While literature is usually considered more intellectually gratifying than film, there are exceptions to this rule, including TV shows that outshine their own books. So the next time your friends call you out for “wasting your time” watching TV, you can tell them to shut up because these seven shows are far better than their books:
1. Are You Afraid of the Dark?
With music and special effects that remain haunting, and tour de force performances from actors like a young Ryan Gosling, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was much richer than its Goosebumps-like book series. The emphasis on the skill and importance of storytelling as an art even comes across better in the show. With the utterance of “submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society” and the bombastic throwing magic dust (actually just powdered coffee creamer) onto the fire, Are You Afraid of the Dark? had all of the components of a TV masterpiece. In its book series, the type of dialogue that works well in the show is too trite without the powerful visual scenes and that oh-so-eerie intro to set the mood.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Yet another show that was so successful it earned, or was cursed with, a novelization. The Buffy book series is noticeably missing the camp charm of the show (or even that of the movie, also penned by Joss Whedon). The literary manifestations of Whedon’s WB pièce de résistance possessed a similar amount of cheesiness but somehow don’t come off quite so ingeniously. Granted, the artistry of the graphic novels gives Marvel and DC a run for their money, and so in that sense, it does hold a faint candle to the show. However, Buffyverse (that’s right, Buffyverse) novels display an unwanted, almost encyclopedic comprehensiveness when it comes to illuminating the lore and history behind Buffy’s heritage as a slayer. It’s as though it was written expressly with Giles in mind.
3. Sex and the City
The first “modern” take on love in New York, Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City was released in 1996, and women were never the same — until, that is, the show came out in 1998. The series begins with a very close representation of what appears in the novel, with many phrases lifted directly from the book, including “welcome to the age of un-innocence” and “Cupid has flown the co-op,” but direction from filmmakers like Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) also lent the show a fresh, distinctive aesthetic and tone. And then, of course, there are the legendary fashions of Carrie Bradshaw. Practically a character itself, Carrie’s fashion sense is something that the TV series was able to capture more succinctly than Bushnell’s novel ever could.
Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter served as the muse for season one of HBO’s gore-filled psychological drama. Although Lindsay also wrote six other books in the series, it was only the first one that the show’s developer, James Manos Jr., chose to emulate closely. Subsequent seasons went in entirely different directions and explored Dexter’s escapades with liberal amounts of creative license, resulting in one of the most multilayered and endearingly depraved characters ever rendered on the small screen. Many of Dexter’s nemeses (e.g. The Trinity Killer and The Doomsday Killers) also showcase complexities that are more accessible and enjoyable to watch unfold in the television adaptation. In Lindsay’s defense, season one of Dexter remains arguably the best and could not have existed without Darkly Dreaming Dexter as its backbone.
5. True Blood
Another example of HBO’s fondness for adaptations, the network and show creator Alan Ball culled the inspiration for True Blood from Charlaine Harris’ The Southern Vampire Mysteries series. Lush, gorgeous cinematography brings to life the sweltering bayous of Louisiana and the consequent boiling to the surface of tempers and sexual desire. Unlike the book series, the show maintains a more objective standpoint, in that it is not told from the perspective of Sookie Stackhouse. By allowing a broader scope in viewpoints, the audience is allowed deeper insight into the nature of each character, both “mythical” and human.
6. Boardwalk Empire
With the pilot episode directed by Martin Scorsese, Nelson Johnson’s original Boardwalk Empire never stood a chance against the sweeping, epic style of the screen version. Johnson’s is a lurid tale of New Jersey political boss Enoch L. Johnson (changed to Nucky Thompson in the show). Even though the literary account of Johnson unfolds with all the intrigue of a Mario Puzo novel, the show’s gritty, snappy dialogue — delivered with transcendence by Steve Buscemi — is part of what makes it so engaging. The primary similarity between the show and the book is best encapsulated by Murray Fredericks’ statement: “If the people who had came to town had wanted Bible readings, we’d have given ‘em that. But nobody asked for Bible readings. They wanted booze, broads and gambling, so that’s what we gave ‘em.” In spite of Johnson’s thoroughness in exploring this part of Atlantic City’s sordid past, it lacks a certain passion that the HBO series conveys in spades.
7. House of Cards
Even before House of Cards was a staple of British TV as a BBC miniseries, it was a well-crafted series of novels by author/former Parliament member Michael Dobbs, who also serves as an executive producer on the show. Centered around Francis Urquhart (changed to the more pronounceable, more American Underwood in the Netflix edition), the book focuses on the politician’s artful manipulation of power as he maneuvers for an increasingly higher position in government. As far as the show is concerned, the rarely used “breaking the fourth wall’ method is House of Cards’ chief brilliance. Francis talks to the audience in a stoic, almost psychopathically calm manner, making us feel both allied to and terrified of him. Rarely do TV shows employ this often hit-or-miss technique with such seamlessness. As a former political advisor to Margaret Thatcher, Dobbs’ understanding of the cutthroat landscape we call politics is evident in each novel — yet, nonetheless, Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of a ruthless senator is even more riveting in comparison. Like Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards also had its pilot directed by a film auteur (David Fincher), giving it an extra boost on screen.
All of the above is not to say that these books don’t promote thought and imagination, but simply that their television counterparts are much more substantial in story, character and, sometimes, even vision. But do you disagree? Did you find the literary version of any of the above more riveting than their TV shows? Are there other shows that lap their literary sources? Tell us all about it in the comments below.
Genna Rivieccio graduated with a degree in screenwriting and closely identifies with Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. She has written for pop culture blogs, including Culled Culture, The Toast and Behind the Hype, as well as satire for Missing a Dick and The Burning Bush.
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