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Characters in Search of an Ending: Prestige Television and Literary Adaptation

The possibilities of prestige television seem limitless.

This is obvious just looking at the creative talent embracing the opportunities of the medium. Director Jane Campion observed, “The really clever people used to do film. Now, the really clever people do television.” It seems fair. Woody Allen has a television series at Amazon. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon headlined Big Little Lies. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of the first season of True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Quentin Tarantino reflected, “If ever there’s been a chance for somebody to truly do a filmed novel, it’s in this area.”

There is a sense that prestige television has come to occupy the space that used to be given to mid-tier mid-range movies, thrillers and character studies that were too small to compete with the blockbusters but also weren’t an easy fit for the traditional Oscar season. Television is arguably the place to go for smart character-driven narratives telling adult stories in a restrained and considered manner. It is an interesting shift that has in some ways redefined the relationship between film and television.

Part of this has seen an increased emphasis on book-to-television adaptations. In the past, the default path for audio-visual adaptations of successful novels has been from the page to the silver screen, cinematic takes on iconic and memorable pieces of fiction. After all, countless Best Picture winners have been adaptations of popular novels or short stories; No Country for Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The English Patient, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs. A lot of blockbusters are inspired by comic books or young adult novels.

However, as televisual storytelling has grown more complex and ambitious, producers and writers have increasingly looked to the storytelling opportunities afforded by the smaller screen. Television offers more space for writers and directors to tell their stories, to expand out novels with complex mythologies or epic scope. The gaps that had existed between film and television, in terms of budget and talent, are rapidly closing. It is entirely possible for a televisual adaptation of a beloved novel to have a list of credible writers and directors, and recognisable on-screen talent.

Still, as much as this shift might represent an important step forward in the development of television as an artform, it also illustrates some of the problems that still exist in how producers approach the medium. While television shows can do a lot of things that novels can do, they still struggle in one respect. Television shows have yet to truly embrace the power of brevity and the weight of a proper ending.

One of the stock observations about the “golden age” of television was that storytelling has become increasingly “novelistic”, that the writers and producers have figured out a way to emulate the format and structure of a novel on television. There are countless examples, but the most obvious is the increasing sense that a given season of a show can serve as a novel in an ongoing series. This is perhaps most obvious in the literal book-per-season structure of Game of Thrones. As far as non-adaptations go, The Wire and Westworld are both structured this way.

In this analogy, episodes become chapters. They are still units of story, but they tend to be less independent than television episodes have traditionally been. There are still shows that produce compelling individual episodes within that novelistic structure, with both Mad Men and Breaking Bad coming to mind, but there is also a sense that the traditional television episode is a lost artform in the context of prestige television. Even “event” episodes of Game of Thrones, like Blackwater, The Watchers on the Wall and Hardhome are hard to divorce from everything around them.

Part of the reason for this approach has been a shift in how television is produced and consumed. In terms of how television is consumed, the advent of DVD boxsets and online streaming allows audience members to “binge” shows, consuming entire series in massive chunks of four- or five- hour blocks. It is an approach that evokes the feeling of reading a good book. It is possible to “pace” the reading so that only one chapter is read at a time, but it is also possible to get lost in the narrative and to blaze through entire stretches of prose.

However, television production has also changed in ways that make it easier to adopt this model of storytelling. Television seasons are becoming shorter in the United States, often cutting orders down to between eight and thirteen episodes. This makes high-quality storytelling easier in a number of ways; there is less need for the “filler” traditional in a twenty-odd episode season, the shorter time commitment makes it easier to attract top-tier talent, the more focused nature of production allows the executive producer to have a much stronger influence on every aspect of production.

Two of the breakout shows of the past year have been adaptations of popular genre novels: The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods. HBO is working on an adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. Even half a decade ago, these adaptations would have been adapted for cinema, even if the limitations of the big screen were not a comfortable fit for these stories. The Handmaid’s Tale had a rather muddled (and underseen) cinematic adaptation. Fahrenheit 451 represented François Truffaut’s only flirtation with English-language cinema. Neil Gaiman has talked about turning down attempts to adapt American Gods as a movie.

To be fair, these stories work quite well as a television shows. In particular, The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods do an excellent job of taking advantage of the additional narrative space of a television adaptation to gradually unfold and to welcome the audience into their worlds. The heightened reality of The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods can be a lot to take in, and one of the challenges of trying to distill those stories to a single two-hour block would be figuring out how to both build the world and tell a story within it in a way that feels organic.

Instead, both The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods have the luxury of more space to gradually ease viewers into their fictional worlds, wading gently into the mythology and the trappings. Game of Thrones had a similar luxury, gradually expanding its narrative scope during the first season by following characters on a tour of the map, and then slowly introducing mystical elements over the following seasons. It is an exceptionally clever use of the television format to avoid overwhelming the audience with too much detail or information.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the audience gradually gets a sense of how the dystopian reality of Gilhead actually works and (through flashbacks) discovers how it came to be. In American Gods, the audience gets to journey with Shadow into a world populated by the eponymous deities in such a way that the veil is gradually lifted on a whole other world. The pacing is very deliberate, and it ensures that the audience’s investment (and their unease) is very effectively and very gradually heightened as the show goes along.

