Look, Mum, I’m on TV! Books on the Small Screen

With some exciting new releases currently hitting TV screens and paid streaming sites, it looks like great books will continue to create small screen gold this year. The TV series adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events released on Netflix in early January, followed in February by HBO’s miniseries Big Little Lies (currently available to NZ audiences through streaming site Neon); and with several more noteworthy releases in the next few months, from Neil Gaiman’s eagerly-anticipated American Gods  to Anne of Green GablesThe Handmaid’s Tale, and a BBC series of The Cuckoo’s Calling later this year, there is something for every book lover to eagerly look forward to, or love to hate, in the upcoming line-up of small screen adaptations.
So, what is it about books that make great TV series, and do these small screen releases see Netflix junkies flooding bookshops? Is there room in the New Zealand market for an outstanding TV series based on a New Zealand book, and what books do we hope will be the next to grace the small screen? I talked to Jenni Keestra and Craig Atkinson from Paper Plus Head Office, Jenna Todd from Time Out Bookstore, Jemma Pirrie from McLeods Booksellers, Sandra Noakes from HarperCollins New Zealand, and Kathryn Burnett – screenwriter, story consultant and screenwriting tutor – about book to TV trends to learn more about these adaptations.

From book to TV series, then back to book sales?
When it comes to small screen hits translating back into book sales, our booksellers seem to agree that it depends largely on the book or series. Jemma Pirrie from McLeods Booksellers noted that while some TV adaptations do well, others don’t make much of a difference to book sales. ‘Ones that translated well to sales for us were Call the Midwife, Game of Thrones, Outlander and Wolf Hall. We find that film tie-ins usually work better for us though.’
Jenna Todd from Time Out Bookstore had similar thoughts on book sales following the release of a TV series. ‘We do see some TV adaptations translate into book sales but only for series, such as Game of Thrones and Outlander. I think this is because customers want to find out what has happened. However, Big Little Lies is currently getting a lot of promotion and the TV tie-in is only $15, so sales have been good so far.’
Jenni Keestra and Craig Atkinson from Paper Plus thought that resulting book sales from TV series releases depended more on the overlap between the TV and book audiences. 'It depends a bit on the success of the TV series and the degree to which the books are already known to the TV audience. Books or series that have been out a long time and have an established readership that mirrors the TV audience don’t really show a marked lift in sales. The Outlander books would be an example of this.
'On the other hand, the Game of Thrones TV series took the books to an entirely new audience of people who wouldn’t normally call themselves fantasy readers, and interest in the books was huge.’
Despite the somewhat mixed bag of book sales resulting from TV adaptations, Sandra Noakes from HarperCollins New Zealand states that there’s plenty to be gained in the relationship between publishing and television. ‘Books offer amazing opportunities for television production houses. And, as long as there are great television series being made, there will be TV tie-ins on bookshop shelves. We’re the publishers of George R. R. Martin’s epic Game of Thrones series. Traditionally, George R. R. Martin appealed to sci-fi/fantasy readers, but the TV series based on his books has really helped to introduce his work to a much wider audience, and as a result we have experienced a significant boost in sales of both the original and the TV tie-in editions of the Game of Thrones books. 
‘On a smaller scale, Agatha Christie’s novels are enjoying a revival in the world of television. The two-part miniseries, And Then There Were None, based on the novel of the same name, screened last year on Prime TV. The Witness for the Prosecution, the new miniseries has just screened in the UK, and we expect it to broadcast here in due course.’
TV adaptations true to form
After I started writing this article, I soon discovered that most, if not all, the shows I’ve enjoyed in recent years have been based on books. Orange is the New Black is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison. The House of Cards series starring Kevin Spacey and currently fronting Spark’s unlimited broadband internet campaign started as a book authored by Michael Dobbs. The Walking Dead, now in the middle of its seventh season, is based on a comic book series. Even TV series where I’d read and loved the books beforehand seemed to me to be better-suited to TV adaptations. I found the new Netflix A Series of Unfortunate Events series superb, in that it’s much closer in tone to that of the books than the initial movie was. When I asked around, I found that our booksellers felt much the same way.
‘I think novels and in particular, book series, adapt better to TV than to films as they don’t have to be condensed into the space of 2 hours but can be adapted more thoroughly over a series of episodes or seasons, which emotionally involves the viewer for a longer period of time,’ says Jemma, from McLeods Booksellers. ‘A good example is A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket. Being a huge fan of the books, I enjoyed the film adaptation but found they glossed over a lot of details and character nuances, especially with trying to fit three books into one film. The new Netflix TV series, however, has done a marvellous job with taking its time covering each book and really capturing the feel of the novels, as well as the author’s love of language. The reason films probably translate better to book sales is due to the wide media around them, and their accessibility to people who don’t have Netflix, Lightbox or Sky TV.’

