By Nina Metz
2:53 PM CDT, September 14, 2012
Some of the biggest blockbuster movies in the last 10 years are based on books. (That means you, Harry Potter and “The Hunger Games”). But the annual television lineup has always included its share of book adaptations as well, dating back to at least the 1960s with “Peyton Place.”
The '70s and '80s spawned iconic family shows, from "Little House on the Prairie" to "The Hardy Boys" to "The Waltons." Things got a good deal darker and more complex in the 21st Century, with shows such as "Dexter," "True Blood," "Gossip Girl," "Pretty Little Liars" and the big daddy of them all, "Game of Thrones." Not surprisingly, the upcoming TV season features two new series derived from good old-fashioned book writing.
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Debuting Sept. 30 on ABC, "666 Park Avenue" is based on the novel of the same name by Gabriella Pierce that Publishers Weekly called a "breezy chick lit thriller" in the vein of "Rosemary's Baby" meets "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." In its TV incarnation, it stars Terry O'Quinn ("Lost") and Vanessa Williams ("Ugly Betty") as the malevolent owners of a ritzy New York residence. At a Television Critics Association panel this summer, creator and executive producer David Wilcox said, "I thought this could have the DNA that could really work on network television and could be a very scary, yet character-driven supernatural soap."
On CBS, the network adds to its already bounteous selection of procedurals with a new spin on Sherlock Holmes called "Elementary," beginning Sept. 27. Updated and shifted to New York, the show stars British actor Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes with Lucy Liu as his Watson.
"When I was developing the project, I was just trying to see if I had a take that was exciting to me and also sellable to CBS," said executive producer Rob Doherty when we spoke recently. "Nobody does procedural TV better than CBS, and yet just a strict re-creation of the books, set in the past, that's a tougher sell on an American network."
In many ways, Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories are a direct precursor to today's procedurals. Every procedural with a single-minded, brilliant-but-difficult character is a riff on Holmes. "The character may have another name, and certainly tends to live in an entirely different era," said Doherty. "But Sherlock is an archetype and this incredible prototype that we see all the time on TV today."
The trick for Doherty is walking the line between fidelity to the original and developing something new for today's TV landscape. (Purists will note that the show's title is faux Conan Doyle; the famous Sherlock line "Elementary, my dear Watson" was invented by the makers of the 1929 film "The Return of Sherlock Holmes.")
But Doherty has done his homework. "The last time I read the original books was when I was a kid," he told me. "So I dove back in and also did some additional research on the side and found some psychological assessments (of Sherlock Holmes) written by actual psychiatrists who are fans of the books. ... Some theorized that he was bipolar; others believed that he had a form of Asperger's."
That research inspired him to switch Watson's gender. "One of these assessments talked about his aversion to women or an unnatural suspicion of the fairer sex. And initially I read that and sort of thought, as a joke to myself, 'Nothing would make him crazier than a female Watson, sharing his flat with a member of the opposite sex.' ... In the 21st Century, can't an attractive, intelligent man work side-by-side with an attractive, intelligent woman and not roll into bed together?"
"I knew that the real diehards would not necessarily love that change, but I thought it was worth trying. Also, I could see stories developing out of that particular combination."
Doherty's last point is a crucial one. Television writers have to think long term. How much juice is in this premise?
Doherty's producing colleague on "Elementary," Carl Beverly, also is an executive producer on "Justified," the FX series that aired its third season earlier this year. Timothy Olyphant stars as Raylan Givens, a U.S. marshall patrolling the dusty crime enclaves of rural Kentucky. The role is based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, and the show is widely considered one of the more successful TV adaptations in recent memory.
In the case of "Justified," Leonard has been hands-off. "When (show creator) Graham Yost sent me his script for the pilot episode (based on the short story "Fire in the Hole"), I thought it was great," Leonard, 86, said from his home in Michigan. "I didn't make any changes. Not one. And I was so surprised that, my God, it just moved. And everybody delivered their lines the way I heard them when I wrote the story."
Previous attempts by others adapting his work to TV have been less successful, including the short-lived 2003 series "Karen Sisco." According to Leonard: "They were having trouble with her character, who she was supposed to be, so they dropped the show. I don't understand why they didn't just stick to her as she was written in the book."
Yost and company didn't make that same mistake and have done an impressive job of channeling Leonard's sensibility — both in dialogue and the creation of new characters. The show actually feels like an Elmore Leonard creation. "I've been very happy," Leonard said. "I didn't think I would be, because there are other writers writing it. Do they think they way I do? Do they see the characters the way I do? And they did!"
