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Television’s current ‘Golden Age’ is fueled by stellar novels

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The Leftovers is just one of HBO’s powerhouse shows adapted from a novel.
Smith Galtney

For as long as I’ve been reading novels, I tend to think the same thing after reading a good one: “It’d make a great movie.” But something funny happened last month. While rereading John Irving’s The World According to Garp, my all-time favorite, I recalled the 1982 film starring Robin Williams, which —although fine in its own way—ditched about two-thirds of Irving’s story. After reacquainting myself with all those unfortunately abandoned characters and subplots, I was convinced Garp would make one fantastic television series.

Just about everything I’m excited about these days involves a novel becoming good TV: Next week, Hulu will debut a new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s super-timely The Handmaid’s Tale. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is set to repurpose Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad for Amazon. AMC has The Son, based on Philipp Meyer’s acclaimed epic. And god bless HBO. With Big Little Lies and The Leftovers and Olive Kitteridge, plus newly greenlit projects like Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, they’re doing even more than Oprah to keep lucky authors flush with recognition and options checks.

This is nothing new, of course. Television has been mining novels for material at least as far back as Peyton Place in the mid-’60s. But thorough, faithful adaptations have long leaned toward epic fare. From Roots to Lonesome Dove and Games of Thrones, if it didn’t involve a historical odyssey or hobbits or the Eternal Battle for Something or Other, chances are (a) TV didn’t want much to do with it or (b) Hollywood would hack the story to bits trying to cram it all inside a two-hour movie mold.

Now that television is in yet another golden age—after revamping the series, it’s now reinvented the miniseries—novels driven by characters, not quests, are benefitting from extensive adaptations that weren’t possible before. Surely a company like Focus Features could’ve paired down Olive Kitteridge’s modest 270 pages into above-average catnip for Oscar voters. But laying them out over four expertly paced two-hour episodes resulted in some of the most perfect television I’ve ever seen. Big Little Lies would’ve likely been reduced to a mere chick flick with an “edge” had HBO not gave it room to breathe, working up to the most sweat-inducing finale since the first season of Homeland.

Back in 1997, Stephen King turned The Shining into a miniseries for ABC. It was his attempt to right the many wrongs of Stanley Kubrick’s brazenly unfaithful adaptation. In a similar vein, Hulu’s retelling of The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elizabeth Moss (!!!), hopes to do better justice to Atwood’s novel than the sterile 1990 movies. Ryan Murphy just announced a new series called Pose, an ‘80s-era drama that sounds like a riff on Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, yet another great book that inspired a very disappointing movie. Perhaps my daydream of a new Garp isn’t so farfetched.

At the dawn of 2016, the editor of the popular Elena Ferrante books, Sandro Ferri, suggested HBO’s novelistic approach to popular TV paved the way for Ferrante’s success. “When you are talking about the reason for the moment,” he told the New York Daily News, “you have to notice the big successes of the TV series — people want to look at or read big stories that involve lives.” Now HBO is turning Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend into eight-episode series, filmed in Italian with English subtitles. With backscratching like this, we all win.

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