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The Best TV Shows Adapted From Books — IndieWire Critics Survey

From "Big Little Lies" to "13 Reasons Why," books continue to inspire TV show adaptations. Critics weigh in on the best ones so far.

Kyle Chandler, "Friday Night Lights"

Kyle Chandler, “Friday Night Lights”

NBC-TV/REX/Shutterstock

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What is the best TV adaptation of a book/book series?

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

OK, I listed like 50 answers for last week’s Guest Stars question and I’m determined not to cheat this week! Kinda. The answer is “Friday Night Lights,” but I acknowledge that there are caveats, because the NBC TV series was based on the feature film, which was based on Buzz Bissinger’s book, so is the show based on a book or based on a movie? Well, because Peter Berg adapted both, I’m gonna say they’re both based on the book, because really the only continuity between the movie and the TV show is Connie Britton and even she’s only sorta continuity. Not that there’s a lot of continuity between the book and the TV series, mind you. But even better than the movie, which is a really good movie, the TV show captures the communal obsession with football, not that the “community” in the TV show is actually Permian, Texas like in the book. Still, a beautiful book about a small Texas town’s dependence on football became, via whatever liberties, a beautiful TV show about a small Texas town’s dependence on football (and much, much, much more). “Friday Night Lights.” Only one answer this week.

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

“Homicide: Life on the Street”: My feelings about book-to-TV adaptation change on a case-by-case basis, but I’m usually satisfied if the shows maintain the spirit of the books while still doing their own thing. I never expect them to have a slavish devotion to their respective books, and it’d be wrong to, with the constraints and freedom of each medium and the fact that shows will typically outgrow their source material (or in some cases, is being produced at a clip faster than its author can write). And so I’m going with “Homicide,” one of the best police procedurals ever, which was based on David Simon’s “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” one of the best true crime books ever. “Homicide” is still unlike any police show before and after it — bleak, naturalistic, darkly funny, audacious, and didn’t pander to viewers from its post-Super Bowl beginning. Really, though, “Homicide” is severely underappreciated and should get more love.

Kristofer Hivju in “Game of Thrones”

Kristofer Hivju in “Game of Thrones

HBO

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

There are at least two upcoming adaptations I could sing the praises of, but alas I, as well as other critics, remain under embargo. That said, I’m sure I’m not the only one responding to this query who will make similar allusions, and if you’re reading this, you can probably guess what I’m referring to.

That said, “Game of Thrones” deserves a lot of credit for taking on a huge narrative world and figuring out a way to translate it to the screen in a way that has proved game-changing for television. Shows like “The Expanse” and “The Magicians” owe everything to “Thrones'” example, specifically how it chose to focus in on character beyond world-building. However you might feel about HBO’s dramatic empire, it’s impossible to undersell its impact.

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

It has to be “Roots,” doesn’t it? TV has done some remarkable adaptations over the years in the miniseries category — I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve rewatched “Lonesome Dove,” “From the Earth to the Moon,” and “Band of Brothers” — as well as ongoing series like “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Game of Thrones.” But ABC’s 1977 translation of Alex Haley’s book about his family tree and the American slave trade is on the shortest of lists of the most important TV shows ever made. Even with 40 years distance and the advances TV storytelling has made in that time, and even knowing what we know now about the liberties Haley took with his research (some of which were corrected in last year’s excellent History Channel remake), “Roots” is stunningly powerful. And the impact it had on the national conversation on race when it originally aired — to enormous ratings that ABC was never expecting — should never be forgotten. Some other adaptations may be more fun to revisit, but the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants is the obvious “best” answer here.

