Adaptations have become a mainstay of commercial television, and have been since programming began in the 1940s. All manner of pre-existing, written properties have been turned into adapted teleplays--short stories, novels, plays, poems, even comic books have been altered for presentation on television. They appear in formats ranging from half-hour shows, as in some episodes of The Twilight Zone, to 30-hour epic miniseries, as in 1988's War and Remembrance.

Adaptations are attractive to producers for a variety of reasons. In many cases, audiences for such fare are "presold," having purchased and/or read the original text, or having heard of the work through word-of-mouth. Sources for adapted works may come from public domain materials drawn from classical literary sources, or, more frequently from hotly-pursued novels from best-selling writers. Authors like Judith Krantz, John Jakes, Alex Haley, and Stephen King have solid book sales and loyal audiences; adaptations of their works generate good ratings and audience share. Synergy between book publishers and networks may also be a factor in the purchasing or optioning of works for adaptation--a successful miniseries can prolong the life of a book currently in print, and may resurrect older books which are out-of-print or no longer readily available in the mass market. When War and Remembrance was adapted in 1988, not only were its sales improved, but an unexpected million copies of the first book in the series, The Winds of War, were ordered.

Another reason for television's reliance on adaptations, especially in the form of miniseries, is the lack of good scripts, along with television's voracious need for sponsor-attractive, time-slot filling product. Few miniseries are produced from wholly original concepts; experts estimate that 75-90% of all miniseries use novels for source material. Novels have overcome basic, yet essential dilemmas in constructing narratives: they have well-defined characters, interwoven subplots filled with ideas and events which can be rearranged, highlighted, or deleted by scriptwriters, and enough story for at least two hours of product. A producer holding something complete and tangible, in the form of a pre-written story, can feel more confident when searching for financing; in turn, sponsors and networks are more likely to commit money and resources to a finished property, even one that is not yet a bestseller. Consequently, producers option many books which are never produced, in the belief that some of these unknown and untried works may become popular.

What producers see as a "sure thing," however, professional screenwriters often view as a challenge. Adaptation is far more than slavishly reproducing a previously constructed story in a different format--the requirements of the two forms are significantly different. From the perspective of screenwriters, novels take characters and subplots and let them careen willy-nilly into unstructured chaos. Screenwriters rearrange and augment material to stress the visual and storytelling requirements of the television medium. They purge the script of unnecessary characters, or combine the traits and experiences of several characters into one. They try to structure the script so it moves from crisis to crisis, keeping in mind the constraints imposed by the presence of commercial breaks. They find opportunities to make the internal world of thoughts and feelings more external, through dialogue and action. The process of adaptation requires a level of creativity which may be equal to that expended in the writing of the source material, as writers hone and pare and expand and modify concepts from one medium to the other.

Because novels frequently include dozens of characters interacting over vast periods of time, screenwriters often find the miniseries format essential in marshaling the scope and flavor of the original text. PBS, considered "the godfather" of the miniseries, introduced America to the concept of long-form sagas with its imports of British productions presented the aegis of Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery, and Great Performances. The

Little Lord Fauntleroy
Photo courtesy of Rosemont Productions Ltd.

audience for upscale adaptations of The Forsyte Saga, Brideshead Revisited, and The First Churchills was small, but the form was successful enough to encourage the adaptation of more popular, less highbrow novels such as Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man (ABC; televised 1976-1977). It was the phenomenal success of Alex Haley's Roots, a 12-hour adaptation broadcast over eight consecutive evenings in 1977, however, which cemented this form of adaptation and established it as a staple of television production.

Most genres of television have had their adaptations: children's programming (Showtime's 1982-1987 Faerie Tale Theater, NBC's 1996 Gulliver's Travels); the western (CBS's 1989 Lonesome Dove); historical romance (NBC's 1980 Shogun; ABC's 1985-86 North and South); science fiction (episodes of CBS's 1959-1964 The Twilight Zone) are a few of the seemingly endless number of outstanding adaptations produced for television. The adaptation continues to be popular, lucrative, and entertaining; as long as the form holds an audience, this narrative form will remain an essential element in broadcasting.

-Kathryn C. D'Alessandro


Brady, Ben. Principles of Adaptation for Film and Television. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Bulman, J.C., and H.R. Coursen, editors. Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1988.

Davies, Anthony, and Stanley Wells, editors. Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Edgar, David. Ah! Mischief: The Writer and Television. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.

Giddings, Robert, Keith Selby, and Chris Wensley. Screening the Novel: The Theory and Practice of Literary Dramatization. New York: St. Martin's, 1990.

Leonard, William T. Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1981.

Marill, Alvin H. More Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1993.

Willis, Susan. The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

See also Brideshead Revisited; The Forsyte Saga; I, Claudius; The Jewel in the Crown; Miss Marple; Poldark; Rich Man, Poor Man; Road to Avonlea; Roots; Rumpole of the Bailey; Sherlock Holmes; The Thorn Birds; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Women of Brewster Place.