whether the years of “quality TV” are coming to an end — especially with the flood of horrible sitcoms this fall — most networks need quality programming, and books are an efficient way to get it. For decades, Americans perceived British television as better and more serious, and many of those “Masterpiece” programmes were the Brits mining their canon of Christie, Austen, Brontë, Doyle, Eliot, etc. The idea that books make great quality TV is, if not fact, an implicit assumption. Dexter isn’t Miss Marple, but the basic idea still stands.
Just as studios fear lackluster box office opens, networks fear expensive shows that premiere weakly — brand name titles didn’t help Pan Am (still alive) and The Playboy Club (canceled) this season. For producers, adapting a book saves them the trouble of convincing executives the series has enough clout to generate headline-grabbing premiere numbers. Network executives meanwhile can sell the idea quicker to higher ups. It’s the same reason why US television networks have a newfound love affair for British television series — Prime Suspect, Skins, Misfits, Inbetweeners, etc. — and American movies — Teen Wolf, Friday Night Lights, etc.
Are TV series based on books actually better? Certainly many of my favorite dramas on-air right now were previously in print. But books also bring challenges, including how to negotiate favorite characters in print versus popular characters on-air, and how to condense a story into manageable lengths. Unlike books, television series cost millions and can be canceled ruthlessly. Game of Thrones could take many more seasons to finish than there are books, but if the ratings go down, TV fans are unlikely to get a satisfying conclusion. Who has time to read those novels?