When I started watching films and TV shows back in the 1970s (yes, I’m younger than I look in that photo), the books that became miniseries were invariably airport novels with more pages than the Bible: “The Winds of War,” “Shogun,” “The Thorn Birds,” “Roots,” “Jesus of Nazareth” – sorry, forget that last one, bad example.
Alternatively, they were adaptations of classics of the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and John Le Carré – authors whose texts have aged considerably better than a Gina Carano tweet.
Fifty years ago, movie rights were the only game in town for book publishers, with TV rights the crappy consolation after Hollywood turned its nose up. After all, film studies were the only ones with serious budgets.
Even when it was blindingly obvious that a sprawling tome would work best in the long-form format, Hollywood was still the first port of call. It’s illogical to think that film producers spent over a decade trying to get a doorstop of a novel like “Shantaram” (over 900 pages) onto the big screen – before finally seeing sense/admitting defeat and letting Apple TV make it for the small screen.
And while the recent TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Stand” (1,348 unabridged) still proved to be a bit of a mess, at least parts of it worked – unlike the dismal 2017 movie adaptation of King’s “The Dark Tower” novels (note the plural “novels” there as a glaring reason why a standalone movie was never going to work).
One of the biggest questions this year is whether “Dune” (almost 900 pages unabridged) will once again prove too vast a story for the big screen. Or will the sheer scale of the project demand that nuance be sacrificed for the wow factor that only the big screen can truly deliver?
Money changes everything, of course, and the days when Hollywood could write the biggest checks have long gone – thanks to the rise of cable TV and the streaming services with their bottomless budgets.
Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” and Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” spent years in movie development hell before their stars (Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, and Amy Adams, respectively) finally started returning HBO’s calls. And last year’s surprise Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit” took almost 30 years to get off the ground – which only happened after writer-director Scott Frank abandoned all hope of getting his film version green lit. The big screen’s loss was very much the small screen’s gain.
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More than anyone else, Netflix and HBO changed the adaptation landscape forever. George R.R. Martin famously never considered selling the movie rights to “A Song of Ice and Fire,” always seeing his Westeros saga as an heir to the likes of “Shogun” (albeit with considerably more breasts and dragons). And when the budget for a single episode of a show like “Game of Thrones” reaches $15 million, it’s clear that television is no longer the poor relation. (Many films would kill for a $15-million budget these days.)
Where once a publisher would emblazon a book cover with stickers proclaiming “Soon to be made into a major movie” (even if the only “major” thing about it was the presence of Lee Majors in the cast), now it’s more than happy to promote a streaming service.
Pick up a copy of Karin Slaughter’s “Pieces of Her,” Sarah Vaughan’s “Anatomy of a Scandal” or Leigh Bardugo’s “Shadow and Bone,” for example, and you’ll already find a big Netflix logo and the words “Coming to Netflix” adorning their covers.
Given that the playing field is so much more level these days (and that’s not even factoring in the damage the coronavirus is wreaking on the film industry), the big adaptation conundrum is now surely this: What makes a book a movie, and what makes it a miniseries?
It’s clearly more than just word count, but what exactly? What made Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” a TV show for Hulu and not a film? And what made A.J. Finn’s upcoming “The Woman in the Window” a movie and not a miniseries?
Given that the epicenter of the entertainment industry has been shifting northward from Hollywood to Silicon Valley for the past decade, what’s clear is that the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple are increasingly going to be the ones calling the shots from now on – and they will decide whether the right artistic decision for their platform is to make the book a show or a film.
That’s presumably why Apple has opted to make its adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ “Shining Girls” a series starring Elisabeth Moss, and its adaptation of David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” a Martin Scorsese movie (what are the odds that the latter is over three hours and could easily have been made into a series?).
‘Behind Her Eyes’
The reason I’ve been pondering the question this week is the release of the new Netflix miniseries “Behind Her Eyes,” a six-part adaptation of Sarah Pinborough’s 2017 thriller. What made this a series and not a movie like, say, the 2016 adaptation of M.R. Carey’s thematically similar thriller “The Girl with All the Gifts”? The poor box-office performance of the latter certainly provides one clue.