This has arguably always been a strength of television as a storytelling art form, although only recently have writers and producers embraced the possibility. On television, due to the sheer volume of material produced, continuity and characterisation tend to build up over time. For example, the mountains of continuity within the Star Trek universe built up inch-by-inch. In the early first season, there was some ambiguity about Captain Kirk’s employer. Fifty years later, that television show has a detailed chronology spanning three centuries.

The same principle applies to matters like characterisation of sitcom characters or even the broad direction of entire shows. Due to the space afforded to writers and producers on television show, these details tended to be cumulative. After spending twenty-odd hours with a set of characters and in a particular world, it was inevitable that audiences and writers would have a better sense of these things. The only difference with modern television is that the process has arguably been reverse engineered. These days, writers are rarely discovering these worlds in real time. They are just uncovering them.

However, this sense of space is something of a double-edged sword. As much as it provides new and exciting storytelling opportunities, it also provides an entirely new set of temptations. While the traditional two-hour film might not have enough space to tell these stories, television series may have the opposite problem. It is not so much an issue with having to condense a narrative to fit a tiny block of time, but having to stretch and distort it to pad the idea out beyond any sustainable length.

Here, again, the production realities of American television come into play. Although the model of American television is changing, there are still some commercial considerations. Television channels like have popular and successful shows, so there is no real incentive to end a television series at the proper point. In the twentieth century, television shows would generally continue one or two years past their creative (and critical) peak, because the best and most popular television shows would inevitably get commissioned for another season.

Traditionally, television shows were only cancelled when they were no longer commercially viable. Sometimes this happened when the talent involved became too expensive. Sometimes this happened when ratings declined. Either way, American television shows traditionally ended in some form of failure. When people talk about Miami Vice, they tend to talk about the first two seasons of the show. The X-Files was revived as it was at its peak, not as it ended. The iconic cast of E.R. were (mostly) long gone by the time the series wrapped up.

Even in the era of prestige television, that is still a concern. There is an effort to strike a creative balance between the artistic vision of the producer and the commercial consideration of the broadcaster. This is reflected in the tendency towards split final seasons of immensely popular prestige shows. This allows the networks to squeeze an extra episode (or more) out of writers and producers who just want to wrap up their story. Although television shows are now allowed to have endings, those endings are still (in some small way) a result of creative compromise.

This is reflected in The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods. The Handmaid’s Tale has been confirmed for a second season, which makes sense. The show earned Hulu eighteen Emmy nominations. The series has dominated pop cultural conversation, with its timely observations on oppression and women’s rights. It was a breakout hit for the streaming service. Although perhaps making a smaller cultural impact, American Gods was a success for Starz. The show was also renewed for a second season.

These decisions are entirely justifiable from a commercial perspective. (Indeed, not renewing these shows would almost be unjustifiable from a commercial perspective.) However, it is highly debatable whether these decisions make sense from a creative standpoint. Do the narratives of The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods justify long-running series spanning multiple seasons? Yeas, these stories are too large to comfortably fit within the confines of a two-hour theatrical release, but that does not automatically mean that they can justify dozens of hours of narratives.

In some ways, trying to stretch a story out to fill those hours runs the risk of diluting or diminishing it. For example, part of the power of Margaret Atwood’s original novel was the sense of disorientation and oppression, the feeling that the story was being told from Offred’s point of view and that there was no sense of objectivity beyond that. The oppressive theocracy of Gilhead could have been built on rock solid foundations, or it could have on the verge of collapse, but Offred had no way of knowing for sure. Neither did the reader, contributing to the sense of claustrophobia.

The issue with a multi-season adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it must (by necessity) reject a lot of what made the source material so effective. Instead of focusing primarily on Offred, the television series instead defuses its focus. More time is devoted to supporting characters and their stories. This works reasonably okay early in the season, with the horrific capture and mutilation of Ofglen as a “gender traitor” within Gilhead itself. However, it works less well later in the season with Luke and Moira escaping to Canada.

This move makes a great deal of sense in terms of a television series looking for a second season. Having two major characters in a different geographical location opens up all sorts of storytelling opportunities and broadens the scale of the narrative. All of a sudden, The Handmaid’s Tale is no longer just examining Gilhead from the inside through Offred, it is looking at the theocracy from the outside through Luke and Moira. It is a very logical move, in that it allows for more stories to be told within this universe.

However, it also feels like a decision that undercuts the effectiveness of the source material. By its nature, it makes The Handmaid’s Tale less claustrophobic and less anxious. It makes the horror less personal. It provides a tangible possibility for escape that seemed largely abstract in the novel. It places the audience at a remove from the oppression of Gilhead by stepping outside Gilhead. It is a choice that is hard to justify from a creative standpoint, illustrating the conflict that exists within modern television, the pull-and-push between artistry and accounting.

