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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ben. Principles of Adaptation for Film and Television. Austin,
Texas: University of Texas Press.
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.
Anthony, and Stanley Wells, editors. Shakespeare and the Moving
Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge
David. Ah! Mischief: The Writer and Television. London: Faber
and Faber, 1982.
Robert, Keith Selby, and Chris Wensley. Screening the Novel:
The Theory and Practice of Literary Dramatization. New York:
St. Martin's, 1990.
William T. Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television. Metuchen,
New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1981.
Alvin H. More Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television. Metuchen,
New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1993.
Susan. The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press,
Forsyte Saga; I,
Jewel in the Crown; Miss
Poor Man; Road
to Avonlea; Roots;
the Bailey; Sherlock
Thorn Birds; Tinker,
Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Women
of Brewster Place.