The recent news that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will be adapted into a television show doesn’t surprise us too much. We can only add it to the growing list of book-to-small-screen adaptations that we are anxiously awaiting, joining the planned HBO series based on A Visit From the Goon Squad , and the one on Eugenides’s Middlesex , which HBO seems to have optioned and then forgotten about. However, there are no promises that any book to TV adaptation, even those with great books as starting points, will be any good, and there are hundreds of shows created in this way that aren’t — but in our minds, that just makes the great ones even greater. To get ourselves pumped for the adaptation of Wolf Hall, we’ve collected a list of the ten all-time best (according to us, that is) TV shows adapted from books. Click through to see our picks, and be sure to let us know your own favorites in the comments!
Frequently counted on lists of the best TV shows of all time, everyone knows that M*A*S*H was adapted from the 1970 film of the same name, but perhaps not as many people are aware that that feature film was itself based on the 1968 novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors , by Richard Hooker. This classic show about a team of doctors and staff stationed in a surgical hospital in South Korea during the Korean War lasted for 11 seasons and spanned 251 episodes, with the finale breaking records as the most watched episode in history (125 million viewers) at that time.
The first season of Showtime’s Dexter was based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. Though Lindsay’s novel was only the first in a series (there are six so far), the show developed on its own after the original season, giving fans the maximum amount of Dexter possible. Though, perhaps predictably, the televised version of Dexter is much more likable than the novelistic version, who is still sympathetic but scarier. As Lindsay said of his first Dexter novel, “I thought I was writing something creepy, repellent, perhaps a little wicked. To balance that, I also made him vulnerable and funny, I gave him a fondness for children, and I wrote in the first person — all elements intended to bridge the gap between a homicidal psychopath and readers, who I assumed would, nevertheless, be appalled.” They weren’t, though, and the show, with its great storytelling and incredible ability to hold tension, is proof of how fascinating our Dexter can really be.
Friday Night Lights
Like M*A*S*H, the television version of Friday Night Lights was adapted from a film of the same name that had in turn been adapted from a book — this time, the 1990 non-fiction book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger, about the 1988 Permian High School Panthers from Odessa, Texas as they strove towards the Texas state football championships. Named in 2002 by Sports Illustrated as the fourth-best sports book of all time, we don’t think we have to tell you how many people consider the eventual television incarnation to be the best sports show, or best sports anything, or um, best anything of all time.
Game of Thrones
These days, it seems like everyone in the subway is reading one or another of the books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, of which A Game of Thrones is the first. To date, Martin has planned seven books and published five, and his fan base is only growing. Luckily, HBO plans to keep pace with the prolific author. “We told [George R.R. Martin] we’d go as long as he keeps writing,” said HBO co-president Richard Plepler. “I hope it lasts for 20 years,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo chimed in. We bet you do. The thing is a programming dream — an epic story with something for everyone, or at least everyone interested in sex and/or war. Which is everyone.
We thought at first we might have been a little biased, since our introduction to this show was in our favorite 11th grade Latin classic, but turns out our interest is well-founded. This 1976 adaptation of the Robert Graves novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God was one of BBC’s most successful drama series of all time. Like HBO’s more recent Rome, there is much delicious plotting, double-crossing, and lunacy, but significantly less full frontal nudity.
You may scoff, but there’s no denying the quality of Gossip Girl — at least if viewership and ratings have any bearing on your decision. Though the show, based on a series of books by Cecily von Ziegesar, may have diminished in recent seasons, we still maintain that the blocking in some of the Chuck and Blair scenes is the best we’ve seen on TV in some time. There’s been much ado about the differences between show and book series, the one of primary importance to us being that thank goodness Ed Westwick has not been carrying around a monkey this whole time.
Though only a miniseries, this incredibly lush adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 masterpiece was a gorgeous ode the the original text. Scandalous when first aired in 1981 for its sex scenes and dealings with homosexuality, it wouldn’t be too controversial today. However, it still manages to maintain the luminous, wistful feel of the novel, which is a pretty impressive feat, as far as we’re concerned.
Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family , which spent 46 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list, the television miniseries was incredibly popular, with the finale still holding strong as the third highest rated US television program of all time.
We may take some heat for this, but man, do we love Roswell. Based on the YA series Roswell High , whose writer and editor both joined the series as staff writers, the show is just like Twilight, only with aliens and in the ’90s. Seriously: three teenage aliens, including a young Katherine Heigl (oh yes, that is her on the left), are doing fine fitting into normal society in their hometown of Roswell, New Mexico, except that then the cute boy of the group has to go and fall in love with a human. He even tries to leave her because he thinks life with him would be too dangerous. The show was so popular during its three seasons that it inspired eleven spin-off books of its own, mostly focused on explaining the unexplained (and often charmingly sloppy) phenomena viewers saw on screen.
Sex and the City
Based on the 1997 collection of essays by Candace Bushnell, most of which she wrote as part of a recurring column for The New York Observer, this is an example of a show that far outreached and outperformed its original text, which is basically a series of slightly better than average sex columns. Happily, the show expanded far beyond what it had to work with, creating memorable characters and plopping them into scandalous scenarios ranging from the desperately familiar to the delightfully absurd.