These days it seems like the most popular medium for TV shows to take inspiration from is the literary one. With several books, graphic novels and comics, sometimes with decades of mythology, it’s hard to see why not. When something works in a medium where scenes are static or left to the imagination, then seeing them in action should be something special. These days, there are a large number of successful shows and series which are, in some shape or form, adaptations. So in this piece, I’ll be examining, what makes a good adaptation and what are the key areas TV show creators end up either nailing or ruining.
The very first thing which comes to mind is source material. If it’s worked once, why fix what isn’t broken? For the most part this is true; however, if the show is too close to its source, it adds nothing substantial. The key thing here is to respect and understand the source material, but also not bog things down. Novel and comic book series should set the overall atmosphere and blueprint, but shows should try to be fresh and do something which makes them unique.
For an obvious example, we can look at the CW’s adaptations of various DC Comics heroes and stories. While they get some elements right, they are different and special in their own right. As an extension of my point, these shows need to make sure to not just cater to the fans. Shows like Arrow and Flash bring in a lot of mythology from the over 50-year history of the characters, but they’re able to do it in a way that someone who isn’t comic-literate can appreciate them. Its nice to have Easter eggs and little nods to fans, but the basic elements of these shows needs to be understandable without having to check Wikipedia.
While originality is good, there are certain limits shows need to stick to or work around. Game of Thrones is known for being excellent at adapting The Song of Ice and Fire. However, when it comes to putting its own spin on things and trying out a new direction, there’s usually mixed reactions at best. Shows which are more loosely adapted like Sherlock can also work really well, though sometimes they go the way of Dexter or Vampire Diaries where both the book and TV medium have diverged greatly, and not for the better. Being original and telling your own story is all well and good, but it should never be forgotten why the original works were so successful in the first place. For example, while the Walking Dead is a good enough TV show on its own, it’s only a shadow of its comic book self and is a rather weak representation as a whole.
A bad move to make on the part of the executives would be to get the characters wrong. Unless they are very, very clever, the worst thing creators could do would be to just slap in a character and not deliver on their potential, or just get them plain wrong. Honestly, as long as you can really understand the characters and the root of the story, it’s hard to mess up.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold features Batman at his most light-hearted, fighting telepathic gorillas, going into space and teaming up with a large variety of colorful and ostentatious characters. However, it never forgets who Batman is and what his origins are; he’s always grounded and behaves exactly as you would expect Batman to behave. By comparison, the Dresden Files TV series was known for changing its characters and being a more watered down version of the beloved book series. It would probably explain why the show was axed after one season.
Bringing a series to life and making it fit the TV medium is also a challenge in its own right. Comic books rely on bright and colourful but essentially static pictures to tell the story. Stories from books are completely crafted by your imagination. Care needs to be taken to visualise and recreate iconic scenes and characters in a way which everyone can appreciate. There are also several subtle touches and mechanisms which need to be accounted for. In books, exposition is just given but in TV shows, it needs to be woven into the action in some way. It has to be revealed as things are happening – the same being true for any backstory elements.
Most shows are able to grasp this and make good work with it. Game of Thrones does well with its depictions of various locations as well as big climactic moments like the Battle of Blackwater, or seeing the dragons in action. TV shows are also the best medium for comic books as they are able to adopt the nature of serialized storytelling extremely well. This can be validated by all the great live action and animated series that have been produced.
With more and more successful shows, even more stories and adventures get adapted. To name a few, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events are coming up and in production. Adaptations just aren’t going away and every time a showrunner nails all the sweet spots, it’s one more great show for all of us to watch and enjoy.