These TV adaptations bring great books to fans and new audiences alike.
“The book is better.”
It’s a sentence you hear often when it comes to adaptations of books for the screen, and sometimes it is definitely true. But, and we say this as fans of books, there are plenty of TV adaptations that are as good as the books they’re based on, and some (and you might want to whisper this) are even better than their source material.
The long form nature of television means it can be better suited to adaptations than films, where you need to squeeze everything into a couple of hours. With television, you can spend episodes getting to know characters and their motivations, and really get a feel for the world they live in.
Book adaptations have become must-see TV, from Game of Thrones to The Handmaid’s Tale and beyond. And it’s not just modern television where book adaptations shine, with classic series like the 1995 Pride and Prejudice still standing up to today’s viewing.
Sally Rooney has published two books, and is already being hailed as a great new voice in fiction, so we’re really excited about seeing an adaptation of her second novel. Normal People, which will air on BBC Three, is the story of Marianne and Connell, who are from very different backgrounds and who become unlikely friends, and then more. Normal People will be directed by Lenny Abrahamson, whose previous work includes Room and The Lobster.
Where to watch: Normal People will be on BBC Three, but there’s currently no air date.
His Dark Materials
The first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has been made into a film before, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, but it failed to set the world alight, and no sequels were made. But we’re happy about that, because it means we’ve got this television adaptation to look forward to.
The books follow Lyra, who lives in a parallel world to ours, her quest to find out more about a material called Dust, and her battle to save the world. Starring Lin Manuel Miranda, Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy, this looks brilliant.
Where to watch: His Dark Materials will air on the BBC later this year.
This Is Going to Hurt
A series of diary entries by a junior doctor may not have seemed like a winner, but Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt was a huge success. Kay, who has left the medical profession behind and is now a comedian, wrote a hilarious, engaging and ultimately moving memoir which gave an insight into the work junior doctors do. The book is being adapted by the BBC into an eight-part comedy-drama, and we’re sure it’ll make us laugh and cry, just like the book did.
Where to watch: This Is Going to Hurt will be on the BBC. Further details are to be announced in due course.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is about humanity preparing for an imminent apocalypse, and the angel and demon who team up to sabotage the end of the world. The adaptation of Good Omens has been a long time coming, and is one of the most anticipated TV shows of 2019. Its fantastic cast includes David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Jon Hamm.
Where to watch: All six episodes of season one of Good Omens will be released on Amazon Prime on 31 May.
The Handmaid’s Tale
What would this list be without The Handmaid’s Tale? Based on the 1985 book of the same name by Margaret Atwood, the show is set in a dystopian America known as Gilead. There, a totalitarian government has made all women who can bear children into Handmaids, who are assigned to the homes of the ruling elite to become pregnant and have children for these men and their wives.
The TV series has won awards including Emmys for stars Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred/June, and Ann Dowd, and received critical acclaim. The show has gone beyond the original novel, with season three of The Handmaid’s Tale beginning in June this year.
But for those who want to return to Gilead on the page, Atwood’s The Testaments will be published this autumn. It picks up the story 15 years after the final scene of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Where to watch: Seasons one and two of The Handmaid’s Tale are available on Amazon Prime. Season three of The Handmaid’s Tale will begin airing on Hulu on 5 June.
Game of Thrones
Who would have thought a show about dragons and winter, based on an epic fantasy book series, would become a modern day TV phenomenon? Game of Thrones, which returns for its eighth and final series next month, takes its name from the first book in George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
The TV show and books are about the battles to control the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and we can’t wait to see who will be victorious and sit atop the Iron Throne. The TV show has raced ahead of the books that have so far been published, although in consultation with Martin himself, so everything you see on screen is official and approved by the creator.
