It was just recently revealed that Edinburgh local and international best-selling author J.K. Rowling will have her latest publication, A Casual Vacancy, be made into a television miniseries. This probably came as little shock to most people, a famous author turning her book into dramatised entertainment, but for the grand TV vs. film debate, this was a pretty big step in a direction we’re starting to see many novelists taking.
For a bit of context, let’s go back to one of the best and earliest instances of a book going to TV. This was none other than the BBC’s version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In 1994, the BBC released six one-hour episodes laden with practically every detail of the famed book, and had stars such as Colin Firth. This production was praised for its excellent performances, as well as its ability to remain so close to the genuine storyline of the novel. As a kid, my mum forced me to watch these films (as a punishment that backfired on her quite hilariously) and they became a family tradition in my house: annually one member would randomly mention the series and we’d spend the next week intermittently watching them together during our spare moments. At the time, I was only about eight or nine years old, but I adored the series and could tell you what actually happened in the book from my viewing.
Cut to 2005, just a few years later, to the release of the Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice. This version toted a similar formula. It had its own A-list celebrity, Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, and a decent following from a combined UK-US audience. Going to the cinema with my family, I was relatively excited to see my favourite plotline on the big screen. But much to my pre-adolescent horror, the film was an atrocity in the eyes of any Austen fan and barely scratched the surface of the story. Sure, it made money and drew an audience, but for Austen followers, it was a complete disaster to the point of disrespecting the author herself.
Although it is my own personal story, and admittedly an emotionally charged one, it does illustrate quite aptly the decisions authors face when choosing how to move their books from the page to the screen. For years, films and the cinema experience have unequivocally drawn the creations of beloved books into picture, and both producers, writers, and the authors themselves did so without even considering any sort of preferred or more profitable alternative. But now, with Netflix and even YouTube providing screentime entertainment for millions of people across the globe from the comfort of their homes, it is time to reassess: is it really best for authors and viewers to get their favourite books played out in the cinema, or is it better for them to be able to digest these novels in a detailed, drawn-out manner from wherever they may choose? It may be the controversial opinion, but the move towards tele vision is a smart one for the author looking to see the best representation telling have the rare combination of brevity and simplicity that make it easy enough to tell the full tale in the time constraints of a film. Films that attempt to tell the full story often seem too fast and disjointed in an attempt to whizz through an entire plot; often we end up as disappointed book lovers having our favourite stories modified drastically or half told for the sake of making it an arbitrary two hours long. A miniseries allows writers and producers to have as much time as is needed to tell the story, and the viewers get the added benefit of spending more time with the story, creating a stronger connection between the characters and the viewer and ultimately making a more powerful impact on each viewer.
For producers and viewers to continue to push for their favourite novels to be broadcast on the silver screen is to stay in the era of shallow storytelling and an archaic style of capturing a book’s essence.
The miniseries offers a much needed, in-depth structure for amazing stories to be told as they were done originally. So, although Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy may be most people’s least favourite of all her works, Rowling is probably one of the first few authors (of many to come) who have made the intelligent decision to actually have their stories told on the small screen over a length of time, rather than to have the important, fine details washed away through a lack of time.