Books are better as TV shows than movies – here’s 5 reasons why

posted in: On Writing 0

I’m loving Big Little Lies on iTunes/HBO and I really loved the book. Don’t you love it when the movie or TV show actually lives up to your expectation? This got me to thinking about the successes (and failures) of turning books into visual works, whether that is TV or movie. In my view TV shows are proving to be the better format these days.

It’s commonplace for cinema to steal from books but success has been very patchy, to say the least. For every To Kill A Mockingbird success story, we seemed to end up with five One For The Money fails.

I’m really looking forward to watching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on SBS next month and I’m confident they will have done a brilliant job. It seems to me that turning books into TV shows is a formula for success. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting it’s easy, but I think the long serialised television format lends itself naturally to more faithfully translating printed word to visual and spoken format.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the ethical discussion of art and the differences between interpretation, translation and faithfully reproducing a book to the screen and which is more authentic.

This is just a few observations about why books lately are better as TV shows, rather than a movie. And if I created a bestselling book (I’m 65,000 words down, just another 15,000 to go and the first draft is done!) why I would prefer a TV show to a movie.


Five reasons why it’s better for everyone if your beloved book is turned into a TV show, rather than a movie: 

  1. More time to tell the story and improving the quality of the storytelling: Books are nuanced, with fine-grain detail that usually gets lost in a movie. Entire characters are turfed overboard in the desperate attempt to distil a book’s multiple plot lines and characters into a 90-minute cinematic experience. But ever since the advent of “the golden age of television“, a period heralded by The Sopranos and The West Wing and, of course, Breaking Bad, we have started to see some amazing projects go from the printed page to the small screen. TV shows have evolved. Rather than static characters, we started to see characters go on an arc, evolving and changing. The programs were dark, edgy and resisted narrative closure – perfect for nurturing a book’s complex storyline and character arcs.
  2. Bigger budgets: TV used to be the poor cousin of cinema, with small (comparatively) budgets. But that’s changing. The Game of Thrones budget for season 6 eclipses most big movie budgets, spending about $10 million per episode for a total of more than $100 million spent that season. Compare that with Wonder Woman, which had a budget of $149 million. Lion, the story of five-year-old Saroo who was adopted by Australian parents and returned to India to track his mother down, had a budget of $12 million. Fifty Shades Darker cost $55 million (and the dignity of its stars, but that’s another story).
  3. Deeper talent pool: Ever since the comment was made that we were entering “the golden age of television” the lines have blurred between cinema and TV, with actors, directors and producers happily jumping between the two formats interchangeably. Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Robert De Niro, to name just three, move comfortably between the two.
  4. Writer involvement: OK, this one applies to movies as well as TV, but it seems the original author of the works is getting more involved in the film and TV adaptation. A recent Guardian article reveals that JK Rowling, EL James and George RR Martin have all retained creative control over the work’s final version as a movie or TV show. The article posits that it doesn’t always succeed, largely because authors understand books and don’t really understand that movies communicate in a different way to a different audience, but the point remains that authors are wresting control back. Perhaps we could have avoided the travesty that is One For The Money if Janet Evanovich had retained more control over casting and scripting. (Katherine Heigl just didn’t capture the essence of Stephanie Plum. Sad face.) And how great would One For the Money be as a TV series??!! Right??
  5.  Falling cinema visits vs engaging TV experience: Screen Australia data reveals that while audience size (the number of people who go to the cinema) has largely remained steady from 1974 to 2016, the number of visits those people make is falling. In 1974 people attended roughly 10.5 times each per year, rising to 11.6 times in 1996. In 2016 it’s down to 6.6 visits each per year. This coincides with the rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Stan, along with a weakened economy where wages growth has been flat for more than two years and Australia has avoided recession by the slimmest of margins (consecutive quarterly growth shrinking to almost zero – just 0.3 per cent growth in the March quarter of 2017). TV is gaining new and more engaged audiences via Netflix, Stan and Amazon Prime and this helps drive better content production values, better content, in TV production.


TV Shows that have handled book source material brilliantly: 

  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty has become HBO’s Big Little Lies, available on iTunes or Foxtel
  • Sex and The City by Candace Bushnell became HBO’s celebrated Sex and the City
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick has become a gripping Amazon Prime series of the same name
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon has become a celebrated television show of the same name, available on iTunes
  • Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, available on iTunes and Foxtel
  • Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger was a non-fiction book published in 1990 which became NBC’s popular five-season hit show Friday Night Lights available on Netflix

Books coming to a TV screen near you: 

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has become Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tail, and will air on SBS in July
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum in its latest iteration has become NBC’s Emerald City
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is now set to become a Foxtel television series later this year


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