It’s been an extraordinary decade of television, particularly with developments we’ve seen in just the last couple of years. Quality and consumption are at their highest, with more platforms than ever offering different means of enjoying older and newer shows. The format itself is evolving almost before our eyes, with incredible intricacy coming for the different forms of serialized dramas, single-camera sitcoms, and everything in between. This is to say nothing of how much the duration and airing of a single series has altered, evolving expectations of a given show. As many are wont to say, we are truly entering a Golden Age for the medium.
In that sense, two of what are arguably the best examples of this are Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Both represent the powerhouses that the cable channels have become in regards to original programming, consistently eating away at the once-dominant primetime networks. Both boast enormous and devout audiences, as well as intricate and conceptually driven source material. Both have become respective touchstones within the sphere of pop culture, as each new death and turn of events is newsworthy across the entertainment arenas. Most interesting of all, both are based on previously published material; in the case of The Walking Dead, the series of graphic novels from Robert Kirkman, and Game of Thrones from George R. R. Martin’s perennial A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series.
In retrospect, this feels almost like something that should be obvious, even though no one’s quite attempted it before — certainly not on the scale of both series and to nowhere near the degree of success. Adaptation of novel to film is almost as old as film itself. Not only are a number of classic films themselves based on novels, but for decades, it’s remained the default that, if a story in written form is going to be translated into a different medium, it would be film.
Perhaps it’s because television is so much younger. As little as twenty years ago, it was arguably still not very well-respected nor taken that seriously. It was a place for soap operas and procedurals, with little thought for what was in-between. The medium was evolving but was also still viewed as at the bottom of the pole, far below its much more respected older sibling, film. Indeed, the only one that could take televison’s place at the bottom of that pole was video games.
It probably also didn’t help that television has only recently — by which I mean to say, in the last ten to fifteen years — become truly sophisticated and not just in it of itself, but also in ways that are extraordinarily unique to the medium. That’s a part of why this is such a Golden Age for the form — not only is television truly and almost indescribably great, but it’s also truly great in ways that could never be accomplished in novels or film (or even video games).
In which case, it’s fantastic to see people attempting these adaptations and succeeding and on such a massive scale. Game of Thrones is legitimate high-quality storytelling and probably the greatest mainstream hit of any translation in regards to a fantasy series since Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. They’ve taken a number of liberties with the text, but what voices may protest are few and far between and plenty can cite those that have actually improved on the series itself.
The question is, then, why aren’t we seeing more of this? If The Simpsons can revolutionize post-modernism in primetime comedies and if Lost can change the way we think about narrative in dramas, especially serialized dramas, why aren’t more book series being brought to the small screen? Why are we still falling back on the default of sending them to the big screen instead? While there’s no streamline here and no one set format that works across the board — some books work better on film, some work better on television — it’d be fantastic to see more book series attempted.
In particular, television just allows for the better, long-term storytelling that these behemoth book series deserve. Gone with the Wind and The Godfather were both relatively one-term affairs and so worked better with film’s comparatively shorter format. However, imagine if someone had been able to take the time and care to adapt the Harry Potter series into television instead of film. Putting aside all the complications, like aging actors, there would’ve been far more time that could’ve been spent developing everything else that goes on in the novels around the primary contest between Harry-Voldemort; hours and hours of story and character that are shaved off because the films have to meet a two or two-and-a-half hour runtime.
Film is a wonderful format, but television, by nature of its ability to provide longevity in storytelling, inherently gels better with longer book series. That is why it’s almost a surprise that it took until now for anyone to really even contemplate the possibility, at least in the big-scale adaptations. After all, comic-book based cartoons have been successfully doing this kind of thing for decades.
Maybe it’s because, due to its age, film is still the go-to format all around and thereby, with it, carries more prestige. For the longest time, it’s been considered by many to have greater accomplishment if you’re a successful film actor or director, whereas television was seen as secondary. That perception has dramatically shifted in the last few years, helped in no small part by and playing a role in the enabling of this Golden Age of ours.
It could also just be that these things take a while. The Simpsons was so far ahead of all its contemporaries in terms of revolutionizing the format that, not only did society hate and fear it at the height of its own quality and success, but it took nearly ten years for anyone to start going any further with it. We have yet to see anyone truly take up the mantle of Lost, four years after its end.
There are any number of deserving series that could be examined for this kind of potential. The Wheel of Time is considered, alongside Song of Ice and Fire, to be one of the most prolific in the genre of the last twenty years. Dune has been the pinnacle of science fiction for decades and most adaptations have failed to one degree or another. The wealth of fantasy and science fiction novels alone boast almost endless potential just ripe for small-screen adaptation, the kind that could be every bit as excellent as Game of Thrones if done right.
So here’s hoping that more TV producers pick up the mantle — and that we don’t have to wait years and years to see it. Television has never been in a better place for this kind of thing and Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have both done enormous amounts to pave the way. It’s time that we finally turn the default for novel adaptations away from film to where it really belongs: on television.