The TV-Novel Complex

Time now for a fascinating look at that most insidious of cabals – the television-classic novel connection. Does TV still need to adapt already published toast-of-the-town type books? Or have we finally moved beyond the need for outside validation of television’s value?

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by Jonathon Sturgeon

Throughout its history, television has often relied on literature for a shot of self-esteem. In the 1950s, when TV lost its luster as a luxury item, when it became a mass product, it looked to literature for a boost – especially in Europe, where broadcasters in Germany and England adapted thousands of plays and novels for their “high cultural value.” Later, in the 1970s, American broadcasters needing to hook viewers over long stretches of time copied a hyper-literary “British” model that relied on adaptations of novels, old and new. Thus was born the television “miniseries,” or “novel for television,” the most noteworthy example of which was Alex Haley’s Roots, adapted by ABC in 1977.

Today, though, with the rise of prestige and streaming TV, the nature of the relationship is blurred and maybe even reversed. To be sure, when the growing army of TV critics needs an epithet to describe a serialized TV show that is particularly layered and robust, it conjures up the ghost of Charles Dickens — it relies, to an extent, on the past glories of the Victorian or Russian novel. On the other hand, the cultural power wielded by TV in its current (and seemingly endless) Golden Age means that it is free to instrumentalize its former friend. On its way to America now is a series called Dickensian that chops and screws the works of the dead novelist into a murder mystery. Ongoing, now, too, is the BBC-produced adaptation of War and Peace, which remakes Tolstoy’s essay-novel into a version of Downton Abbey, which was, in and of itself, an adaptation of a never-existing British novel.

Like any change in relationship status, the new arrangement between TV and the novel is weird, a source of elation and anxiety for both partners. Things are moving fast. This month alone, we’ve learned that two of the most read and revered literary novels of the last year have given themselves over to adaptation. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity will now be adapted into a 20-episode drama starring Daniel Craig. We’ve also learned that Franzen himself will co-write the series, in a move that will remind many of the Hollywood turns of Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Dos Passos. And just a few days prior, Europe’s Sky network announced that it will adapt each of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels into an eight-episode season. Fans of the quartet are already dreaming up their fantasy casts.

What do we call this new relationship between prestige and streaming TV and the literary novel? Well, to suss it out, we must first admit that the mutual influence of the two cultural forms extends beyond mere literary adaptation; the two now shape each other in peculiar, formal ways — like lovers who share an apartment, they’ve started speaking and looking alike. This is to say that while any relationship is marked by willful tenderness and even deceit, many of the interactions between the two are managed by forces that are beyond the control of either. These interactions are often subconscious….

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