Top Ten Tuesday: TV Shows Based on Books

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

September 4: Bingeworthy TV Shows/Amazing Movies (The new fall TV season is starting up this month, so let’s talk about what shows everyone should watch when they’re not reading!)

I decided to look at TV series based on books. But I set myself some rules for this list. I have to have seen the TV series and read the book. The TV series also had to be something that ran continuously for at least a full reason, rather than a simple 2-3 part miniseries.

1. Big Little Lies- The big change here was moving the setting of the story from Australia (in the book)  to California. Originally this was intended to be one season, but then it was renewed for a second season. I don’t know what they’re going to do with the second season though, because the first season was based on the book. The book has no sequel.

2. Pillars of the Earth– This novel was initially adapted as an eight-episode miniseries. Then the sequel, World Without End, was given a miniseries as well. Now that there’s a third book, A Column of Fire, let’s see if Starz continues doing adaptations. It’s worth noting that each book is set a few hundred years apart, but all deal with events in and around Kingsbridge cathedral.

3. Outlander– This adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s series seems to be sticking to a 1 season to 1 book model, with the first three seasons of the show corresponding to the first three books in the series. There are changes for the screen of course, but the overall story that the TV series seems to be telling still seems in line with what the books are doing. More often than not the changes are for the sake of simplicity.

4. Alias Grace– This Netflix miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name is pretty faithful. It’s six episodes long, and doesn’t seem to aspire to renewal, which makes sense because the novel comes to a definite conclusion. What I appreciated about the adaptation here was the fact that it maintained the same ambiguity that the novel did. Things aren’t clearly laid out, but rather are left open to interpretation.

5. Anne of Green Gables– Anne has been given a wonderful miniseries adaptation that I discuss a bit here. But that doesn’t apply because according to my self-imposed rules I can’t choose anything that has only 2 or 3 parts. However, Netflix’s Anne with An E applies. It makes some interesting creative choices and significantly diverts from the cannon toward the end of the first season. I haven’t seen the second season yet for that reason.  I need to be in the right mood to be willing to accept those divergences.

6. Sharp Objects– I’m still in the process of watching this miniseries based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, so if there are any significant changes in later episodes, don’t tell me! So far it seems like they’re sticking fairly close to the book though.

7. Dexter– The first season of this show stays pretty close to Jeff Lindsay’s first novel in the book series that inspired it. The second season diverts so that while the premise is the same (sympathetic serial killer works with the cops by day, takes out bad guys by night, and tries to balance his “normal” life with it all) but not much else is. Though I’ve only read the first two books of the series so perhaps there are returns later on. Also a note, that in the last few seasons the show takes a major downturn.

8. The Lynley and Havers series– The TV show for some reason focuses more on Inspector Lynley than Havers (who is far more attractive and far less interesting in her TV incarnation than in the books) but otherwise, the first few seasons of this show are fairly in line with the source material by Elizabeth George.

9. Bleak House– This is an eight-hour miniseries that was aired in the UK in 30-minute segments. In the US it aired in six installments the first and last being two hours long and the rest was one hour. It was later rebroadcast in four two hour segments. The series was shot and was designed to air in a soap opera format. The logic of using this format was the Dickens wrote popular, long, serialized narratives much like soap operas. It’s true that the novel was originally released in monthly installments, ending with cliffhangers. Regardless of the intention, this miniseries does its source material proud.

10. The White Queen is a 10 episode adaptation of the first three novels in Phillippa Gregory’s Cousin’s War series (The White Queen, The Red Queen, The Kingmaker’s Daughter).  The White Princess is an eight-episode follow up that adapts the later two novels in the series; the titular novel and The King’s Curse. Starz has announced that it will make a third entry in the series called The Spanish Princess that will adapt parts of The King’s Curse not depicted in The White Princess, as well as the novel The Constant Princess. Of course, when multiple novels are being adapted like this, there’s considerable streamlining!

On Anne With An “E”: My Review

Full disclosure: I’ve loved Anne of Green Gables since I was a third grader who first read the book. I wanted to be Anne. I toyed with naming my house but calling myself “Fran of Split Level Ranch” or “Fran of White Walls” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. And “Fran” just isn’t a name that can work with an “e”…  I saw the 1985 miniseries on video (remember VHS?) and loved it. So for over two decades I’ve pictured Anne as Megan Fellows. I had such a crush on Johnathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe. When I heard that Netflix was adapting LM Montgomery’s novel, I was a bit apprehensive. But I was still hopeful. I waited until I had some time to really settle in with the show before I watched and formed and opinion. Now I’ve done that.

