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How do TV series’ fare when compared to the books they’re based on?

Can bestsellers make a seamless transition to our television screens?

brunch Updated: Mar 18, 2017 21:09 IST
Seema Goswami
Red Wedding

Game of Thrones’ TV series brought to life the fantasy in the book with great panache

I discovered Liane Moriarty (what a splendid surname for a writer of murder – well, sort of – mysteries to have, by the way) rather late in the day. Somehow, her major breakthrough novel, The Husband’s Secret, passed me by when it released in 2013. It was only after I read her 2014 book, Big Little Lies, that I was intrigued enough to go back and see what else she had written. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed. And then, last year Moriarty released her latest novel, Truly Madly Guilty (yes, she is rather prolific that way) and I was well and truly hooked. And like most newly-converted people, I went around recommending her to all my friends and acquaintances (“Yes, yes, I know, you’ve never heard of her; but believe me, she’s fantastic!”).

Well, it now turns out that Liane Moriarty will no longer be such a tough sell in these parts. And that’s because Big Little Lies, far and away her best book, has been made into a television series starring such A-list stars as Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, with a cast that includes Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard and Zoe Kravtiz, and is playing on a TV screen right in your living room every week.

Of course, it’s much more fun to watch if you haven’t read the book – and don’t worry, this piece contains no spoilers at all. But even those of us who know how it all ends can’t help but get caught up with the twists and turns of the plot. And it doesn’t hurt that both Witherspoon and Kidman are rather easy on the eye, as are all the lush shots of rolling beaches, with their full complement of sun, sea and surf.

So, how does the TV series compare with the book? Well, I was prepared to be all sniffy about it, but as it turns out, the TV version captures the novel rather well, with its mixture of domestic drama, dark comedy, schoolyard (yes, I kid you not!) politics, sexual tension and of course, suspense thriller. There is a murder at the heart of it, but that’s just the hook to hang a great story on. And the story survives the transition to a different medium rather well. As I watched the latest episode this week, I started to wonder which other book had made the transition to TV series quite so successfully. And here, just off the top of my head, is my entirely subjective list of the top three:

Pride and Prejudice: The BBC adaptation of the Jane Austen novel aired more than 20 years ago, with Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy to Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet. But even two decades on, the show lives on in our collective memory thanks to that one scene of Firth emerging from a lake in a wet white shirt and bumping into Elizabeth. It is a tribute to Andrew Davies, who wrote the screenplay, that even though this scene never occurs in Austen’s book, it has become a seminal moment in popular culture.

But leaving wet shirts aside for a moment, this was a show that captured the intelligence and spark of Elizabeth Bennet, the constrained lives of women of that era, and raised an elegant brow at the snobbery and elitism that prevailed in the England of that day. Quite brilliant.

The television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (below) was an absolute masterpiece

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Anyone who has seen the TV series that came out in 1979 (do get a box set if you haven’t) will remember this because of Sir Alec Guinness’ star turn as legendary spymaster, George Smiley, who is brought out of retirement to hunt for a mole buried deep into the heart of the British secret services. Guinness was brilliant in this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel of the same name, so much so that the author admitted that, “If I were to keep one filmed version of my work, this would be it.”

And it is easy to understand why. The plot unravels with the same stately pace that Le Carre brings to his own writing. Each character is fleshed out into three dimensions. The mechanics of spycraft are brought to light in intricate detail. And then, there is the quiet but unmistakable presence of Guinness’ Smiley, all repressed passion and suppressed feelings. An absolute masterpiece.

Game of Thrones: My chronology is a little off when it comes to the Game of Thrones books by George RR Martin. I was introduced to him by the first two seasons of the TV show, which I binge-watched while on vacation. Appetite appropriately whetted, I came back home to download all his books and devoured all five of them in one greedy gulp. So, when season three launched, I was prepared to be disappointed. After all, I knew what was going to happen, so how much fun could it be? Short answer: a lot!

The TV series brought the fantasy to life with such panache that it mattered little that I knew how things were going to turn out. I knew what was coming in the Red Wedding, how the dragons would save the fireproof Daenerys Targaryen, and how Arya Stark would hit rock-bottom. But seeing it on screen still brought a fresh thrill. It helped, of course, that as the series moved along, Martin and the screenplay writers shook things up by varying the endings of various storylines, to give us smug readers a bit of a jolt.

From HT Brunch, March 19, 2017

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