Can a book really become a decent television show? Yes, and here's the proof! Here are 12 shining examples of science fiction and fantasy books that actually got turned into television series that are worth watching in their own right.
The other day, we listed the worst TV adaptations of SF books, now here are the best. If The Walking Dead and A Game Of Thrones turn out to be awesome, they'll join the select club that already has these dozen members:
The Vampire Diaries.
Okay, so nobody's calling this show a televisual masterpiece — there's a reason we refer to it as the Crackpipe Diaries — but it's one of the most compulsively watchable shows on television right now, and it's the ultimate guilty pleasure. And in large part thanks to Scream's Kevin Williamson and Kyle XY's Julie Plec, the cheesy love triangle and supernatural romance come with a healthy amount of clever dialogue and entertaining snark. These vampires, werewolves and witches absolutely pop, and this is probably the best example of a TV adaptation that stands on its own as a silly/awesome piece of television.
I have to admit I haven't seen this series since it first aired when I was a kid, but it blew my mind at the time — and not just for its "better than Doctor Who" special effects. I also loved the way it built up the main characters of Will and Beanpole — and added more female characters to the male-dominated storyline. Most of all, the BBC succeeded in bringing the post-apocalyptic world of 100 years in the future, with the Capping and the spectre of ruthless alien overlords, to life. Here's a site that argues the Tripods is a "minor masterpiece."
Ijon Tichy, Raumpilot.
No Americans have ever tried to do a TV series based on Stanislaw Lem's loony-philosophical space stories, which is probably a good thing. But the Germans have done a low-budget version that's very close to the original spirit of Lem's Star Diaries story collection. Ijon Tichy hangs around his space capsule in his stained undershirt, and just making lunch can turn out to be an epic nightmare. He also meets a weird assortment of aliens, robots and holograms, and the show keeps the pace fast and the tone deadpan, which is as it should be.
The Six Million Dollar Man.
People tend to forget this show is based on the best-selling Cyborg novels by Martin Caidin, and the TV show has endured way more than the book has, at this point. As usual with this sort of adaptation, the producers softened the concept, making Steve Austin less of a dick. Along with the catch-phrase "We have the technology, we can rebuild him," the sound of Steve Austin's bionic leaps and the concept of a cyborg who's not evil or monstrous have lingered in the popular consciousness. More than a book adaptation, this became a fantastical adventure show (in which Steve Austin fought Bigfoot!) that audiences were eager to tune into week after week.
The Dead Zone.
We mentioned the other day that Stephen King has had a lot of underwhelming TV adaptations — but this is one we quite like, mostly for its moody atmosphere and the way in which the apocalyptic future visions get interwoven with the show's spooky plotlines. Anthony Michael Hall is a schoolteacher who wakes from a coma after a car accident and then discovers that he can see the future — but he sees the destruction of the world in the future, and it's linked to the mentally ill politician Greg Stillson. Plus he sees scary visions of his future self, who's a wreck.
Thanks to Angriest Geek for reminding us of this one! Javier Grillo-Marxuach adapted his own graphic novel series into a brilliant TV show about a quasi-superhero who saves the world, and his apprentice, artist Wendy Watson. Everything that made the graphic novels great is in here, including the zany humor and the geek in-jokes, but the characters become much, much deeper and more fascinating. And themes start to emerge, like the importance of creating art alongside fighting evil, and the fact that you can't let anybody tell you that you're doomed to live without love, just because your life is chaotic. One of the coolest TV shows of all time, and definitely a worthy adaptation of the TV show.
Before he took on Doctor Who, Steven Moffat created this widely praised remaigining of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of mad science and transformation. As with his recent Sherlock series, Moffat brings Hyde up to the present day, but keeps all of the stuff that made it compelling and nightmarish. The story of one man's confrontation with his dark heritage, Moffat's retelling manages to be both an update and a worthy adaptation.Thanks to The Glieb for reminding us of this one.
We loved Milestone Comics, adnd the trash-can-lid-riding Static was one of the coolest characters. So we were overjoyed when Milestone's Dwayne McDuffie managed to bring an animated version of the character to television, in a way that captured everything that was great about the original series. Complete with the wise-cracking. "You mean, 'What up with that?' Either use slang properly, or don't use it at all." Not only was this a great re-envisioning of the original comic series, but it also brought back a lot of the other characters and ideas that made Milestone so great.
And then there's the other vampire TV show based on a book series. Alan Ball and company haven't been afraid to make Charlaine Harris' best-selling Sookie Stackhouse series their own, taking huge liberties with the source material, but they've also paid tribute to the characters and concepts that made the books great in their own right. Few TV shows have become day-after watercooler material to the extent that True Blood has, and they've made characters like Lafayette (who survives on the TV series despite dying in the books) their own.
One of the greatest alternate-history novels of all time got a thoughtful, lavish adaptation on HBO, starring Rutger Hauer as a Nazi with a conscience. As in the book by Robert Harris, the Nazis have won World War II, and now it's the 1960s and President Kennedy is coming for a visit. But Hauer's character, a policeman named March, is investigating a string of suspicious murders that lead him to evidence of a huge coverup within the Nazi Party itself. To its credit, even though the television version makes some changes, it doesn't take the sting out of the ending, and — spoiler alert — Rutger Hauer once again dies in the rain. Also fantastic in this TV movie is co-star Miranda Richardson, as Maguire.
The Lathe Of Heaven.
Despite some dodgy special effects, this PBS adaptation remains the gold standard for television adaptations of books — mostly because Ursula K. Le Guin was involved every step of the way, and she turns out to have some pretty smart ideas about how to adapt her own book. But there's more to it than that — this TV movie keeps the central idea and the challenging philosophical questions of the original book — so you wind up questioning whether it would be right to hack reality and questioning reality itself. This was The Matrix before The Matrix. And it's spooky as hell. This show crawled inside my brain when I was a kid, and I was dreading a letdown when I rewatched it as an adult — but it holds up amazingly well.
Nineteen Eighty Four.
Voted one of the 100 greatest British Television Programmes by a panel of experts surveyed by the British Film Institute, the 1954 BBC adaptation was so controversial that it caused questions to be asked in Parliament and tons of viewer complaints. According to Wikipedia, one 42-year-old housewife watching the program even reportedly died of shock, as a result of seeing the scenes of totalitarian rule and Smith being threatened with torture by rats. George Orwell's original novel was adapted by Nigel Kneale, creator of Bernard Quatermass, who pulled no punches and stuck as close to the novel as possible, with horrifying results.