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The Netflix series, which has inexplicably renamed Anne of Green Gables “Anne with an ‘E'”, didn’t quite reach the level of the Kevin Sullivan miniseries with their adaptation, but I wouldn’t call this  adaptation wholly unsuccessful. That’s largely because the strong performance of Amybeth McNulty in the lead. She’s able to carry the series and bring it all together. We also get strong work from Geraldine James and RH Thomson, as Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. That goes a long way toward rescuing the series from its follies.

But there seemed to be an insistence on making the series dark and gritty. This compromises it as an adaptation. In the original novel, and other adaptations we don’t really learn much about Anne Shirley’s life prior to her arrival at Green Gables. We know the broad strokes: she was orphaned as a baby, she worked taking care of the Hammond family, and she lived in an orphanage. If we look at the things that happened to young orphans at the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s likely that Anne would have encountered cruelty or abuse at some point in her early life. And given what we know about the nature of childhood trauma, it makes sense that she’d be affected by it. But Anne, as a character, is by nature cheerful and optimistic. Even when in “the depths of despair” she’s always hopeful that her fortunes will change. This worldview is what endears her to the inhabitants of Avonlea.

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While the Anne of this series is more hesitant to trust, she’s still generally what one would call hopeful. But the show itself seems to revel in the bleakness of her past. Before we even meet Anne, we see her being berated and abused via flashback by Mrs. Hammond. We’re treated to several more of these,  in just the first episode. We also see the chaotic, harsh orphanage that she came from.

In the book, Anne’s unconventional outlook occasionally causes difficulty in social interactions. However, her lively imagination, and sunny disposition make her generally popular. In this series’ Avonlea, Anne must deal with bullying from her classmates, and sneering from their parents.  When Anne suffers, we often see a scene that’s gorgeously shot, with the camera lingering on Anne’s panic.  In a way that undermines what makes Anne appealing. Her romantic imagination and optimistic open heart are not only character traits, but survival mechanisms. That interplay can have tension and nuance. But here that’s all drowned out by melodrama.

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Anne was always a sort of proto-feminist. She was smart, and (perhaps by necessity) independent. But here she’s a bit too on the nose. She never misses an opportunity to preach gender equality.  We see Anne get her first period and argue that there should be no shame associated with menstruation. We see her attempt to decide whether to be a wife or to be her “own woman.”  While I agree with Anne’s opinions on these issues, her saying these things makes her seem more at home in the twenty first century than in the beginning of the twentieth.

But my biggest complaint is that character development and nuance are abandoned in favor of  manufactured drama. When Anne is bullied at school she refuses to go. A minister talks to her and tells her that she shouldn’t have to go because it’s more important that she stays home and learns to be a good wife. That might not have been intended as reverse psychology, but it works that way. The problem is that it doesn’t serve much dramatic purpose. It puts an obstacle in Anne’s way (the minister’s disapproval) that doesn’t need to be there. Anne’s own stubborn pride already serves as an obstacle.

We are treated to scenes where Anne save a house on fire. Literally. She runs through, closing the doors and windows, thereby depriving it of oxygen. The combination of foolhardy heroics and quick thinking makes Anne come off as more of a superhero than a bright, awkward, thirteen year old, figuring life out as she goes along.

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Another mistake is made when Gilbert Blythe’s father is killed off. So Gilbert and Anne bond over both being orphans. This was a big sin. In the book, and other adaptations, Anne matures beyond holding a grudge against Gilbert on the basis of childhood teasing. Instead of trusting the character development to accomplish that,  the series invented events to push the relationship.

Anne of Green Gables has endured for over a century because different generations can find things to like about a heroine who is proud, complicated, and good hearted. She’s not just one thing. She’s got different, sometimes contradictory impulses at different points. Seeing these various aspects of her personality play out against the simple life at Green Gables is fun, funny, and poignant. Instead of trusting that complexity and development, this series felt the need to impose a grim tone and sensational events.

I was invested in the show as I watched it. It was enjoyable. Some favorite moments were still there (Anne breaking the slate over Gilbert’s head, the raspberry cordial, Anne saving Minnie May, the dress with puff sleeves). But it wasn’t the Anne of Green Gables that I love.