when all the good shows are really books

My reading pile is lately skewing toward the violent-moss-growing niche of tv-adptations. This may be cause for alarm but I don’t seem to care.

Here’s the top five I intend to read, or re-read, before watching their small-screen counterparts. This is by no means a comprehensive list and you may notice a certain bias emerging. Lucky for you I have great taste.

1. American Gods, Neil Gaiman

A decade ago they would’ve said it couldn’t be done. Not just with the frequent and bizarre gratuity, but because it’s rather difficult to render Gaiman’s particular brand of weirdness onscreen. Good thing these days the tv-watching masses want nothing more than weird gratuity, as long as it’s in support of fascinating characters, a smart plot, and a bit of social irony. Gaiman has updated details to reflect technology and social trends, and with three planned seasons it looks like this could be one of the good ones. Producer Bryan Fuller (of Heroes and Hannibal fame) is well equipped to bring Gaiman’s vision to life. Plus Ian McShane as Wednesday. Brilliant.

2.  The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

A classic. And another novel perfectly suited for its time in the sun. Add ‘strong female lead’ to any pitch and you’re guaranteed sun time. (Not that I’m cynical about it or anything, I am a woman after all. But, well, at some point it begins to feel a bit like they’re filling a quota. Anyway.) This exceptional novel really does deserve its hype, and Atwood had the balls to graphically expose patriarchy, legalism and sexual oppression long before such topics became a Twitter right-of-passage. Elisabeth Moss as Offred is also a timely choice, and Yvonne Strahovski feels just right after her turn on Dexter. And the famously territorial show-runners even let Atwood in on the writing team.

3. Purity, Jonathan Franzen

Apparently not Franzen’s best work – at least not critically – but still a good story, they say. Pip is a weird girl with a weird mother, and along a strange meandering tale gets drawn into an even weirder secret organisation with ties to East Germany and global conspiracies. It’s the intricacy of the plot and its handling of the maze of online information that makes this narrative worth the effort. And the search for an unknown father, and the attraction to a mysterious older man. And when that older man is Daniel Craig, well.

4. The Terror, Dan Simmons

You don’t always need “Literature” in the making of a damn good story. Simmons is a remarkably popular author of horror/sci-fi/fantasy pulp, at one point likened to Stephen King. We’ve already established that weirdness is taking centre stage in tv appeal at the moment. Add in some historical context and you have yourself a winner (Outlander, anyone?). An arctic shipwreck, survival-crazed infighting, and a mysterious monster lurking in the snow? Please.

5. Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

Ok, you got me. But I had no choice. The show is polished and thoughtfully-executed, with undoubtedly the shiniest cast on this list. Nicole Kidman. Reese Witherspoon. Shailene Woodley. Adam Scott. And because of the much-hyped twist you really have to read the book first. I’m glad I did, because the Australian nuance in the novel is masterful and endearing. I understand why they moved the narrative from Sydney to Monterey for the show but it loses some of its soul along the way. I’m not a big fan of school-mum genre, but in this case I’ll make an exception.

While there’ve been a fair slice of original stories coming out on tv, the overwhelming majority are still adaptations or narratives based on real events. The same is true of cinema. Does this speak to the lack of originality in the screen world, or the superiority of the written word as a medium of imagination? Who knows. But at the moment everyone seems to be benefiting so let’s not think about it too much.




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