Novel Adaptations have been around forever, but what format does them justice?
(SPOILERS for Game of Thrones, Outlander)
Series, I believe, tend to carry off adapted novels better than films. Since series have more time over the course of one season or several to balance multiple plots and subplots, as well as develop characters and conflict, they tend to flow better than a film. Again, because of the excess time, their pacing is generally better in regards to developing story. However, as with any show or film, pacing problems can still occur. On a similar note, while shows can expand to multiple plotlines, they also have the potential to develop too many subplots and thus become unfocused, as opposed to a film that is singularly focused on one main conflict. Regardless of these drawbacks, in terms of story and adaptation from literature and novels, series adapt better than film.
Series, having several hours to dispense plot and conflict and develop characters, simply have more time. Where a film might take a few scenes to cover several chapters, a series might take half an episode. Conflicts are allowed room to breathe, to explain themselves to the characters and the audience. That often-mentioned complaint: the plot was rushed and didn’t make sense is nowhere to be found, if the story is handled right. Characters have multiple scenes and episodes to explore their traits and flaws. An excellent example of this is HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019). This series is a sprawling fantasy epic with many characters and settings. Since it had such a broad scope, it was a perfect choice for an adaptation. Though each season was only somewhere between six to eight episodes, that was enough time to show the massive plot off on its way. The earlier seasons, which still had series author George R.R. Martin’s writing to back them up, were notably tight in terms of plot, dialogue, and conflict. Having Martin himself involved in the project also helped; if there were questions, the writers could go straight to the source. Several reviewers have seen a marked decline in the story of Game of Thrones since it overtook the novels. Regardless of that, if Game of Thrones had been adapted into a film, even a two-part film, several elements would have been cut. A Song of Ice and Fire, the series the show is based on, is much too broad and sprawling to fit into an average film’s runtime. Though I suppose you could say it only has three main plotlines-Jon at the Wall, Daenerys in Essos, and everyone else in King’s Landing-the sections in King’s Landing have several subplots that match themselves to each character. If every character gets an arc, time needs to be alloted. If a film had been made, characters like Sansa, Arya, Bran, and possibly even fan-favorite Tyrion would be relegated to secondary character status to make way for more major characters Eddard, Daenerys, and Jon. When Eddard dies at the end of the first novel, the series loses its de facto main character and hero; after that, the series is even more of an ensemble cast, and has no definite main character. Simply by virtue of its massive cast, this series wouldn’t work as a film.
Let’s look at another, more centered, example: Starz’s Outlander, adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s novels of the same name. This show is a time-travel romance between Claire, a nurse from 1946, and Jamie, a Scottish laird from 1743. This series is also broad in scope, though less so in narrative than A Song of Ice and Fire. All the same, it serves as a good choice for adaptation. This series has longer seasons than Game of Thrones, currently between 13 and 16 episodes each, and has a split narrative between two characters: Claire and Jamie. The first two seasons focus mainly on Claire, and since Jamie is with her in the same time period, he gets less point-of-view focus. When the characters are split up in season three, the narrative splits as well. Since the character focus is more limited than Game of Thrones, the rest of the characters become secondary and tertiary, which, character-wise, makes Outlander a better candidate for a movie adaptation. However, the plot is just as ambitious as Game of Thrones, which makes it more difficult to adapt. In any adaptation, things are lost, things are cut, things are added. With Outlander, either the beginning half of the novel would be condensed, or the climax would be shortened. Clipping short Claire’s time at Castle Leoch, where she spends a good part of the beginning-middle of the novel, would mean cutting short the relationship development given to her and Jamie. However, tightening the climax could lead to confusion about the plot as well. Ultimately, I think the writers did a good job with Outlander’s adaptation. Gabaldon assisted with the project as well, and I believe that having the creator’s help and seal of approval benefits any adaptation. However, you also can’t forget that TV show writers also go through the process of adaptation, and must make difficult decisions.
On the other hand, TV series can also run into pacing problems. Since they are longer than films, their multiple plots and subplots can become unfocused and hard to keep up with. Of course, films can also have pacing issues, but since they have a single focused main conflict, they generally seem to be less pronounced to me. For example, Starz’s The White Queen, based on the historical novels by Philippa Gregory about the War of the Roses, has problems with narrative and pacing. The show purports to tell the story of the 30-year-long civil war through the eyes of three women: Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, and Anne Neville. Leaving aside the anachronisms and the fact that Gregory’s fiction isn’t historically accurate, the show’s premise of trying to shove three decades of confusing English history into 10 hour-long episodes just doesn’t work. Characters are rapidly condensed, and there are so many battles it’s hard to keep track of who is fighting who and what exactly is going on if you don’t know the history. If this series had several more episodes to spool out its narrative, and if it stuck to consistent historical accuracy, it could’ve been more enjoyable. There is so much history involved that I do, however, think a longer series would be the way to go, rather than a film. Films need a main conflict, and a long civil war with multiple stages does not provide that easily.
However, not everything can succeed. Sometimes movies fail because they weren’t adapted correctly. Certain things were neglected, or even overdone. The Divergent series of films were moderately well received as a whole, even if they weren’t super-faithful adaptations of the novels of the same name by Veronica Roth. Granted, as an overly-long and somewhat-bloated series of novels, they weren’t a great adaptation choice unless convincing content was added, but they were immensely popular at the time, and so an adaptation was on the table. After the third movie of a planned four bombed in theaters, the fourth film was cancelled and switched to a TV series that would wrap up the story. As of last year, that series is still in development. Here’s a happier example: the film adaptation of City of Bones by Cassandra Clare flopped. It wasn’t adapted well: the plot didn’t make sense, the characters weren’t likeable, and overall, audiences and fans of the books weren't happy. The sequel was canceled. Then someone took a second look and decided, actually, this might work better as a series. And it has; Shadowhunters, on Freeform, has been mostly well-received.
Sometimes, a director-writer team will descend from the stars and grace us with a solid adaptation. I am talking, of course, about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Of course, this series has its length issues, (mostly in the finale, The Return of the King) but overall, the adaptation decisions made were the right ones. In my opinion, the Lord of the Rings series currently in production from Amazon will have to tread carefully to get the seal of approval from me, and any other die-hard Rings film fans. Not very much was added to the films, not much was cut, and what was there was visualized beautifully. This easily leads me into another point about transitioning from page to screen: length matters. I don’t mean the length of the film or series, but the length of the novel. Each novel in the Lord of the Rings series was of average length, and Jackson still managed to wring three three-hour movies from it. The Hunger Games trilogy, another successful film series adaptation, was also comprised of average-sized novels. To put this in perspective, the third novel in A Song of Ice and Fire is longer than all the three novels in the Lord of the Rings series (in the mass market paperback version). Therefore, film adaptations seem to work better when the novel is of manageable length.
For lengthy works, series adapt better than films. They have the time to allow conflict, plot, and characters to be fully explained and explored. Films would have to sacrifice something essential that would render the adaptation meaningless. However, series can be beset by pacing problems and multiple plots that can lead to problems, more so than films. Sometimes, a work needs a second pair of eyes to find itself and shine in a different way. Overall, whether film or TV series, adaptation means someone loved something so much they knew it had to be shared, and well, isn’t that what we all want when we love something?