You can stop looking. This is the definitive list.
By
Jim Mitchell

11 May 2016 - 12:40 PM  UPDATED 13 Oct 2017 - 10:17 AM

Now that the third series of Bosch - based on Michael Connelly’s long running detective novels - is in full swing, we started thinking about the best book-to-TV adaptations ever. (We have a lot of time on our hands.)

And with so many outstanding examples to choose from, compiling the ten best is bound to be contentious.

So with that said, we’ve used a mixture of the following criteria: popularity, critical praise, impact on popular culture and society and how each production has best evoked and expanded on the feel and themes of the books.

Here’s our list in no particular order...

 

House of Cards

Achieving something of a rare evolutionary chain – bestseller becomes acclaimed British mini-series then acclaimed American remake – House of Cards has become something of a gold standard for the political thriller adaptation.

The original 1990-95 miniseries based on political insider now Member of the House of Lords Michael Dobbs’ novel trilogy (first published in 1989) starred Ian Richardson as wily chief whip Francis Urquhart.

Netflix and showrunner Beau Willimon shifted the political skulduggery from Westminster to the broader canvas of Capitol Hill employing the brilliant Kevin Spacey as the smarmy and snarly Francis (now Underwood). There’s no denying the cultural impact with its echoes of Donald Trump era politics.

“The US series is different, of course, but not that different than the book that started it all,” wrote Dobbs. “It’s true to the spirit of the story I wrote so many years ago - a dark tale of greed, corruption and unquenchable ambition.”

 

The Walking Dead

One of the most talked about TV shows on the planet – social media lights up with breathless debate on the identity of the latest character dispatch – only surpassed by Game of Thrones, the show based on Robert Kirkman’s popular zombie apocalypse graphic novels soon became a television phenomenon after debuting in 2010. (A spin-off Fear the Walking Dead is now into its third series).

The TV adaptation’s success is due to the tautly enthralling, expanding and enriching of Kirkman’s already edge-of-seat saga where the humans are often more dangerous than the undead; and the involvement of Kirkman as co-creator, writer and executive producer.

But, says Kirkman, such close involvement can be “awkward” when it comes to screenwriters meddling with his creation. “I’ll go, ‘We did this in the comic,’ and they go, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to work’ or ‘It would be better if we did it this way’."

“And oftentimes they’re right. But it’s eight people tearing apart work I did five years ago, so it can be awkward at times.”

 

The Handmaid's Tale

The adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel is sure to feature heavily in anyone's top 10 list at the end of this year. The dystopian drama is not only well-constructed and beautifully shot, it also reminded everyone of how viscerally horrible life could be when the government starts taking women's rights away, making it a particularly relevant and resonant story. And if you care about prizes, well, this show won a lot of them. It also happens to be on SBS On Demand.

 

The Night Manager

The six part adaptation of John le Carré’s espionage thriller with its stellar cast featuring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman and Elizabeth Debicki helmed by Oscar winning director Susan Bier recently made a triumphant debut to near universal critical acclaim with Time magazine just one of several outlets to call it “better than Bond.” (Also winning kudos was the sight of Hiddleston’s ‘English countryside’ which garnered it’s own hashtag #Hiddlesbum)

The best selling le Carré has given his seal of approval despite the significant changes that were made to the story – location, period, ending and the switching of one character from male to female.

“A lesser being such as myself might reasonably have responded: why not write your own bloody novel? With all those changes, what’s left of mine?” he wrote recently. “And the answer, surprisingly, is: a great deal is left, more than I dared hope.”

 

Sherlock

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth has been an evergreen source of adaptation – behold the two TV series currently airing that reset Sherlock Holmes to the modern day.

Far surpassing the US series Elementary is the British take from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, truly winning over critics and audiences over worldwide with its intelligent and inventive take. That’s in no small part due to the idiosyncratic portrayal of Sherlock by Benedict Cumberbatch.

“It's one of the defining things about a good Sherlock Holmes versus a bad Sherlock Holmes. Can you do all that stuff without just sounding like the smuggest git in the world?” says Moffat. “He’s got to sound like someone who's just high on the fact that he's clever.”

 

Roots

The stunningly successful mini-series based on Alex Haley’s novel of the same name that told the partially fictionalised story of his descendants’ experience of slavery, left an indelible cultural watermark. It sparked a national conversation, bringing the African American slavery experience compellingly into America and the world’s lounge rooms.

Haley, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for his work said of the series’ phenomenal success:

"If I had been taking hashish, I could not have dreamed of this."

