These days, it might seem like TV networks are all about remaking movies for the serial format thanks to the likes of Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, and Shooter. TV shows also have another favorite source that they’ve been drawing from for decades: books. And no, we’re not just talking comic books and graphic novels.
An adaptation of a good book is hardly a rare thing, but it is a carefully considered venture. The success of some, like The Vampire Diaries or Pretty Little Liars, can outstrip the popularity of the original novels. Others, like Eye Candy or The Finder, can fail to capture an audience and fall flat. There’s no clear-cut formula for just what makes one a success and another a failure, but one thing is for sure: there are plenty of television series you might be surprised came from the page first.
Check out these 18 Shows You Didn’t Know Were Inspired By Books.
18 13 Reasons Why
Based on: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Netflix’s latest original series, 13 Reasons Why, has taken the young adult set by storm, but it’s also provided their parents with a serious look at just how unhappy teenagers can be. When Hannah Baker reaches her breaking point, she takes her own life, but not before recording 13 reasons why she decided to do it. Following her death, she leaves the tapes to a friend with instructions on just how those 13 people should get to listen to them. For the show, we see one of those people, Clay Jensen, acquire the tapes and get to really understand why she made her decision.
The novel was Jay Asher’s debut, and it took years before he decided to write another YA book. Likewise, the show was in development as a movie for a while before Netflix added it to its original programming slate as a series with Selena Gomez on board as a producer. When Gomez first became attached to the project, there were rumors that she would take on the role of Hannah Baker herself, but after several years in development, that didn’t come to pass.
10 years ago, when the book landed on shelves and best seller lists, social media wasn’t as prevalent as it is today, so it’s almost nonexistent in the page version of the story, but it plays a huge part in the events of the show. The series also takes a slightly different approach in allowing the secondary characters to become more fleshed out and letting the audience to get to know them as much as they do Hannah and Clay, making the series just as good, if not better, than the novel.
Based on: The novels by Craig Johnson
The first of four law enforcement series to make this list, Longmire is set in a fictional Wyoming town where the title character has to get his life back together with the help of his daughter and a new deputy he’s taken under his wing. The show brought a huge number of viewers to A&E, a network not particularly known for its fictional programming. In fact, the premiere episode had more than 4 million viewers, a record for the network, but over time, executives decided it was more expensive than it was worth, eventually dropping the show.
So far, there are 12 books in the Longmire series (the most recent of which was published in 2016), so the television show would have had plenty of source material if it continued. A&E canceled the series after season three, but Netflix picked it up for an additional three seasons. The sixth and final year will hit Netflix sometime in 2017.
Fans can still participate in Longmire Days, a festival in Buffalo, Wyoming. The city provided the inspiration for the fictional town in the novels, and cast members and Craig Johnson himself have been known to stop by the festivities. The sixth festival is scheduled for this July.
Based on: The novels by Kathy Reichs
Beginning in 2005, television audiences suddenly became fascinated with anthropology and forensics when the two fields were combined in the FOX series Bones. The show starred Emily Deschanel as the awkward Temperance Brennan, the leader of a team of scientists who typically studied ancient cultures through their remains or identified the bodies in mass graves. As the series began, though, she was consulting for the FBI, a relationship that would continue for 12 seasons.
Because author Kathy Reichs is a practicing forensic anthropologist herself, many audience members assumed that the series was based on her own life, and while she did draw from some of her own experiences while penning the novels, the show is all fiction, merely using those same novels for inspiration. Reichs, unlike a lot of writers, was actually afforded quite a bit of creative influence on the show, since she was also an executive producer.
Bones recently aired its series finale on FOX.
15 Boardwalk Empire
Based on: Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson
Plenty of gangster movies are set during the time when Prohibition was at its height, including the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Rather than focusing purely on the gangsters, however, the story takes the approach of highlighting the politicians who were in bed with them. In this case, it’s Nucky Thompson, who also goes on to rule the criminal underground after his mentor gets caught. All of the characters in the show and Johnson’s book are inspired by real-life people.
When Johnson penned the book, he had plenty of personal experience and interest in Atlantic City. After working in law for 30 years, he was also active in Atlantic City politics and lived in New Jersey. He conducted extensive interviews to get his facts right for the book, and the show doesn’t play too loosely with them either. The biggest differences come in how the show treats its timeline, making things that occurred years apart in reality happen in quick succession. A few relationships are changed to make for good drama, but the heart of Johnson’s book remains intact.