Where to watch: Season eight of Game of Thrones will begin airing on Sky Atlantic on 15 April. Seasons 1-7 can
Big Little Lies
Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies was a story of murder set against the backdrop of an affluent Australian community. For the TV show of the same name, adapted by and starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, the action moved to America. The show’s stellar cast - joining Witherspoon and Kidman were actors including Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern and Alexander Skarsgard - portrayed a world of petty jealousies and big secrets. The show was addictive, and we can’t wait for the second series, which will see all-round legend Meryl Streep join the cast.
Columnist Lindy West’s book Shrill recounts how she went from a cripplingly shy girl who was teased about her weight to a loud, powerful feminist whose jokes carry a serious message and aren’t at someone else’s expense. Her memoir, which also looks at issues including fat shaming, rape culture and racism, has been turned into the comedy-drama Shrill, starring Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant. Bryant plays Annie, a young journalist with a demanding job, a phone full of f**kboys, a wise-cracking best friend and sick parents, and it’s already been praised by critics.
Where to watch: Shrill is currently airing on Hulu in the US. No UK release date has yet been announced.
Based on the book of the same name by Baszile, Queen Sugar is the story of three siblings who move to Louisiana to claim an 800-acre sugarcane farm left to them by their father. The TV show was created by Ava Duvernay who, along with Oprah Winfrey, is also an executive producer. And if that’s not exciting enough, Duvernay has hired female directors for every episode of the show.
Where to watch: Seasons one to three of Queen Sugar are available on Amazon Prime.
Penn Badgeley, better known as Dan Humphrey from Gossip Girl, brings a spooky level of creepiness to his character, Joe, in You. Adapted from Caroline Kepnes’ thriller, the show follows Joe and his relationship with Guinevere Beck, who wanders into the bookshop he manages one day. The pair become romantically entangled, but Joe’s version of wooing includes stalking, lies and even murder. There’s been one season of the show so far, but a second season has been confirmed, and we can’t wait.
Where to watch: Season one of You is available on Netflix.
Speaking of Gossip Girl… BFFs and occasional frenemies Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf began life on the pages of Cecily von Ziegesar’s book series. Set in New York’s Upper East Side the show, and books, followed a group of rich kids navigating relationships and life, watched over by the anonymous Gossip Girl. The show made stars of actresses Blake Lively and Leighton Meester, spawned a love of headbands and made us all want to eat lunch on the steps of the Met.
Where to watch: The complete series of Gossip Girl is available on Netflix.
Gillian Flynn’s “cool girl” was brought to life in the film adaptation of the bestselling Gone Girl by Rosamund Pilcher. Gone Girl is the most famous of Flynn’s novels, but another has also been adapted, this time for the small screen.
Sharp Objects stars Amy Adams as journalist Camille Preaker, who returns to her hometown to report on the abduction and murder of two girls. At home, she is reacquainted with her distant mother and her half-sister, and finds she has to confront her own demons to get to the bottom of what happened to the two girls.
Where to watch: Season one of Sharp Objects is available on Amazon Prime.
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s classic book has spawned many an adaptation, but the best is the 1995 BBC version (some may disagree, they are wrong). Austen’s novel tells the story of headstrong and independent Elizabeth Bennet - the second oldest of five sisters - and the cold and closed off Mr Darcy. It’s layered with social commentary about the role of women and marriage in Regency era Britain, and is slyly funny. It’s no wonder we can’t get enough of this book on screen.
A Discovery of Witches
Witches, vampires and demons get a grown-up makeover in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. The TV adaptation, which is named after the first book in the series, stars Matthew Goode as vampire Matthew Clairmont and Teresa Palmer as witch Diana Bishop, who unleashes a battle for power when she discovers an ancient text in the Bodleian Library. If you loved Twilight as a teenager, then this is the show for adult you.
Orange is the New Black
One of Netflix’s first big original hits, Orange is the New Black is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name. The book tells the story of Kerman’s 15 months in a women’s prison in Connecticut, but the series has developed well beyond this, featuring a diverse cast of characters and exploring how issues including corruption and funding cuts affect the health and wellbeing of prisoners.
