20 Great Books That Made Even Better TV Shows
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Some of today's best TV shows come from an unlikely source: the library. Yes, even if haven't picked up a book since To Kill a Mockingbird in your ninth grade English class, it's likely that you're acquainted with the plots of some of the most popular novels of the past few decades because you've watched them unfold on the small screen. From the twisted drama of Big Little Lies to the beloved Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie, here are some of the best book-to-TV adaptations of all time.
The Little House Series
Little House on the Prairie, a 19th century Western focusing on a Minnesotan family, was one of the most popular shows in the 1970s and '80s. But long before the first episode aired in 1974 on NBC, the Ingalls family existed on paper via Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House book series. She published eight novels between 1932 and 1943, and a ninth and final book, The First Four Years, was released posthumously in 1971.
The Outlander Series
Time travel, war, a passionate love affair, and so much more fill the pages of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels, of which there are currently eight. (A ninth, titled Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone, is forthcoming.) And given the colorful content of the book series, it's no surprise that Starz's adaption—whose fifth season is set to premiere in February 2020—has proven to be a massive success. Since it started airing in 2014, the show has been nominated for four Emmys and it currently boasts a 91 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Sherlock Holmes Series
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have seen more than their fair share of adaptations. (In 2012, Guinness World Records even awarded the fictional detective the title of "most portrayed literary human character in film & TV.") However, easily one of the most popular portrayals of the character is Benedict Cumberbatch's on BBC's Sherlock, which aired from 2010 to 2017. For his starring role, the actor was nominated for five Emmys, taking home a trophy in 2014.
Works of non-fiction don't always translate well from the page to the screen. So it was a welcome surprise when the Hulu adaption of journalist Lindy West's memoir, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, earned rave reviews. As Vulture noted when the show was released in early 2019, Shrill (which stars Aidy Bryant) constantly reminds viewers that "you don't have to be a perfect person in order to be worthy of celebration." And the series is poised to give us more to celebrate when a second season launches in 2020.
The Series of Unfortunate Events Books
First Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events novels were turned into a movie starring Jim Carrey in 2004. And then, more than a decade later, they were adapted for a Netflix series starring Neil Patrick Harris, which launched in early 2017. The show performed so well that the streaming service released two follow-up seasons in March 2018 and January 2019. Though the books, written by Daniel Handler under the Snicket pen name, were intended for children, The A.V. Club notes that the show has a much broader appeal. The Netflix series is "kids stuff with adult sophistication, driven by two-part stories, outrageous visuals, and the scenery-chewing of big-name guest stars."
The Handmaid's Tale
Just like Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel, Hulu's award-winning adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale is set in the aftermath of a second Civil War. America is taken over by a totalitarian government called Gilead that forces fertile women to become handmaids and bear children for wealthy couples. Both the book and the show follow one handmaid in particular named June (Elisabeth Moss) as she fights back against the patriarchal and repressive society she's been forced into.
The show—which has had three hit seasons thus far with a fourth on the way—premiered in 2017 when many of its themes were particularly poignant, giving Atwood's story even more power. "Behind the scenes we were kind of taking a deep breath and saying, 'Wow, this is becoming a bit close for comfort,'" Moss told The New York Times in 2017, when the first season hit Hulu. "You're in a scene, and the character would say something and it would be a little more meaningful, a little more chilling, more resonant."
We also have Atwood to thank for another incredible book-to-TV adaptation from 2017: Alias Grace, which debuted on Netflix in November of that year.
Atwood's 1996 novel has a bleak plot similar to that of The Handmaid's Tale: It follows an Irish maid accused and convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper in the 1800s. And, also like Atwood's other novel, its small screen adaptation was very well received. Complex characters and impeccable acting earned Alias Grace a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And though the miniseries only had six episodes, critics rave that "biting social commentary and Sarah Gadon's hypnotic performance make [the show] a worthy addition to the Margaret Atwood adaptation catalog."
Caroline Kepnes' thriller You was published in 2014, and while the novel earned some accolades, it wasn't until it was adapted for television in 2018 that it became a sensation. Though it originally debuted on Lifetime, starring Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley as psychopath stalker Joe Goldberg, it became a true phenomenon when it moved over to Netflix a few months later. You saw such a sudden surge in popularity, in fact, that The New York Times even wrote an article about how the streaming service played just as much a part in its success as the plot itself.
Regardless of what prompted people to finally watch You, though, the numbers don't lie: According to Netflix, the show had nearly 40 million members glued to their screens in its first four weeks on the streaming service, from December 2018 to January 2019. But it's not over yet: A second season will be hitting Netflix sometime soon.
Big Little Lies
We'd be telling a big lie if we didn't say that this was one of the better book-to-TV adaptions out there. Yes, Liane Moriarty's novel of the same name made the New York Times Best Seller list in 2014. But the HBO series, starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoë Kravitz, brought what was on Moriarty's pages to our screens in a truly gripping way.