Based on: “Fire in the Hole” by Elmore Leonard
Justified, which centered on a U.S. Marshal in a small Kentucky town, ran for six seasons on FX and starred Timothy Olyphant. The series boasted FX’s highest audience numbers (4.2 million) ever when it debuted in 2010, though those numbers did drop a little bit over time. Though it had a smaller audience thanks to airing on a cable network, Justified was a critical darling. It garnered several award show nominations, including Emmy wins for stars Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies.
The series was initially inspired by the short story “Fire in the Hole,” which featured the main character Raylan Givens, the character Olyphant would go on to play. That same short story spawned a series of novels for the television show to draw from. Many of Leonard’s other works have also been adapted for the screen, including 3:10 to Yuma, Out of Sight, and Get Shorty, though the writer praised Justified as the best adaptation of his writing.
13 The Expanse
Based on: The series by James S. A. Corey
Some have called the Expanse novels a mashup of Star Wars and Game of Thrones, and that lethal sci-fi/fantasy combo designation is actually pretty accurate. Set hundreds of years in a future where human beings have colonized areas of space, the novels follow a group of space travelers on a rescue mission, kicking off story events as they watch their own ship get blown up. What they uncover following that act is a conspiracy.
The Expanse, by and large, follows the themes and broad strokes of the novels. Producers even made an effort to keep their casting choices as close to the appearances described in the novels as possible, to ensure that fans got the full experience. The show, which touches on politics and conspiracies in a world of science fiction, is just as engaging for those who haven’t read the novels, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under a shared pen name.
Based on: Mind Hunter: Inside FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker
Special Agent John E. Douglas wrote about his time catching serial offenders for the FBI in a nonfiction book that captured some of his most challenging cases. Douglas didn’t just work field cases for the bureau, either. He also studied some of the most notorious serial killers to help the FBI learn more about how their minds work, hence the nickname “Mind Hunter,” which formed the basis for the title of the book and upcoming Netflix series.
Jonathan Groff will star in the Netflix series, which is produced by David Fincher and Charlize Theron. Fincher and Theron actually took the concept for the series to HBO eight years ago, but after being stuck in development for years, the project ended up at Netflix. Interestingly, Douglas provided the basis for Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs. and the studies performed by the FBI previously gave inspiration for shows like Criminal Minds, but with David Fincher behind the scenes, Mindhunter promises to be a very different series.
Mindhunter lands on Netflix in October.
Based on: Mash: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker and WC Heinz
A comedic take on the lives of the staff of an Army hospital was a unique idea in the '70s when M*A*S*H came to broadcast television, and it still is today. Its success has been hard to replicate. Debuting on the small screen in 1972, the series ran for 11 years (following a movie adaptation, no less), and it still airs in syndication around the world. The show followed one group of medical officers during their work in the Korean War. Never mind that the actual Korean War only lasted about three years, and that it is often referred to as “the forgotten war” by historians -- audiences couldn’t get enough of the fictional version.
The show drew inspiration from the original novel Mash: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. The book actually launched a series of its own, and while not everything in the books made its way to television, specific scenes did. The book does provide more exposition to what amounted to short clips on the screen, but there is just as much love out there for the novel, and those that followed, as there is for the screen ventures.
10 Friday Night Lights
Based on: Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream by Buzz Bissinger
Most of the audience who tuned in regularly to watch the small town of Dillon, Texas head to Friday night football games was aware that there was a movie before there was a show. What many didn’t realize though was that the movie and the series were both inspired by a book first. The novel happens to be one of the most well-known titles out there amongst sports fans, but Hollywood’s glitz and glamour tends to get the attention first, which is funny since Friday Night Lights, in all of its incarnations, is the furthest thing from glitzy or glamorous.
The book followed one small town Texas team during a particularly dramatic high school football season. If you know anything about Texas, it’s that football isn’t just a way for high school kids to pass the time -- it's a way of life. The movie adapted that single-year story as well, but with multiple seasons, the show had to go a bit further, fleshing out what life in a small town was like over the course of several years, with football serving as the uniting factor. You didn’t just get the story of the young quarterback who had to step in when the town golden boy was seriously injured, but also of his best friend, who never thought he’d get to play either. The show tackled racial tension in its later seasons as the school zones changed and another group of students were introduced. It became just as much about small town politics as it did about football, family, and growing up.