It feels like American television has yet to truly make peace with the idea of endings and conclusions as an essential part of any given story. After all, British television has long understood the utility of miniseries as a format for these sorts of stories, tales that require more space than a two-hour film, but which cannot sustain years of narrative; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Pride and Prejudice, Edge of Darkness, I, Claudius. It seems like American television might do well to follow that model in terms of its storytelling.

To be fair, there are some indications that American television is increasingly aware of the importance of resolution in long-form narratives. In recent years, the anthology series has become increasingly popular, allowing networks the comfort of a recognisable brand name and producers the freedom to tell the stories that interest them with a clear beginning, middle and end. Ryan Murphy has largely championed the return of this format, through American Horror Story, American Crime Story and Feud.

The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods are impressive accomplishments, reminders of the massive strides that televisual storytelling has made over the past few decades. However, they are also reminders of the creative limitations that remain in place. All good stories need an ending, and there is no shame in that.

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7 Responses

  1. ‘It feels like American television has yet to truly make peace with the idea of endings and conclusions as an essential part of any given story.’

    I’m not sure. Remember prestigious mini-series with big name stars where once massively prominent on American television – ‘East of Eden’ and ‘The Winds of War’ where big in the 1980s and ‘Roots’ appeared way back in 1976!

    Much like the way ‘The Sopranos’ strip mined prime time soap operas I’m not convinced much of what is portrayed as revolutionary isn’t often the same old wine in new bottles.

    • Well, I’m hardly claiming miniseries are revolutionary ideas, but they certainly seem more popular on British television than American television, and would arguably be a much better fit for concepts like The Handmaid’s Tale or American Gods than the “six seasons and a movie” approach that seems to be the default.

      • I know, I was just pointing out that the current dynamic is not nearly as revolutionary as it sometimes seems and that arguably the ’12 episode’ default represents a creative step back at least for some genres and adaptations.

        I admit that that’s a bugbear of mine – whenever I hear something touted as a radical breakthrough my first instinct is to look back to find earlier examples. That’s probably a large part of my disdain for ‘The Sopranos’, less the quality of the show itself (though I do think it overpraised) and more how it is set up as the standard bearer of something extremely new when I know very little about it was all that radical.

  2. American Horror Story and American Crime Story are great examples, both of which have been duly recognized, specifically because they embrace the mini series format all the while enjoying the benefits of a regular series. Ross points out some good examples of mini series above (and I would add some 1990s Stephen King adaptations, especially The Stand), but those were all explicitly one-off events from the outset. People could choose to tune in, but if you missed it, it left the zeitgeist fairly quickly.

    I agree streaming is a big factor. Shows used to need to reach 5 seasons to be sold to syndication. Ever since Lost, this has been a loose standard for serialized shows as well to be sold to streaming services for binge watching. AMC seemed to push Breaking Bad and Mad Men both about a season beyond what their creators were originally comfortable writing. I don’t think either of those shows suffered in their final seasons necessarily, but as you point out, it’s often creative decisions made much earlier on that expand the scope of the story. This can ultimately be for the good of the narrative, but it does sacrifice the original work.

    The Leftovers is a good example of how this might work. Season 1 effectively burned up all the source material, without making major thematic changes. But with season 2 the writers made some bold narrative choices (here they both expanded and shrunk the scope of the story – but that’s for another discussion). Season 1 still holds up if you want a decent adaptation. In season 2 you get the benefit of exploring the material creatively. I think the key is, as Leftovers demonstrated, creating world where interesting stories can be told and creating interesting characters who can be mined in that world. I think Chris Carter said something to this effect once about the secret to The X-Files. So basically imagine Carter’s shows as ensembles and you’ve got a lot of room to work with to close off narratives with each season.

    • Yep, Carter famously argued that the fifth season of The X-Files was the point at which the world started creating (and maintaining) itself.

      • I don’t necessarily believe that Carter is the best source for what’s good or not good when it comes to the X-Files. He gave us Duane Barry and the season two ending/season three beginning episodes. At the time, they felt fresh, raw and exciting, like the show was building to something. In hindsight (I was rewatching the show before the big revival and made it to mid-season five before life got crazy), I see a show trying to build to a finish line that wasn’t necessarily known. The later we got into the series and the mythology, the more convoluted it got as I got the feeling that Carter and company had no clue how to end the show or where the finish line was.

        Let’s face it — endings are difficult. And it seems that sticking the landing these days in the exception, not the norm. I think that having an end point and working toward that without overextending or wearing out your welcome is a good thing. Specifically, I think of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why where the title and subject matter imply a contained story with an endpoint. And yet we’re getting a season two. Now, I’ve only had time to make it through 4 episodes of that one and they may have a way to keep the door open to more. But having read the book, I’m not optimistic that the second season is anything more than a grab because the first one was a hit and got Netflix a lot of buzz.

      • Oh, to be clear, that was not an endorsement of Carter. Just an acknowledgement of what he said at the time.

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