Commentary: The art of adapting literature to television is strategic

Analyzing the trend of turning popular books into TV shows

Book to TV adaptations are on the rise.

Adapting books to television is not a new phenomenon, but in the past couple of years, the popularity of series based on bestselling novels seems to be heightened.

From The Handmaid’s Tale to You and Bridgerton, there is now a distinct correlation between the bestseller list and the stories production companies feel need to be seen.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the domino effect of television adaptations began, but it’s clear that HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and even the BBC have caught on to the trend.

The shows we all love and consistently choose to watch have arguably done best when they are adapted from existing literature. The Handmaid’s Tale is as affective, if not more, when we watch it amidst rising political chaos in the United States. Its dystopian setting is haunting as ever, especially when the show departs from the plot of the book after season one.

It seems as though television creators are hand-picking social trends and mixing them with the nuanced writing of respected literature to best captivate audiences. There is an art to this combination of pre-existing literature and new conversations, but production companies are getting pretty close to mastering it.

HBO has trademarked a certain kind of story that is almost guaranteed to be popular: a rich, white family with a secret that could unravel their entire world.

Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere, and the upcoming adaptation of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett all fall into this structure. Their similar elements, coupled with layers of racial tension and a standout cast, are a one-way ticket to incredible audience reviews.

Netflix has taken a similar approach in combining existing trends with conversations around race and a post-colonial landscape in Bridgerton. Our fascination with period dramas is intensified by having the incredibly dreamy male love interest from 1813 London played by a Black actor.

Perhaps this speaks to the impact of our rising societal capacity to discuss, or start to acknowledge, the racist undertones of our worlds. Black Lives Matter protests and calls for social reform amidst a harsh political background have forced us to hear the words “systemic racism” and contemplate their meaning, while also seeing snippets of racial dynamics in the television we consume.

A byproduct of the relationship between page and screen may have a deep impact on the landscape of literature.

Having a book picked up by a major network assures money, exposure, and Hollywood contacts. Up-and-coming writers may now consider whether or not their novel could be adapted to a television series or movie, rather than solely focusing on the literary aspects of their books. However, the common thread between books that are picked up as shows is that they connect with their audience in some way.

If this trend of adaptation continues, it will be interesting to see what kinds of stories networks produce, and if authors attempt to market their work to production companies.

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