9 Fresh Off The Boat
Based on: Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang
In the '90s, the Taiwanese Huang family moved to Orlando, Florida and were in for a bit of culture shock. The patriarch wanted to fit in, the matriarch longed for Taiwan, and the kids just tried to find a happy middle ground. The ABC show is, of course, a comedy, but the comedy isn’t born from just how different the Huang’s are, but how strange of a place America really is from an outsider's perspective.
The sitcom is based on a memoir written by chef Eddie Huang. In the show, Huang is 12 and recounting his experiences as a pre-teen who sees both sides of Asian-American culture. In real life, Huang had some regrets when ABC bought his book and filmed a pilot. He was afraid the series would dilute his unapologetic look at his childhood to standard TV fare, and he wanted it to be more subversive. He even wrote about his fears for Vulture, though he also recognized just how much compromise was necessary in the initial stages of getting the show on the air.
Fresh Off The Boat has become one of the most talked about comedies on TV, thanks in part to Huang continuing to fight for his story -- and not the watered down version of it -- to be told. It helps that Constance Wu, an outspoken advocate for Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry, plays his mother in the series. Between the two of them, audiences have become more aware of just what the Asian experience in America is really like.
Fresh Off the Boat airs on Tuesdays at 8PM on ABC.
Based on: Cheer: Inside The Secret World of College Cheerleaders by Kate Torgovnick
Ashley Tisdale and Alyson Michalka were best known as Disney stars before they joined the cast of The CW’s Hellcats. The show didn’t last long, but it certainly made an impression as it followed cheerleaders attending a university instead of high school. For a network that usually started its main characters out at 16, that was a big jump. Hellcats still followed the usual pretty-people-encountering-big-drama format of The CW’s series, but it earned a pretty fervent fanbase fairly quickly thanks to great chemistry amongst its cast members and impeccable delivery of some not so great dialogue.
Author Kate Torgovnick was not a cheerleader, and she wasn’t even someone who was interested in the sport growing up. As a writer, though, she spent time reporting on the rise in cheerleading injuries during one particularly gruesome season, and it piqued her curiosity enough that she decided to follow three of the top collegiate teams in the United States during a competition season to see what cheerleading was really like. The results were reflected in her novel, but not so much in the television show it inspired. Her book focused on the dark side of the sport and the pressures it created, while the show tended to focus on the relationships amongst teammates instead.
7 About A Boy
Based on: About A Boy by Nick Hornby
Most audience members remembered that About A Boy, the 2014 TV series, had a movie that came before it. In 2002, Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult brought the main characters to life on the big screen. Thanks to Grant and his string of romantic comedies, the movie gets remembered more often than the novel on which it’s actually based.
The television series took the novel out of England, transplanting the story to sunny California, where a man found himself accidentally befriending a pre-teen boy when he and his single mom moved in next door. He helped the young man become a little less awkward, introduced him to barbecue ribs, and he also learned to embrace the weirdness of his next door neighbor even when he didn’t understand just where the little boy was coming from. While the events on the series might be different from both the movie and the novel, the spirit is still the same, as Will, played in the series by David Walton, learned just as much about himself as he does about the little boy next door.
6 The Last Ship
Based on: The Last Ship by William Brinkley
The Last Ship refers to the Nathan James, a navy vessel that's away at sea on a research expedition when the world sees an epidemic sweep through humanity. The series, told from the point of view of the vessel’s crew, sees the naval officers on board first searching for a cure as they protect the scientist on board, and then, for a way to save what was left of the United States. The television series plays more like a sci-fi/political thriller hybrid, though the novel on which it is based is a bit different.
The novel is more strictly a tale of survival of the people on board the navy destroyer than it is their effort to get back to the outside world. In fact, the book sees less of the scientific research going into a cure than it does old school repopulating of the Earth, relying on the female naval officers more as breeding stock to repopulate the planet than as characters with depth. A rare case, the series actually expands on the ideas presented in the 1988 novel and spins a more interesting tale.
Season four of The Last Ship debuts on TNT in June.
Based on: Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
For 96 episodes, audiences got to know Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) as a forensic scientist and a serial killer. In television, serial killers are the unequivocal bad guys. Procedurals catch them and lock them up like they’re on every street corner. Before Dexter, television hadn’t placed a serial killer in the spot of the protagonist and asked the question of just how they manage to fit in with the world around them. An audience isn’t supposed to root for the killer to get away with murder, but when the murderer is offing other bad guys, it makes for a compelling storyline.