For its first season alone, Big Little Lies earned eight Emmys. As one critic at The Atlantic put it when the show premiered in 2017, "there's so much to appreciate, even if… you frequently end up rolling your eyes at the absurdity of it all." Audiences basically begged for a second season, which came out in 2019, and while a third is unlikely, anything can happen in Monterey, right?
The Haunting of Hill House
People consider Shirley Jackson's 1959 gothic horror story The Haunting of Hill House to be "one of the finest horror novels ever written," and so it makes sense that it's seen quite a few adaptations over the years. Most recently, it was turned into a TV show by Netflix. Within days of its release in October 2018, it became one of the most in-demand horror series, right behind The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. Horror royal himself, Stephen King, even called the adaptation "close to a work of genius." A second season, titled The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, is set to be released in 2020.
What do you get when you combine the author of Gone Girl, the producer of Get Out, and the director of Big Little Lies? A pretty incredible book-to-TV adaptation. Though this HBO series didn't follow Gillian Flynn's debut novel word-for-word, the adaptation had its own "elegant, devious design" and a "heroic" main character (Amy Adams) that kept the plot as thrilling, scarring, and jarring as it was originally, if not more so, The New Yorker noted.
The Strain Trilogy
When it premiered in 2014, The Strain was definitely one of the best horror shows on television. Based on the trilogy of the same name by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, which came out between 2009 and 2011, the FX series debuted to an audience of nearly 3 million. It had vampires, it had family drama, and best of all, it had Sean Astin. (The books couldn't do that.) The show lasted for four seasons, wrapping up its run in 2017.
The Southern Vampire Mysteries Series
If the title of this book series doesn't immediately sound familiar, that's because its TV adaptation went by a different name: True Blood. Charlaine Harris' vampire novels, released between 2001 and 2013, were extremely successful in their own right—the first installment of the series, Dead Until Dark, won the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Mystery. But the show was arguably an even bigger hit. Need proof? Eventually the books took the name of the HBO series, becoming known as The True Blood Novels. On the small screen, the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, took on new dimensions, creating graphic, gory, and glamorous visuals to match the words Harris had been writing for decades.
The Pretty Little Liars Series
Ask your daughter or granddaughter who grew up in the early 2000s if they read Sara Shepard's Pretty Little Liars book series and chances are you'll get a big ol' "Duh!" However, even though the books landed on the New York Times Best Seller list, they still can't hold a candle to the thrilling TV adaptation that aired on ABC Family (and later Freeform) from 2010 to 2017. With seven seasons, a devoted fandom, and two spinoff shows and counting, Pretty Little Liars is undoubtedly one of the more successful book-to-TV adaptions.
The Night Manager
Though it only had six episodes, The Night Manager managed to capture everyone's attention when it aired on AMC in the States in 2016. Based on the 1993 novel of the same name by John le Carré, the British miniseries starred Tom Hiddleston as a hotel night manager and former soldier turned intelligence operative. The Night Manager was so gripping, in fact, that it was nominated for 12 Emmys, winning two.
The Song of Ice and Fire Series
It didn't seem like it was possible for anything to top the success of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series (better known as the Game of Thrones novels). But the HBO adaptation did just that. It amassed 59 Emmy wins during its eight-season run, and the show even broke a TV record—a record it had previously set, no less—when one of its episodes saw 17.8 million viewers tune in across platforms. Fans might not have been thrilled with how the show ended in 2019, but everyone can agree that this saga made for one of the most thrilling and enticing TV experiences of all time.
The Gossip Girl Series
You know you love this book-to-TV adaptation. It was all the rage in the late 2000s and early 2010s, particularly among fans of Cecily von Ziegesar's young adult series of the same name. Say what you will about the unbelievable extravagance and confusing revenge plots, but one thing is for sure: This CW show brought us some of the best—or at least best-known—actors of our time: Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, and You's Badgley.
This 2018 Netflix adaptation of Richard K. Morgan's 2002 sci-fi cyberpunk novel didn't garner the viewership or acclaim of fellow book-to-TV adaptations, like Big Little Lies or Game of Thrones. However, between its futuristic and unique plot and elaborate characters, the show still managed to conjure up enough of a following to secure a second season, which is scheduled for a 2020 release.
The Vampire Diaries Series
TV audiences just can't get enough vampire content—and if you want proof of that, then look no further than The CW's TV adaptation of L. J. Smith's Vampire Diaries series from the '90s and '00s.
In 2009, the show's pilot episode attracted the largest audience that The CW had ever seen for a premiere, and its entire first season averaged 3.6 million viewers. For a long time, it was even the most-watched series on The CW—but in 2012, that title was handed over to newcomer Arrow. The Vampire Diaries ran until 2017 and its spinoff, The Originals, also called The CW home from 2013 to 2017.
Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black is a prison show unlike any other. Yes, there's violence, and sure, there are corrupt politics at play, but ultimately the series is a comedy-drama about the dynamics between women behind bars. The award-winning Netflix show is based on Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. Given that it managed to span seven seasons, from 2013 to 2019, it's clear OITNB outdid its source material. Looking for more great shows to stream on another service? Here are 25 Amazing Shows You Should Be Watching on Amazon Prime.
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