100 million viewers tuned in to the finale Stateside, the third highest rated program ever according to Variety, and the series picked up nine Emmy awards. The sequel Roots: The Next Generations aired in 1979 and, almost 40 years on, a remake produced by original star LeVar Burton aired on SBS.

 

Pride and Prejudice

The success of this mid nineties mini-series of Jane Austen’s much loved story could be summed up in four words. Colin. Firth. Wet. Shirt.

But let’s not reduce this handsomely made, extraordinarily popular adaptation from writer Andrew Davies (who incidentally co-wrote Bridget Jones’s Diary) to a libidinous pop cultural touchstone.

Ok, let’s.

Davies reveals that in one iconic scene between Mr Darcy (Firth) and Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) things got particularly steamy, at least on the page.

“I wrote in a stage direction: ‘Darcy is surprised to find that he has an instant erection’,” said Davies. “I felt obliged to add, ‘I don't mean we need to focus on his trousers, just that it’s what should be going through the actor's mind’. Darcy’s obviously turned on by this heart-throbbing, muddy, warm girl."

 

Orange is the New Black

As source material Piper Kerman’s bestselling memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison opened up a rarely seen world to television viewers.

Jenji Kohan’s (Weeds) adaptation for Netflix – funny, dark and revealing – depicts women of various ethnicity, age and sexuality behind bars and is hard to define. Comedy or drama? It’s both, often at the same time.

The show is a pop cultural mainstay as it heads in to its fourth season with a further three commissioned, and continues to shine a light on the impact of incarceration not just on women but in general.

“Back in 2004 when I was being shackled from wrist to ankle, I never dreamed that such a horrible experience could turn into something life-changing,” said Kerman.  

 

Outlander

Based on Diana Gabaldon's 1991 novel, this time travel romance series won viewers over with its portrayal of sex from a female perspective. Adventure and political intrigue are mixed in with historical fantasy to make a truly unique viewing experience. A viewing experience that can be had Thursday nights on SBS and SBS On Demand.

 

Prime Suspect

It was the TV show that thrust Helen Mirren into Hollywood’s A list but of course it did much more than that with it’s groundbreaking portrayal of Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison, a middle aged, powerful, hard-bitten, deeply flawed woman at it’s center.

Lynda La Plante, creator of the popular Prime Suspect novels as well as a prequel set to air this year, is full of praise for Mirren’s portrayal and pragmatic about the adaptation process. Still, after writing the screenplays for earlier episodes she disagreed with the writers’ subsequent decision to make Tennison an alcoholic.

“I do not think I would have made such an iconic character an alcoholic because I felt that she had broken through the so called ‘Glass Ceiling’ and would, in my estimation, have become a Commander,” she said.

 

Poldark

Winston Graham’s swashbuckling 18th century Cornwall hero Ross Poldark (first played by Robin Ellis, currently played by Aidan Turner) of 12 novels is notable for winning hearts and audiences in not one but two successful adaptations.

The 1975-77 adaptation was phenomenally popular, with an audience of 15 million viewers, distribution in 40 countries and video sales (remember those?) only surpassed by 1995’s Pride and Prejudice. The latest rendition which cleaves closer to the source novels has also been a ratings winner earning it’s own meme-worthy, swoon-worthy ‘Darcy’ scene as a swarthy topless Turner in character handles a scythe.

Graham is said to have hated the 1970’s original, not least because he felt that the writers developed the character of Poldark squeeze Demelza (Angharad Rees), who was based on Graham’s wife Jean.

“He was so angry about the way they had changed Demelza into a floozy that he wanted to get the production stopped,” says Graham’s daughter Rosamund Barteau.

 

Game of Thrones

The most influential adaptation right now and the most talked about - with every dissection of trailer, still and potential plot development instant click bait - the saga of power, sex, blood (and dragons) has made a name for itself for its tendency to kill its darlings.

George RR Martin’s gritty, medieval fantasy series A Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice debuted in 1991. Its 25 million and counting sales have been buoyed by the phenomenal TV adaptation, which has hurtled past Martin’s long running (and long gestating) series.

It could well reach the spiky end of the throne with a final eighth season before Martin can finish his seven-part saga. Not that he’s concerned.

“There was a period where I was worried about that. Then I said, to hell with that,” he said last year. “I’m just going to tell my story, and they’re telling their story.”

 

Did we miss any? Let us know below...

 

Bosch season 3 airs Thursdays at 9:30pm (AEST) on SBS. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand. 

Missed the latest episode? Watch it right here:

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