Other than coronavirus variants, Britain’s main export nowadays appears to be female thriller writers. As well as Pinborough, there’s Paula Hawkins, Clare Mackintosh, Rosamund Lipton, Denise Mina, Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley – and many others. And the main thing they have in common is the quality of their work (let’s just gloss over Hawkins’ “Into the Water”).
So, what makes Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train” a movie and “Behind Her Eyes” a TV show? Is it something to do with book sales and global awareness? “Train” sold 18 million copies (six million in America alone), while “Eyes” was a hit in its native land but didn’t achieve that same level of global recognition.
It’s also interesting to note that Netflix is itself releasing a Hindi version of “Girl on the Train” as a one-off movie later this month. (Disappointingly, it’s set in London rather than, say, Mumbai and its wonderfully chaotic railroads.) But again, the question stands: Why a movie and not a miniseries?
The novel “Behind Her Eyes” starts with a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.” But that’s about as American as things get in both the original and the miniseries, which is set chiefly in the north London neighborhood of Islington – where chic homes and shabby public housing sit cheek by jowl.
“Eyes” is unashamedly British, with no attempt to broaden its appeal for international audiences. So, like in the novel, one of the main characters has a thick Scottish accent – which, historically, has often sent U.S. audiences in search of either the subtitles option or the off button.
There were lots of things I enjoyed about the show, but also times when I found myself wincing at some of the setups and dialogue. It starts off as a domestic psychological thriller, but then takes a dramatic turn for the better about two-thirds of the way through.
When the book was released, its British publisher promoted it with the not unreasonable hashtag “#WTFthatending,” and obviously I won’t reveal anything about that here – suffice to say, it reminded me of one of my favorite Denzel Washington movies. (The guy’s made over 50 films – that’s not too much of a spoiler, right?)
Even though I guessed the twist well in advance (that’s not a brag – it’s just easier to spot these things on the screen than on the page), that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the show, which improves the creepier it gets. In fact, I wish it had embraced those elements more than the somewhat bland middle-class thriller it is for its first half, as our three lead characters engage in a bizarre love triangle amid Islington’s bijou bars and coffee shops.
It could, for instance, have been far more unsettling with its portrayals of the night terrors suffered by our single-mom protagonist, Louise (Simona Brown – last seen as Rachel in the BBC’s Le Carré adaptation “The Little Drummer Girl”) – and casts aside her emotional issues in the book for a slightly more insipid representation here.
In the moments when I was feeling less disposed to the series, I kept seeing Tom Bateman and Eve Hewson (aka Bono’s daughter) – the actors playing married couple David and Adele, the other parts of that love triangle – as a poor person’s Jamie Dornan and Emily Blunt, with Hewson in particular a dead ringer for the “Girl on the Train” star.
But it all builds to a hugely satisfying conclusion, and I loved the way you never quite knew which of the characters to trust as the story unfolds. I read the novel afterward, and appreciated how screenwriter Steve Lightfoot stayed slavishly true to the original (which augurs well for “Shantaram,” which he’s also adapted). However, he didn’t quite get the darkness of a key character (“If you love someone, set them free. What a load of bollocks,” they say in a pivotal moment in the book).
It looks great, too, and Norwegian director Erik Richter Strand (“Occupied”) makes some great shot selections – some of which make more sense retrospectively, after the big twist is revealed.
“Behind Her Eyes” is an easy binge, but I couldn’t help wondering whether it would have proved more powerful as a two-hour movie – complete with shock ending that would be sure to generate word-of-mouth buzz like “The Sixth Sense,” “Shutter Island” et al – or at least a four-part miniseries without quite so many scenes in the psychiatrist’s clinic where Louise and David work, or so many shots of David and Adele’s beautiful Islington home (okay, maybe that was just jealousy on my part).
It also confirmed one thing about pretty much all adaptations, whether in TV or movie form: For the most rewarding experience, you should always read the book.
“Behind Her Eyes” is on Netflix from Wednesday. The Hindi version of “The Girl on the Train” is on Netflix from February 26.