Film adaptations of well known books are always controversial. One of the most frequent complaints is that it is difficult to capture all of the characters, storylines and details from a novel in a two-hour feature film. Some famous novels either have never been adapted or were hacked to pieces to squeeze them into a film format, rendering them nearly unrecognizable — and all because they are, simply put, too epic.
But in recent years, the TV miniseries has raised its profile thanks to such efforts as Top of the Lake and True Detective, so why not give some of these “unfilmable” books the miniseries treatment? These are 10 great novels (or series of novels) that, in our humble opinion, would make great miniseries:
1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The story of the Buendía family and the town of Macondo is too complex to adapt into a feature-length film — all of the intricate family drama, revolutionary warfare and supernatural intervention — but if stretched over multiple hour-long episodes, it would be possible to capture extraordinary scope of One Hundred Years of Solitude without compromising the novel’s spirit. Additionally there is no shortage of talented Latino and Hispanic actors to take over the rolls: Imagine Demian Bichir as the first José Arcadio Buendía and Penelope Cruz as the tenacious matriarch Úrsula.
2. The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley
The harsh and breathtaking terrain of Greenland would never be unwelcome on film, and Smiley’s imagining of the final years of the ill-fated medieval Norse Greenland colony — aptly titled The Greenlanders — is the perfect vehicle to showcase it. At the heart of the story is Margret (we’d cast Mia Wasikowska), a strong-willed woman who finds herself without a family or home, and her brother Gunnar (perhaps Alfie Allen from Game of Thrones), who struggles to raise his family in the face of a slow-burning societal collapse. The novel focuses on themes of faith, economics, perseverance and European and Christian exceptionalism, but there is also plenty of adultery, murder and witchcraft to fill exciting hours of TV.
3. Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police Novels
The Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee books by Hillerman are some of the best loved American mystery novels. A few of the individual stories have been adapted for screen, but the often interconnected characters and plots among many books in the series are practically calling out to be woven together in one great miniseries. Leaphorn and Chee alone — one secular and the other deeply involved in Navajo religious practice — have enough charisma together to warrant a series.
4. Another Country by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s iconoclast novel about bohemians in 1950s Greenwich Village may not be quite as controversial today as it was when it was published in the ‘60s (we thankfully don’t have as many hang ups about bisexuality and interracial relationships), but nonetheless it is still a compelling tale of personal relationships and offers an essential perspective into a time gone by. It would also serve as a great showcase for one of the many fantastic and unfairly underused African American actors working today, such as Michael B. Jordan from last year’s Fruitvale Station in the tragic role of Rufus Scott.
5. Oryx and Crake Series by Margaret Atwood
Although Atwood doesn’t call her trilogy of novels (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam) science fiction, they do take place in a dystopian society in the near future. It would take time to fully immerse the viewer in this world of repulsive technology and global pandemic, and slowly getting to know the central characters would help capture what separates the books from your typical post-Orwell fare.
6. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
While some of the more esoteric sections of The Golden Notebook dealing with the history and philosophy of the British communist party in the mid 20th century might be difficult to explore on film, who doesn’t love a challenge? And besides, Lessing’s brilliant novel contains more than enough conventional narrative, following Anna Wulf (perhaps Keira Knightley?) as she tells her life story via a series of notebooks that focus on her time in white ruled Rhodesia, as a member of the British Communist party and the ugly end of her marriage. In the right hands, it could yield hours of television magic.
7. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
There was a not terribly successful film adaptation of The Name of the Rose made in the ‘80s with Sean Connery and Christian Slater, but surely Eco’s rich, twisted murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery would benefit from not being hemmed in by an abbreviated running time. While it’s hard to re-cast Connery, we could also imagine Javier Bardem making a meal of the roll as the super-intelligent William of Baskerville and perhaps a wildcard pick like Rupert Grint as Benedictine novice Adso of Melk.
8. Alaska by James A. Michener
The geographical creation of a landmass, the arrival of the first Americans over the Bering Strait land bridge, gold rushes and romances — what’s not to love? Other Michener novels have been given the miniseries treatment, but Alaska would be sublime as a Terrence Malick-style epic.
9. Candide by Voltaire
A brief book that is packed to the gills with details, Candide is one of the greatest satirical novels of all time. Taking each of Candide’s adventures (or misadventures, as they usually are) and expanding it a bit to give historic and political context could open up this great work to a whole new generation. And while it may be a bit on the nose, could you resist James Franco as Candide, Emma Stone as Cunégonde and Steve Coogan as Pangloss?
10. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This is the story of the all-American Price family — specifically the mother, Orleanna, and the four Price daughters — and their radically divergent lives over the course of three decades following a fateful mission trip to the Belgian Congo in 1959. The book’s episodic nature lends itself perfectly to serialization, and the immense, sprawling narrative is just too large to be contained in a two-hour movie. Connie Britton would be superb as Orleanna, and I could see actresses like Kirsten Dunst, Sarah Paulson and Jessica Chastain bringing the Price daughters to life.
Excited by these picks? Or maybe horrified? Do you have books of your own to suggest, or just want to play fantasy casting? Let us know in the comments! The good news is these are just suggestions … for now.
Robert Balkovich is an Oregonian-cum-New Yorker currently living in Brooklyn. He is not from Portland. His writing has appeared in/on 7 Stops Magazine, Park Slope Reader, The State Column, Ubiquitous and TravelSquire.com. Besides writing, he enjoys anthropology and ethnography books from the 1970s, and clay face masks. He is really trying his best at Twitter, so please follow him: @RobertBalkovich
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