It was during Season 2 that Leonard wrote his most recent book "Raylan." I asked if it was motivated by the TV show, which would likely have a positive effect on book sales. "I did think that, I admit," he said. "And it was on The New York Times best-sellers list for five weeks — and I hadn't had one right in the middle of the Times list in probably two or three books. So it worked out."
Leonard is a commercially minded author, but not one to let it impede his creativity.
"I planned to use Raylan again in the book that I'm writing and planning — more planning than writing right now — and then I just got a little tired of it," he said. "I thought, God, I've been dragging this poor guy along quite awhile. I think he's been in three books already, and I can't get any enthusiasm about him now. I think I'll just drop him."
This pleased his Hollywood agent as well; Sony owns the TV rights to the character, which would complicate any possible TV deals with other studios interested in buying the rights to future books featuring Raylan Givens. (Season 4 of "Justified" will air in early 2013.)
Judging by the number of deals made so far, networks and studios are clearly looking to authors for inspiration. ABC recently bought "My Life, Deleted," Scott Bolzan's memoir about living with permanent retrograde amnesia. Lionsgate (the studio behind "Mad Men") has optioned "Take a Shot! A Remarkable Story of Perseverance, Friendship and a Really Crazy Adventure," by the co-founders of Major League Lacrosse for a drama series that is being described as "Moneyball" meets "The Hangover." ABC is also developing "Finn & Sawyer," based on the Mark Twain characters (which are conveniently in the public domain and therefore free). According to the Hollywood Reporter, the title characters "re-meet as young men in their 20s and form an investigative firm in a bustling and steampunk New Orleans." (Hey, another procedural!)
Of course, there is no guarantee these shows will make it onto the schedule. Most won't make it beyond the pilot stage. Despite a National Book Award pedigree, HBO passed on a series based on Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections." Genre books — fantasy, mystery and the like — tend to get the TV treatment more often, and perhaps TV executives have a harder time envisioning literary novels as long-term television projects. Ironically, much of today's critically acclaimed TV (on cable, at least) feels novelistic, from "Mad Men" to "The Wire," the latter of which was often described as Dickensian.
HBO in particular has been serious about getting into the novelist business. Ayelet Waldman ("Love and Other Impossible Pursuits") and her husband, fellow novelist Michael Chabon, are working on a pilot. "HBO is like the Works Progress Administration for writers," she told the Huffington Post. "Just when publishing was getting so scary, HBO rode in to save the day. Everyone I talk to has a deal with them." Tom Perrotta is also adapting his recent novel "The Leftovers" for HBO.
The upside for authors is obvious, even beyond the cash payout that selling TV rights can afford. A bigger profile means more leverage and better opportunities — plus a big uptick in book sales. George R.R. Martin's medieval-tinged "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, adapted as "Game of Thrones" for HBO, has generated major ratings. The second season finale garnered more than 5 million viewers in June, and that popularity is reflected in book sales, according to Stuart Applebaum, Random House executive vice president of communications.
"It is a tremendous success story," Applebaum told me. "Over a six-month period, sales of all five of his books would be not a heck of a lot, typically a few thousand." During the first half of 2012, however — when Season 2 was airing — 4 million copies of Martin's books were sold in various forms — hardcover, paperback, audio and digital. (Season 3 debuts in March.)
Random House received no financial windfall from Martin's TV deal, aside from the bump in book sales. But the publishing house clearly saw Martin's path as one to emulate and recently established Random House Television. In a partnership with FremantleMedia (a large producer and distributor, primarily of reality and game shows such as "American Idol," "America's Got Talent" and "Family Feud") Random House will develop television projects — and now get a cut of the action.
"We want to extend opportunities for our authors," Applebaum said. "And it doesn't have to be based on a book they've written; it can just be something they're working on as a script. So instead of selling the rights (to someone else), we hope they'll sell it to the TV division so we can develop it with Fremantle. The idea is that our authors already have a collaborative relationship with Random House as a publisher. We want our authors to enter the scripted realm and be as successful as possible. We're here to look after their interests, so that they have a known ally with us that they might not with people they don't know. We want to act as a steward of their efforts in what can be a tricky and strange environment."
It is a savvy business move. Don't be surprised if more publishers follow suit. And don't be surprised if some of those books on your nightstand wind up on the TV schedule in the not-too-distant future.
Nina Metz covers TV, film and theater for the Tribune.
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