Where to watch: Orange is the New Black is available on Netflix
Set in 18th century Cornwall, Winston Graham’s Poldark series follows the ups and downs of the Poldark family and the mining community in which they live. The TV series stars Aidan Turner as the brooding Ross Poldark and Eleanor Tomlinson as his new love. But it’s the scenery that really makes Poldark worth watching - sweeping camera shots of Cornwall’s gorgeous coastline will have you raring to book a mini-break.
Where to watch: Seasons one to three of Poldark are available on Netflix
Time travel meets romance in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, all of which are the sort of big historical fiction you need to set some serious time aside for.
The TV series sees Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall who, while on honeymoon with her husband Frank Randall in 1946, is transported back to Scotland in 1743, where she must use her wits to survive, all the while falling for Sam Heughan’s Jamie Fraser and trying to escape her husband’s evil ancestor Black Jack Randall. There’s plenty of romance, danger and drama in the books and the TV show, and both get quite dark at times.
Where to watch: Seasons one to four of Outlander are available on Amazon Prime
Sherlock and Elementary
Sherlock Holmes has been immortalised on screen dozens of times over the years, and it’s easy to understand why. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective is quirky, clever and always keeps you guessing, while his sidekick Watson is loyal almost to a fault.
Two very different adaptations of Conan Doyle’s books have hit our TV screens in recent years, although both are set in the modern day. Elementary is set in America, with Jonny Lee Miller as the detective and Lucy Liu as a kick ass Watson who doesn’t let Sherlock get away with any nonsense. The BBC’s Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, hews a little more closely to the original text but still brings the investigator right up to date.
War and Peace
If you’re a reader, chances are there are books on your shelves that have been left unread for years, and among them may well be Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The Russian classic follows Pierre, Andrey and Natasha, plus a huge secondary cast of characters, as they navigate society and war. The glittering BBC adaptation, with Lily James and James Norton, is beautiful to look at, and dispenses with much of the description that might put you off reading the book.
The Night Manager
Many of John Le Carre’s spy novels have been adapted - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has even been made into both a film and a TV series.
One recent adaptation of Le Carre’s work is 2016’s The Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston as a hotel night manager who is recruited to infiltrate an arm’s dealer inner circle. The series also starred Hugh Laurie, Elizabeth Debecki and Olivia Colman, before she went stratospheric. The Night Manager is full of sumptuous clothes and setting, and at its centre is a tense thriller.
If you’re looking for a wild TV show, you can do no better than Zoo. Based on the book of the same name by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, the series is set in the very, very near future, where a mysterious pandemic has caused animals to begin attacking humans. If that sounds a bit serious, don’t be fooled. This is a show which, over the course of three seasons, includes storylines revolving around a gigantic invisible snake, a sloth that can cause earthquakes by yawning and telepathic lions.
Where to watch: Seasons one to three of Zoo are available on Netflix.
Marvel has made (and cancelled) a whole host of Netflix television shows based on its comic books. While Daredevil, The Punisher and Luke Cage are all passable and The Defenders and Iron Fist not worth wasting breath on, Jessica Jones is the true standout.
Jessica Jones, played by Krysten Ritter, has super strength, but the show is good despite her abilities, not because of them. The first series explored the lingering effects of an abusive relationship, with David Tennant as one of the most unsettling villains to appear on television in a long, long time.
Where to watch: Seasons one and two of Jessica Jones are available on Netflix.
My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have drawn praise for their depiction of a complicated friendship from childhood to old age, set in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. The series also drew attention for its author, whose identity was kept secret before being revealed against Ferrante’s wishes. Ferrante’s world has now made its way to television, with a major adaptation named for the first book in the quartet, My Brilliant Friend.
The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s historical novel Alias Grace was released in 2017, but it got a little lost in the huge success of The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in 19th century Canada, Alias Grace is about a woman who commits murder, and the psychiatrist who needs to decide whether she should be pardoned due to insanity. Like The Handmaid’s Tale it’s got a lot to say about the role of women, and it’s well worth your time.
Where to watch: Alias Grace is available on Netflix.