Posted on by Scott Delahunt

A few weeks ago, I looked at the issues surrounding adapting a work to the silver screen. This week, I look at the smaller screen – television.

With movie adaptations, the big sacrifice is depth for time. Few people will sit in a theatre for longer than three hours, meaning that a lot of detail from novels especially gets lost. There just isn’t the time to do worldbuilding. Television allows for the build up of a storyline over a longer period of time, allowing characters to grow, allowing plots to wind around and find fertile ground.

What television lacks compares to movies is budget. A typical movie adaptations will have a large enough budget to cover salaries and special effects*. In a TV series, even the series has an overall cost similar to a blockbuster, that budget needs to be divided over the run of the season. A big effect at the start of the series may drain the FX budget for several weeks or even the rest of the season. There are ways to get around the cost, mainly through creative accounting**, but there is a limit on what can be done. Stock footage helps, to a degree. In the Stargate series, the whoosh of the stargate could be reused through out the franchise, allowing the crew to create different views to give the illusion of new effects. However, in the original Battlestar Galactica, starfighter combat boiled down to mixing up the same stock footage into different orders; there was always a scene where a Colonial Viper fired at the middle Cylon of a three-fighter formation, causing the other two Cylon fighters to break away from each other. With CGI, though, the effects team can create the needed elements once and then animate as needed at a lower cost. When the new budget comes around, the elements can be upgraded, which did happen with the Stargate whoosh.

Television is also very much ratings driven. A seven year arc is rare; studios need to know that the audience will not only be around for season one, but also for season seven, and that later seasons can draw in more people. Depending on the network or cable channel, the series may have two months to establish itself, or just one airing. The days where a show like M*A*S*H could linger near the bottom of the ratings until discovered by audiences is long gone. Shows now need to be instant hits from the beginning or so cheap that even a bottom rating still means the series makes money. The latter is typically filled by reality TV. A series could be cancelled before the planned arc is finished, because of low ratings, a change in the executive suite, or a network retool.  A long arc will be left dangling.

One problem longer works may face is the slow switch from episodic to series arcs that’s happening. Most historical TV series were written so that each episode could stand alone, allowing networks to rerun episodes without disturbing continuity. Soap operas, both daytime and prime time, were the exception to the rule, but the idea of a non-soap that had a longer storyline was unheard of until relatively recently. Some network executives still aren’t fully aware of the idea; Firefly suffered when the series was aired out of order, destroying several storylines.

With the increased time available for a TV series***, it’s very possible that the show will outstrip the original work. Anime is well known for this phenonenom; it would be easier to list the number of series that didn’t outstrip the original manga. The possibility also exists in the North American market. A Song of Ice and Fire could run into this issue. George R.R. Martin can only write so fast and has released five books so far. The HBO adaptation A Game of Thrones has three seasons completed and has been renewed for a fourth, just one book back unless season four covers a smaller portion to give season five breather space. Completed book series won’t have this problem, but a TV series based on those books using the same approach as A Game of Thrones, that is, a book per season, then filler may be needed.

Actor availability is a rare issue, but can crop up. Usually, an actor is signed for the duration of a TV series. However, it is not unknown for an actor to want out of his contract. The reasons vary; conflicts with production staff or even the cast, a break of a lifetime comes up, injury, even pregnancy can require an actor to leave. If the actor is in a critical role, recasting becomes difficult. Movie series have also run into the same problem; in the Harry Potter movies, the death of Richard Harris required Warner Bros. to recast Dumbledore with Michael Gambon. And while most original TV series can write out a character and introduce a new one, adaptations aren’t as flexible if the goal is to remain accurate.

Television brings its own unique problems to adapting a work. With the smaller budget and push for ratings, a movie adaptation looks far better.

Next week, The Mechanic.

* Depending on the effect. Progress in technology allows for cost reductions over time, but early adopters pay more.
** In the first season of The Muppet Show, a prop that was meant to be used just once was used instead in three separate episodes, allowing its cost to also be split split over the episodes.
*** At about 45 minutes per episode and a 13 to 22 episode season, that’s about nine to seventeen hours available for storytelling in a broadcast year.

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