Last month I went to Singapore on a family trip and had the luck to catch the Australian cast of the Broadway hit Wicked. The story of the Wicked Witch of the West’s path to infamy, the musical is based on the book of the same name, by Gregory Maguire.
The show was fantastic. We had excellent seats, courtesy of my partner’s mother (thanks again Marilyn!) and the actors took me away to Oz just as easily as the tornado took Dorothy.
But, seeing the hit play made me start thinking of book adaptations. I’d read Wicked more than 10 years ago, and loved it, and so I decided to re-read it now that I’ve seen the Broadway version. When watching the play, I realized that I’d forgotten a lot of the details of the book. And when I went back and read the book I realized that the show had changed the story around quite a bit. Some of those changes were fine (telescoping the timeline was important to fit a book that covers 40 years into a three-hour show) but others were a little more disappointing. (Did it really need a happy ending? Bittersweet would have been fine.)
I don’t watch a lot of TV shows, but two series that I am an avid follower of are HBO’s The Game of Thrones and True Blood—both adaptations of book series.
The Game of Thrones (as probably everyone who reads this already knows) is an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy books. Martin has written five hefty books in the series so far, and the TV show attempts to bring the first two books to live-action drama. Without being a fangirl, I do think I know the books pretty well. Each time a new book in the series comes out, I re-read the past installments, and when I had lasek vision correction done on my eyes a few years ago and was avoiding watching videos or reading books, I spent several months listening to the audio book versions.
The TV series (the second season has just started) is trotting along quickly, trying to keep up with the huge cast and intertwining story arcs that make the book the wonderful read that it is. I know who all the characters are, I recognize the lines that they’ve lifted from the book and I catch some places that they’ve changed or simplified details to make it better for TV. But I wonder how the show could be interesting for people who haven’t already read the books. The cast is so huge—I think the last episode I watched followed the point of view of Tyrion, Arya, Jon, Sansa, Catelyn, Renly, Bran and Theon—and remember all those scenes have those characters interacting with yet more characters—but neglected to show the viewers the points of view of Daenarys, Robb, Asha (who they’ve renamed to something…Yara?), Davos…
How many characters can a TV viewer be asked to care about in the space of an hour? It works in the book, partially because sometimes you can leaf back a few pages and read it again to figure out what the heck just happened.
True Blood remains one of my favorite series to watch, and I’m looking forward to when the fifth season starts this summer. The series is based on the universe created in the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris. Part paranormal mystery, part paranormal romance, the books are fun, quick reads following would-be normal mind-reader Sookie Stackhouse as she works for vampires, falls in love with vampires, and dates werewolves and weretigers. Oh, and discovers she’s part fairy.
Unlike The Game of Thrones, True Blood doesn’t try to catch every detail of the books. In fact, the series diverted from the books early on in the first season, when Lafayette wasn’t murdered and instead went on to become one of the main (and maybe the best) characters. Now, the books and the TV shows populate the same universe but in parallel dimensions—showing us different episodes of what could have been in the lives of the characters.
At first this two-faced storytelling bothered me. I liked the books and I wanted to see it on the screen. But then, I realized that I also liked the story line that was presented on TV. Enough details are different now that I have no problem differentiating the storyline in the book from the arcs presented in the show.
Despite enjoying these three examples of adaptations, I do remain wary of works that have been adapted. Probably the reason for that is the terrible movie that was made out of one of my favorite books, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. But that’s a subject for another post.
Beth is an American freelance writer who has lived in Europe and Asia since 2003. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life. She writes articles and suspense about travel, expatriate living, and many other topics.