When Showtime picked up Dexter to series, Jeff Lindsay had only published the first two novels in what would become an eight-book-series about the title character. As a result, the books and the novels do diverge in much of their storytelling after the first season, though Darkly Dreaming Dexter provided much of the narrative backbone for the TV series when it first began. Lindsay even got a cameo in the third season and a deal to create a comic book series based on his creation for Marvel Comics.
4 The 100
Based on: The Kass Morgan series of novels
The CW series is currently in its fourth season with a fifth on the way, but you’ll be hard pressed to find clues as to how this post-apocalyptic story will end in the source material. That’s because The 100 is a special case compared to the other shows on this list. Much like the WB’s Roswell in the late '90s, The 100 was developed for television based on an outline that the writer was penning for the first novel -- at the same time. As a result, the books and the series are like two alternate versions of the same reality.
Characters like Finn, who made a huge impact on the events of the show, never appeared in the books. Morgan’s novels are also told from rotating points of view before and after the initial group of 100 is sent to Earth, providing for a little more backstory aboard the Ark than what audiences get in the first season of the show. On the TV front, however, the writers are able to go more in depth with intricate plotlines that don’t make much of a mark in the books, while the books are able to flesh out different characters who don’t get as much screen time, creating two different experiences for fans.
The 100 currently airs Wednesdays at 9PM on the CW.
3 The Magicians
Based on: The Lev Grossman series of novels
Premiering in 2015 on Syfy, The Magicians is what you get when you age Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia up a bit and throw in more sexual situations and substance use than Hogwarts ever would have allowed. Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and most of his close friends are students at Brakebills University where they study magic in theory and practice, but they also end up having to fight a magic-user known as The Beast and help restore the kingdom of Q’s favorite novels to its glory days.
Grossman’s novels take less of the fantasy and fairy tale approach to magic than the likes of Potter and Narnia do, making the world gritty and part of our own instead of adjacent to it -- and the show follows suit. Though the series pushes a lot of the plot of the novels into the first season of the show, it’s a wise choice, because it allows the TV series to explore other plot lines the books didn’t and introduce Julia (Stella Maeve) and her character arc much earlier.
The Magicians currently airs Wednesdays at 9PM on SyFy. It was recently renewed for a third season.
2 Emily’s Reasons Why Not
Based on: Emily’s Reasons Why Not by Carrie Gerlach
Not on this list because it was a huge hit, Emily’s Reasons Why Not has a very different spot in TV history. Instead, it’s one of the few television shows that only had a single episode broadcast before it was yanked from the air. After ABC aired the pilot episode starring Heather Graham, reception and audience numbers were so bad that they pulled the plug immediately. They did, eventually, release all seven produced episodes on DVD for those who wanted to purchase it, though. It's hard to imagine that those sales numbers were all that impressive.
The series followed the same basic premise of the Gerlach novel on which it was based: Emily, tired of dating all the wrong guys and feeling her biological clock ticking away, decided to start actively figuring out the reasons why she shouldn’t date men who weren’t Mr. Right. Readers either loved or hated the book, which was full of sessions with Emily’s therapist and a string of dates that went nowhere as Emily listed exactly why the guys weren’t marriage material. The story probably would have worked better as a standalone movie instead of a serial.
1 Orange Is The New Black
Based on: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman
When the first season of Orange is the New Black landed on Netflix in 2013, it was something of an instant success. Streaming audiences loved that they got a new take on the story of prison life. With so many shows focusing on men behind bars -- or trying to break out from behind them -- spotlighting women dealing with the conflicts of an incarcerated life was something a lot of audiences hadn’t seen before. The story of Piper (Taylor Schilling) and the women she met during her stint in the big house was actually inspired by a real experience.
Piper Kerman penned a memoir about her own conviction for a charge that resulted from a crime she committed a decade before she was incarcerated. While her story is a fascinating tale of what it’s like to be a woman on the inside, it's very different from what ultimately became the Netflix show. There was more of a focus on the generosity and kindness she experienced from other inmates than on romantic relationships, though the representation offered to the LGBT community through the show has been huge for the series. (Another major difference: she was never incarcerated with the ex-girlfriend she committed the crime for, though that relationship has been a driving force on the show.)
Kerman’s memoir also highlights her bond with “Pop,” the inspiration for the character Red, which was nowhere near as conflict-filled as the series. In fact, the book itself is dedicated to Pop.
The next season of Orange is the New Black drops on Netflix in June.
Are you waiting for your favorite book to be turned into a television show? Or is it already on the list? Let us know what your favorite book-to-TV adaptation is in the comments!
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