Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Growing Relationship Between Books and Television

At the beginning of the year, Laura Miller wrote at Salon that "The novel and television are commingling as never before. And it’s about time."

She went on to discuss the latest acquisitions being made and the way in which several literary novels are being adapted to television. It's exciting in many ways, as TV has the potential "to spread out and explore the byways and textures of a novel’s imagined world." TV makes a better fit for book adaptations than film, she argues, and in many ways I agree. I think the trend towards books like The Corrections and Faulkner's works is fascinating and feels like new ground in a lot of ways. I love books and TV best, as you know, they sometimes war in my heart for which I love more and the complementary nature of this growing world appeals to me in many ways.

But...I don't actually like many of the shows that have been adapted from books I love. The first example that springs to mind is Rizzoli and Isles. In some ways, I actually resent the show for not being everything I hoped it would be. I don't mean to be a stickler about screen adaptations never living up to the books, but there are certain elements I certainly hope to find present in a show that is based on characters I love. I guess, at minimum, I hope to find the heart of the characters and the defining characteristics of their relationships to be adhered to. Certainly I recognize that TV is entirely different from novels--new storylines will open up and things will change the characters in fundamental ways, but I want to think that a show will start out in a place that feels true to the heart of the books. And that was absolutely not the case with Rizzoli and Isles. I love the characters in the books to death, they are both incredibly intelligent, hard working women who have a layered and complex working relationship. The show decided to go for a silly, over the top, BFF vibe. It's not that the show isn't fun, I'm sure it's fun for a lot of people. It's just that I look at the source material and then I look at the show, and think...this was the best you could do?

Even book-to-TV factory Alloy adaptations let me down. The Lying Game completely abandoned the premise of the books and as a result the title makes no sense, since the actual Lying Games never feature into the story!

But even more interesting to me is the forthcoming The Corrections since Franzen himself is writing on it. The book is ten years old! And now he's being given a chance to go back to the book and revisit the characters and stories. It's almost like being given a second chance on the story itself. It will be interesting to see how it does and what he chooses to do with the opportunity. Miller also raises some interesting questions about how Franzen's adaptation of The Corrections will have a status any other person's adaptation wouldn't.

Despite the exciting opportunities being presented by adapting books to television series, there is still much to consider as a reader. Could we eventually lose something with this new phenomenon? I have to admit that A-J Aronstein's recent essay at The Millions on this subject is one of my favorite things I've read on the internet in ages and explores this question with depth.

What can I say? The brain is sometimes lazy. It conjures approximations of Mr. Darcy, or Daisy Buchanan, or Chip Lambert based on people we know. We try to understand a novel in the vernacular of our own experience. Our relationships condition our mental, emotional, and psychological connection with characters. And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we mean this: our private interactions with texts depend as much on the associations and imagination of the author as on the associations and imaginations of the reader. Our desire to know them — and to know them on our own terms — drives us to read.

When books are adapted to the screen, we begin to lose bits of what made those stories our own and the ways they were grounded in our own experience. A whole new ingredient has been added into the mix, or an intermediary if you will. We aren't directly engaging with the text, we are engaging with someone else's interpretation of it. But because of the ties they hold to the novel, names, locations, plot details, they have the potential to interfere with our own memories of the experience of the book or the world we found inside the pages.

It's an exciting world to be sure, and I still think there are a lot of books that would make great television series. But I also think wholly original content on TV can be just as fulfilling and work to the advantages of the medium.

How do you feel about the growing trend in adapting works of literary fiction for television?


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to comment! I appreciate hearing your thoughts.