Mads Mikkelsen, "Hannibal"

Mads Mikkelsen, “Hannibal”

Company/REX/Shutterstock

Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V. Club

What is it about Hannibal Lecter that’s made so many masters of cinematic suspense cast him as a predatory player in their cat-and-mouse games? He’s a great villain, but a better case study, and Bryan Fuller spent three mesmerizing seasons poking around the rooms of the good doctor’s memory palace on “Hannibal.” There’s an interiority to psychological thrillers that can’t always be accessed at feature-length; with its fabulously macabre arsenal of visual motifs (which, I’ll never get tired of saying, actually aired in primetime on an American broadcast network) and sleepwalker’s pace, “Hannibal” smeared Lecter’s brain across the screen, occasionally mingling and clashing with that of his prey/protege/soulmate, Will Graham. While recent TV reality-blurers like “Westworld” and “Legion” are structured like puzzles to be solved, “Hannibal” sprung from and emulated a page turner, with compelling mysteries (less “whodunit” than “whatmadethemdoit”), fascinating characters, and an enveloping world beckoning viewers ever forward to the next course—er, chapter.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Best adaptation? Going back in the time machine again, for me it was and is “I, Claudius,” where I think I saw the first boob on TV when I was a kid. Before “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” there was this Machiavellian viperous lot! Derek Jacobi was the lead Claudius, John Hurt was genius as Caligula and Sian Phillips – an amazing actress – played Livia, Augustus’ schemer wife who tried to elevate her Tiberius to rule Rome. This was a very dialogue heavy series, and despite all the flash of effects and razzle dazzle distractions of TV series now, it grabbed you on a deep visceral imaginative level.

The show was based on a Robert Graves’ novel from the 1930s. This entire mesmerizing series made me a voracious book reader of all things Roman Empire. I was a young teen when this was on but it made a huge impression and made me a lifelong fan of all history. That’s the sign of a great adaptation!

"Orange Is the New Black"

“Orange Is the New Black”

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

There are so many potential answers to this question — and so many more just around the corner. Do I go with the searing emotionalism of “The Leftovers”? The epic sweep of “Game of Thrones”? The arch self-referential fun of “The Magicians”? The dark, brooding passion of “Hannibal”? The fact that I loved “Little House on the Prairie” the most when I was a kid? I could probably mount an able argument for any of those shows, or any of dozens more. But I think I’ll toss my vote to “Orange Is the New Black,” both for the way it took the bones of Piper Kerman’s memoir and made them into a grand dissection of America in the 21st century but also for the way that it knew exactly what to keep, exactly what to toss, and exactly what to thread throughout its four-season (so far) run. Yeah, the series hasn’t touched on the book so much in the past couple of seasons, but there’s still the sense that it’s using that story as a touchstone, as a thing it can turn to here and there, especially when it comes to the journey of the show’s own Piper Chapman. The best book adaptations for television don’t adapt a book directly but, instead, find little doors in that book into other worlds. “Orange Is the New Black” did just that, and found a world situated right alongside our own.

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

Sorry to be boring, but the answer here is “Game of Thrones.” And if you’ve ever read the books, you know why. There was no way the books could be effectively adapted into a television show and yet here we are, watching dragons char people alive. Thank you, HBO’s deep pockets!

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Two of my three favorite shows of all time were based on books, and since Daniel Fienberg already invoked Leslie Knope’s affirmation for “Friday Night Lights” in his answer, I’ll go with “The Leftovers.” What’s important to remember about Damon Lindelof’s HBO drama series (set to start its final season on April 16) is that it’s not just Damon Lindelof’s HBO drama series.

Tom Perrotta, who wrote the 2011 novel of the same name, has been on board as a co-creator, producer, and writer throughout. That’s not some empty title he’s given for writing the book. He’s been in the writers’ room framing not only the first season, which covered the narrative arc of the book, but of the second and third seasons, as well. He’s the one who suggested Kevin sing karaoke, for Kevin’s sake.

So “The Leftovers” isn’t just a(n all-time great TV show) adapted from a book, it’s an extension of the book straight from the man who wrote it. How can you get any better than that?

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “The Americans” (5 votes)

Other contenders: “American Crime,” “Desus & Mero,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.

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