Jenna, from Time Out Bookshop agreed that TV series can work better as a visual medium for books. ‘I believe novels adapt to TV better than movies, as there is more time for character and plot development and viewers can become more invested in the story. There have been some really sophisticated and artful TV series coming out so hopefully the standard is kept high for the books we hold in high regard!’
Jenni and Craig mentioned similar points, with a couple of important provisos: ‘some thrillers, such as The Girl on the Train, are better suited to the constrained time limit and fast pace of a movie. And TV series based on a book work when they are created as a dramatization of a specific book but can go off the rails when the book is just a starting point and the TV series takes on a life of its own (remember the Little House on the Prairie series?).”
Sandra Noakes also sees the benefit of TV adaptations over the more traditional film adaptation. ‘It must be hard adapting a 400-page novel to fit within the parameters of a two-hour movie, unless of course you’re Peter Jackson and can stretch one book into three feature-length films. It makes sense that a TV series, being generally longer, has a better chance of being more accurate to the story, but even then, it is only ever an interpretation of the novel.’
New Zealand-written books on the small screen
With all of this international success in adapting books into popular TV series, I decided to investigate if there was room in the New Zealand market for a book to television series. Kathryn Burnett , screenwriter, story consultant and screenwriting tutor, kindly answered some questions on the subject. ‘We have numerous terrific NZ novels that would adapt very well to a TV series. We don't lack for great source material; the challenge is that we don't make that many TV series.’
When I asked if adapting a novel to a film or a TV series is easier for the screenwriter, Kathryn replied, ‘I'm not sure either is particularly easy – but it's clear to me that some novels are better suited to film rather than TV and vice versa.’ Kathryn has recently optioned a novel by a New Zealand writer to adapt it into a TV series herself, so despite the challenges involved with adapting a novel to either visual medium, it seems we can look forward to at least one closer-to-home adaptation on our screens in the future!
Our choices for TV series adaptations
Of course, everyone I talked to eagerly mentioned a book or several they’d love to see on the small screen! While Kathryn Burnett mentioned Paul Cleave and David Mitchell, Sandra Noakes would like to see an adaptation of Deborah Challinor’s Smuggler’s Wife quartet, beginning with Kitty ‘It has all the drama required for an amazing TV series – NZ history, drama, action on the high seas, romance.’ She would also like to see Stacy Gregg’s children’s books beginning with The Princess & the Foal, and she'd love to see Ngaio Marsh’s books on the small screen.
Our booksellers had a very varied idea of what favourite books would suit a TV format. ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and Just Kids by Patti Smith are currently in production – I can't wait to see these – and of course, The Luminaries,’ says Jenna. ‘I would love to see Kate Tempest's The Bricks that Built the Houses as a series, just because the music would be so great. Also, anything by Ali Smith would be wonderful to see.’
Jemma from McLeods Booksellers said ‘I would love to see The Name of the Wind series by Patrick Rothfuss adapted for TV – it is hugely popular in our shop and an epic olde-world fantasy that would lend itself well to a few seasons of TV episodes. Caraval, by Stephanie Garber would be magical on screen, as would The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. The Narnia series by C. S. Lewis could be delved into more thoroughly if it were translated to a TV series, as well as His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, and the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness.’
Jenni and Craig from Paper Plus Head Office also had plenty of ideas of their own ‘The slow reveals in Joël Dicker’s The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair would suit a series. There are lots of eccentric characters in Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry to have fun with. And novels by Michael Morpurgo and our own Margaret Mahy have been adapted for the small and large screen but there are more opportunities out there with their books.’
And as for me? I’m still waiting for a fantastic TV series based on books by Tessa Duder (The Tiggy Tompson Show, anyone?) or a current series based on Paul Jennings’ books.
by Emma Bryson