I’m not rigid about the difference between books and movies. I understand that they are two different media, and you can’t expect a movie to do the same things that a book can do, even if the film is “based on” the book. Sometimes the differences between the two are almost comical (the Lawrence Olivier/Greer Garson version of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, completely changes some of the characters), sometimes they’re so vast you can hardly trace the outlines of the original in the movie (and yes, I know the movie, Blade Runner, is a classic, but it is VERY different from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and while I love the movie Slumdog Millionaire, I don’t think I would have loved it as much if I’d read the source, Q & A, first). What’s interesting to me now is the difference between books and television series based on the books, which actually turns out to be the opposite of the difference between books and movies.
With a movie, the book is almost always better because the author can go into depth in the characters and their thinking in a way that’s almost impossible to depict on film. An author can have a character musing over things, considering alternatives and possibilities, for pages and it’s interesting. In a movie, showing someone thinking is the same as showing the person doing nothing, and nobody likes that. Books can go into greater depth with subplots and side characters, where movies have to cut all that “extraneous” stuff out to get on with the story.
A television series, though, has enough time and space to cover all the details of the book. Subplots and side characters can be developed and shown because you don’t have a two hour limit. The problem with a television series based on a book is that the series needs more, and so the way a series diverges from a book is in complicating things and adding things to the book, whether those things might be strictly necessary or not.
For instance, the first season of Dexter followed the first book, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, fairly closely, with one or two dramatic differences (people live at the end of the book who are killed in the series, and vice versa). Characters who were mentioned in the book got their own subplots, but on the whole, if you read the book, you had a good sense of where the series was going. After that first season, though, the television series took a completely different path, complicating Dexter’s backstory, adding more characters and more relationships, until finally the only things the series and the books had in common were some characters and a general concept of who and what Dexter was.
The Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett book, Good Omens, was delightful, a romp through the apocalypse and the efforts to avoid the apocalypse. The characters of Crowley and Aziraphale, the devil and angel (respectively) were just two among a whole assortment of strange and entertaining characters. The television series, while mostly following the arc of the book, changed its focus to Crowley and Aziraphale, developing their relationship over the course of human history and giving them much more of a part to play in avoiding the end of the world. They are charming and funny characters, and I’m not saying that the series was bloated or in any way bad. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the book more, though, and I think that’s because (a) I read the book first (always a factor, to be honest), and (b) the book was more balanced among the characters and the plotlines. I understand there’s going to be a second season of Good Omens, and I have to wonder what it could possibly be about, since the whole story of the book was covered in the first series.
More recently, I’ve been watching the series of The Old Man, and, while waiting for the next episodes, I read the book, by Thomas Perry. The television series is baroque, especially for a thriller: there is a backstory involving the Russian war in Afghanistan, there are multiple characters with multiple identities, and (as there should be in a show about spies) questions of loyalty and betrayal. The book is lean and mean; the characters are fewer and less complicated, the plot is clear and moves like a racehorse. It would make a terrific movie in the same way The Maltese Falcon made a terrific movie. What I can’t understand is why someone chose to take this book, with this plot and this speed, and wrap it around with multiple lines of secondary characters, political intrigue, mistaken identities and the like to drag it out for hours and hours of a television series.
I’m sure there are books that would be perfect for a television series (Bleak House, for instance) where the writers wouldn’t need to add extra characters and extra plots and complications to stretch the material out. But on the whole, I believe television series and books are two entirely different kinds of creatures, and they should stay that way.