The level of solidarity among striking WGA writers has been a powerful force during these first few weeks of the writers strike. Seeing it in action on picket lines is a good reminder for the industry at large that there’s a special camaraderie among those who know what it’s like to stare at a blank screen, search for inspiration and then type away at draft after draft to get the words just right.
That’s true for novelists as much as it is for screenwriters. Often those are one and the same — and because we live in an age where pre-sold IP usually makes it easier to sell a TV project, there have never been more series based on books than there are right now.
I don’t have the numbers to back me up on that, but we’re still living in peak TV times (well, according to John Landgraf, we’re winding down from that era, but it’s still here for now). Which means that there have never been more series based on anything than there are right now.
It’s easy to bemoan the predominance of intellectual property adaptations and remakes these days, yet I think we sometimes forget that it’s always been with us. So many of the TV shows I grew up on were based on movies (“M*A*S*H,” “Alice,” “Fame”) or were spin-offs (“Laverne & Shirley,” “The Jeffersons,” “A Different World,” the list goes on).
And of course, some of the greatest films of all time are based on books: “The Godfather,” “The Shining,” oh and two more you may have heard of: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.” In TV, series based on novels mostly existed as sweeping multi-night miniseries of the “Roots,” “The Thorn Birds” and “Lonesome Dove” variety.
But some of the best TV series in recent years have been well-received adaptations of more recent books — “Game of Thrones,” “Big Little Lies,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “The Leftovers,” “Station Eleven” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” for starters.
What’s unique is the involvement of authors in so many of these projects — often as a staff writer. In those cases, they’re not running the show, but they’re in the room and participating in the reinvention of their words for a new medium. Tom Perrotta was an EP on Damon Lindelof’s “The Leftovers,” Robert Kirkman similarly was an active EP on “The Walking Dead” and Michael Connelly is instrumental in the “Bosch” adaptations. Taffy Brodesser-Akner even turned her own novel, “Fleshman Is in Trouble,” into a series. Jenny Han made a move into screenwriting and showrunning in adapting her YA novels “The Summer I Turned Pretty” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Many of these authors have become so entrenched in screenwriting that they’ve been out in force on the picket line, including Connelly.
And then there are the TV writers who have gotten quite good at working with authors, to varying degrees, in turning their books into TV shows. David Mandel adapted the book “Integrity,” by Egil Krogh and Matthew Krogh, into a series. Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber translated Taylor Jenkins Reid’s “Daisy Jones & the Six” into a musical drama. One scribe who has become an expert in novel adaptations is Liz Tigelaar, who was behind “Little Fires Everywhere” and has now reimagined “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
Tigelaar (who spoke prior to the strike) shares how they were very different experiences. While “Little Fires Everywhere” author Celeste Ng wasn’t actively involved with the show (but gave Tigelaar her blessing to make whatever changes she saw fit), “Tiny Beautiful Things” author Cheryl Strayed was an active part of that Hulu show’s writers room.
In signing on to adapt a book, Tigelaar says she looks at what the book is about, how a TV version would try to deepen and be different from the novel, and how involved the author wants to be. In the case of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” it was actually a collection of advice columns by Strayed and didn’t have a linear narrative.
“This was, in some ways, more ambitious adaptation,” she says. And ultimately, having Strayed in the room helped craft the adaptation of it: “Cheryl wanted to be in the writers room, and at first we thought she’d be in there part time, but when she got in there, she was in. She became essentially a writer on staff. In retrospect, I can’t imagine that it could have worked any other way. Because she was so open. That really started to help us figure out how to structure the show.”
Writers supporting writers. It’s kind of a tiny beautiful thing.