Books vs. TV

Why adaptations don’t always need to follow the book.

By Bryan Berlin

There are certain people in this world you have to avoid. People who walk slowly and take up a lot of space on busy sidewalks. People who use their bag to take up a seat on the subway. People who give away season finales of televisions shows. But there’s one person who is worse than all of those people (well maybe not the season finale spoiler – that guy is a dick): literature snobs.

No, I’m not talking about people who enjoy reading. Reading is great, and everyone should be reading. I’m talking about the people who take their literature too seriously. The ones who feel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was elementary and hold Kurt Vonnegut in such high esteem that at times they act as if they know him on a personal level. Catch phrases for these people may include “I read the book before they made that into a movie” and “the book was better.”

Adaptations are a part of creative mediums. Half the movies in Hollywood today come from some previous material, whether it’s a remake, sequel, or adaptation. Depending on the popularity of the book, the adaptation has an incredibly important job in movies: to stay true to the source material as much as possible. Think about if Chris Columbus directed the first Harry Potter movie with a healthy amount of artistic liberty. The fans would show up at his house with sharpened broomsticks and play Quiddich using his head as the quaffle.

There is a reason books adapt so well into movies. One story on paper is turning into one story on screen. Sure, the movie probably has to cut a few scenes because of length restrictions, but as a viewer you are getting that whole story in one sitting. With TV, the rules change. Instead of adapting a book for a two-hour movie, it is being adapted over an entire season. This adaptation style offers a few challenges. First, characters become much more important in a television show. Audiences have to identify with the characters, and the characters need to be active on screen. It’s important to identify and relate to characters in movies also, but the investment is only 90 minutes. In television time, that’s two, hour-long episodes. Viewers still have another eleven (or even 20) episodes left to learn about characters. If the character is not developed enough, the show falls flat after a few episodes, and you stop watching.

When it premiered six years ago, the first season of Dexter was an adaptation of the book Darkly Dreaming Dexter. In that adaptation, there were some character and story changes. More importantly, after the first season, Dexter stopped following the source material. The show took the characters inspired by the books and created its own storylines. Dexter has been one of the best shows on television over the past six years, receiving 20 Emmy nominations. There are probably people out there who are upset that they stopped following the book, but it does not take away from the show as a series. The main focus of Dexter is the struggle of good vs. evil in the main character’s head. The inner monologue voice over allows viewers to listen in on this good vs. evil debate, and adds a huge amount of layers to this character. Yes, you read that struggle, but it’s awesome to see it portrayed visually.

The Walking Dead is a series on AMC that is based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman. After a six-episode first season, season two of The Walking Dead premiered on October 16th to 7.3 million viewers, the highest ever rating for a TV show on cable. It’s clear that The Walking Dead is a definite hit for AMC, and it is also deemed successful amongst critics. So why is it still getting criticism?

After nine episodes of the show, the story is right in the middle of second volume of the comic books (there are currently 12 volumes, with no signs of stopping). The show has plenty of source material to work from, but there are scenes, characters, and entire storylines they have omitted in these first few episodes. Some of the comic readers are upset with these changes. I talked to my friend about it who considers himself a ‘purist’: someone who thinks of the source material for a comic is the Bible.  These people also exist in the movie adaptation world (Batman, Superman, etc.), but their voices are heard more with The Walking Dead because the series is continuing over seasons rather than it just being a single event like a movie. The books are amazing – there’s no denying that. The difference people need to understand is that watching a book turn page by page on a television is not exciting. There is an element of movement involved, and that movement can have an artist’s interpretation in it. In the case of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, the writer of the comic books, is one of the show runners. The writer of the comics himself has changed scenes and characters to benefit the TV show. If he can deal with seeing a few scenes changed, so can the purists.

That being said, The Walking Dead does benefit from taking certain plot points from its source material. For one, it makes it a little easier for the writers to create scenes. The other reason is that there are a bunch of really awesome scenes that happen in the comic series that I would love to see portrayed on the screen. The way I see it, the writers of The Walking Dead have a few main set pieces that they need to cover. The path they take to each set piece is totally up to them. This way, you get surprises along the way and aren’t just watching the show with the book in your lap, waiting for them to stray from the material.

At the end of the day, a book and a show are two completely different mediums. For me, there is something a lot more enjoyable to watching a TV show and seeing how they portray the story in this new medium rather than watching the show and making sure every moment meticulously matches up with the source material. If you’re going to watch a show like that, you’re just not going to enjoy it. At some point, people have to accept television and books as two different sources, and enjoy each as their own. The heart of the issue is that people love being ahead of the curve when it comes to any new trend. People love comparing The Walking Dead to the book because they want people to know they read it before you started watching it. I do the same thing when a musician I listened to becomes mainstream. Art is art, and each should be judged individually in its own medium.



One Comment on “Books vs. TV”

  1. Garrett Connolly says:

    The problem is not cohering to events of the plot, with film adaptations directors must make decisions which constrict the variability of interpretation. Obviously events can’t match up perfectly because the events one person imagined in their head are different from another’s. This is why books will always be greater than film, you are required to actively interpret rather than accept the decisions of a director.
    Vonnegut and I go way back, he once told me that he lived so long because god was trying to see how many cigarettes one man could handle.

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