The Rant

Adapting to Adaptations

Am I turning into one of those people who likes film and television better than books? Maybe.

Elizabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale."

"She says 'Mayday,' that's the code word to talk about the resistance," I explain to my husband on our couch. We're watching Hulu's 10-part television series adaptation of Margaret Atwood's eerily prescient "The Handmaid's Tale," a dystopian novel published in 1985 about the distant future in the new millennium, where women have no rights except to make babies for men.

I must have read the book dozens of times, even before this current election when it became all the rage. And now I am trying to tell my husband—who hasn't read this feminist trope—all the ways the TV series has departed from the book.

"What's the difference?" my husband says, not rudely, but distractedly, barely managing to tear his eyes away from the commercial.

"The difference is ..." I start but then stop because the show has resumed. I don't have time to tell my musician husband how books are always more important than their screen adaptations. They're like the bible—you have to refer to them when watching their reenactment.

Truth be told, I'm a book snob. Always have been. Ever since I would break my bedtime as a kid, reading with a flashlight under the cover, ignoring teachers in class in favor of whatever I was currently reading (hidden in my textbook). As a lifelong bibliophile, I've always secretly believed (or maybe not-so-secretly) that people who read are better: more learned, more introspective, more creative than people who watch. (Yes, I'm talking to you, hubby!)

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It's with a certain glee that I see adaptations fail. The first "Handmaid's Tale" adaptation in 1990 starring Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway was abysmal because who knew what the main character was thinking? As were the initial Harry Potter films. Because how can you tamper with perfection? And how can anyone match the way our imaginations bring a book to life? It seems like a recipe for disappointment.

And yet … now we're in what is called the Golden Age of television, where books are snapped up for adaptation. Sometimes not even the classics.

I'd started reading Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series a while back, when I was in my mystery-thriller phase. And her Southern heroine surrounded by vampires satisfied my lust for a quick, titillating read, beginning with "Dead Until Dark." But when HBO turned the books into the "True Blood" series with Anna Paquin and racy sex scenes and colorful townsfolk, they surpassed anything my imagination had rendered. (Hey, it's HBO!)

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And when I finished the more literary "The Magician's Series," Lev Grossman's trilogy about college kids learning magic, I was eager to watch it on Syfy—only because I kind of missed the characters, although, truth be told, they were a little narcissistic and annoying. (Ungrateful millennials learning magic.) Lo and behold, Jason Ralph's Quentin was still kind of weaselly, but ultimately more compelling on screen than his fictional counterpart on the page. I cared more about the series than I did the books.

Gulp. Was I turning into one of those people I'd always looked down upon? A watcher, not a reader—someone who likes film and television better than books? Would my nightstand pile up with tomes as I made it through my Netflix queue with pride?

I dreaded for my intellect. Or my intellectual superiority.

My husband clutches my hand, so I resume watching "The Handmaid's Tale." It's different than the book in some ways. It takes place today rather than the '80s when it was written, but it seems to maintain the narrative voiceover of the main character (something lacking in the 1991 film). More importantly, it conveys the horror of this futuristic world, so much so that when the episode is done, my husband says, "I'm scared."

Maybe he—or the millions of others tuning into the show—didn't need to read the book it was based on. These days, a TV show or film can convey the ideas in a book just as well, or even better than the original. And they can reach a much bigger audience; people do read less than they watch.

Come to think of it, with Harry Potter (probably not great literature unless you're an 11-year-old), the movies got better as they progressed in the series. Maybe because they became less loyal to the book. They're two separate animals: the book and the movie. Two different works of art. I can't expect them to be the same, just to convey the same ideas and emotions.

So while I won't give up on my reading list—or trying to get my husband to read—I will keep silent when we watch the TV shows. Oh, yes, I will watch them.

Then I'll have something to talk about with everyone else.

   
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