Maybe Novels Are Actually Really Good for Television

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I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of articles and think pieces lately that begin with the phrase “we’re in a golden age of television,” such that those words in that order mean almost nothing anymore. But here we are again: We’re in a golden age of television. Thank Tony Soprano, thank the fact that more and more fiction writers have been filling writers’ rooms, thank whoever or whatever you think is responsible.

One decent side-effect of this is that more and more novels are finding their way onto television. BBC One has adapted War and Peace, Italy’s Wildside has teamed up with Fandango Productions to turn Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels into a 32-part series, and just last month, Electric Literature published a list of nine books, including John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, that will be coming to television this year. While adaptation itself isn’t a novel (sorry) concept, maybe we’re finally figuring out that television is just a better medium than film when it comes to taking the experience of the novel and making it visual.

Cartoon - It's Time I Told YouWhile Frances McDormand’s performance in the adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge should be evidence enough of the merits of making mini-series out of books, I can’t help but imagine that half the reason that this type of adaptation is so successful is that ultimately television and novels have the same goals, the same ambitions. This isn’t a length thing–as in, “oh, TV shows are cumulatively longer than movies and novels are really long so we should give them as much space as possible, because I saw Harry Potter and they left out that one encounter that I found really valuable and not having that just ruined the whole experience for me”–this is a realization that television and novels are interested in progressive and sustained engrossment, while movies are interested in a fleeting, but still immersive, experience. Movies want to get you in the door, but television and novels have to make sure you keep coming back.

Anne Carson claimed in Red Doc> that prose was a house and poetry was the man on fire running through it. I think we managed to convince ourselves that movies can be that house, when really it’s more of an Airbnb. Checking into an Airbnb for the weekend is not the same as living in a house. While you are physically inside of a home, it is temporary, it is free of obligation aside from the implicit agreement that you will effectively not be the man on fire running through it. But owning a home requires sustained and incremental effort: you need to pay the bills, you need to maintain your property. And with that dedication comes intimacy: it’s your house. It’s the place you return to again and again.

The novel is intended to be revisited. Despite those reviews that claim (and, ugh, I’ve confessedly written a few of these stinkers myself) that a book is such a page-turner that you won’t be able to put it down, there’s real value in putting it down. It can be a beautiful thing to enjoy a novel in sips. By the same token, while there’s a huge appeal to binge-watching a television show, it’s proven that people actually enjoy television more when there are interruptions: commercials, cliffhangers, what-have-you. And while a movie is intended to just wash over you, television and novels are at their best when they stick and accumulate. To leave and return to both, watching the characters change and mature, builds a relationship. And with that relationship comes the same sort of stakes: a death in a movie can certainly be upsetting, but a death in a novel or on a television series can shake a reader or viewer profoundly. The same with success: remember when everything stopped for three weeks as everyone waited for Rachel Greene to deliver her baby on Friends?

The incremental power and absorption that comes with a novel can be represented beautifully on television. We want to know these characters, we want to grow with them. Let’s lean in to this medium more, let’s see more adaptations for TV. I want that Karen Russell TV series we were promised. I want A Little Life adapted as penance for Sex and the City.


Lead image: Frances McDormand as Olive in the HBO miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge.”

Inset: “It’s time I told you–you were adapted.” Frank Cotham, The New Yorker.

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