It’s World Book Day. Previously I have celebrated Movies that were based on books. (A collaborative Top 5, and a World Book Day post last year) so that is something that has been done to death here. So this year let’s celebrate some television with the best TV shows that were based on books. Now obviously this list is going to be constrained by what TV I’ve watched, so there won’t be any The Handmaid’s Tale or Watchmen on this list. I would also love to know what shows based on books you love.
So to celebrate World Book Day let’s look at my Top 10 TV Shows Based on Books:
10) Sherlock – There have been so many adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective stories it could’ve been hard to truly separate them. But with Sherlock Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss took the spirit of the stories and brought them into a new context by updating them for the modern day, with 21st Century technology. I think the later series have succumbed a little to Moffat and Gatiss trying to be too clever and meta with some of the stories, but generally its been a terrific show, headlined by the performance that catapulted Benedict Cumberbatch to stardom.
9) Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are two of my absolute favourite authors of all time. I grew up reading some of the Discworld books, and after seeing Gaiman’s Doctor Who episode ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ I’ve found his work as well. The book is a great collaboration that brings together both author’s wonderful styles and it translates brilliantly to TV. In Michael Sheen and David Tennant the show has a perfect pair of leads with stunning chemistry and who perfectly bring the slightly absurd comedy to life. I also really enjoy another Gaiman adaptation, American Gods, but I don’t think that show does quite enough to make the list in its own right as the later seasons haven’t quite shone as brightly as the first.
8) Killing Eve – Whilst each season has made slightly less and less impact in the cultural sphere, Killing Eve is still a great show, propelled by the magnificent performances. Jodie Comer’s performance as Villanelle, the titular assassin from Luke Jennings’ novels, is particularly electric, and it is no surprise she’s the one of the biggest up and coming talents working, who will soon be getting a chance in some major Hollywood productions (Free Guy and The Last Duel). With excellent support from Sandra Oh and Fiona Shaw as the other end of the cat and mouse assassin v spy game the show is always an engaging and exciting watch.
7) The Witcher – Whilst The Witcher video games might be more well known than the book series they were based upon, I feel like it was the TV show that really brought the property to widespread attention. Starring Henry Cavill as a monster hunter the show is dark, bloody, and a lot of fun. And has there ever been more of a justification for an adaption to exist than the major bop from The Witcher that took the world by storm, ‘Toss a Coin to Your Witcher’ for which I hope Jaskier won every Grammy equivalent in this world.
6) The Queen’s Gambit – One I was shocked to learn was adapted from a book, it turns out The Queen’s Gambit was actually based on a 1983 novel. I can’t speak too much about how it compares having no knowledge of the book, but the show was fantastic. Led by the always wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy, it has been so great to see her finally have a breakout year in 2020, after so many great performances in projects that didn’t get the recognition. It was also responsible for a bit of a boom in public interest in chess, which is excellent. This one is well worth checking out if you haven’t already.
5) A Series of Unfortunate Events – A book series that got a terrible film adaptation, but that was redeemed on television. Whilst I have celebrated some shows for their ability to create something that stands apart from the source material, however A Series of Unfortunate Event is a show that manages to perfectly capture the tone and feeling of the books that it is based on better than almost any other I’ve ever seen. The other area it excels is Neil Patrick Harris’ performance as Count Olaf, who completely embodies the character, unlike the film version where it was just Jim Carrey doing his usual shtick.
4) Game of Thrones – Forget the divisive and controversial ending to Game of Thrones, there haven’t been many shows that have had such a cultural impact and captured the collective consciousness during my lifetime, and that’s because the quality of the show was so high for so long. I agree that there were a couple of mediocre seasons in there (looking at you 5 and 8), but that doesn’t wipe out the brilliance of the show at its best. The cast was huge, yet almost every role was perfectly cast. Truly Game of Thrones will always stand as the defining show of the 2010s in most people’s eyes, and brought so many people to the world that George R. R. Martin created with his book series.
3) His Dark Materials – Another book series I grew up reading, although I will admit to taking a couple of tries to get into. So you can imagine the collective disappointment when The Golden Compass film came out and just didn’t capture what made Philip Pullman’s novels special. Thankfully that wrong is currently being righted with the excellent His Dark Materials show. We still have to wait to see if they stick the landing with the final season adapting ‘The Amber Spyglass’ but so far the show has done a far better job of not just bringing Pullman’s world to life, but the core ideas of the series as well.
2) Hannibal – It is always going to be hard for any adaptation of Thomas Harris’ work to really excel after the brilliance of 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs and Anthony Hopkins’ all time great performance. But showrunner Bryan Fuller managed to carve out a new identity for the show, and really make it shine. He took influence for the series for David Lynch, essentially turning Harris’ stories into bizarre art house pieces that really work with the show’s primary relationship, Hannibal’s mental manipulation of Will Graham. This is a blood stained masterpiece with some of the most beautiful and disturbing visuals, that really brings Harris’ work to life in such a visceral way.
1) The Haunting… – Both The Haunting of Hill House (adapting the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (adapting The Turning of the Screw) are brilliant and very different horror works. Hill House is an incredible exploration of grief and loss, whilst Bly Manor is a beautiful gothic romance. Honestly Hill House is one of the best TV shows I’ve watched, its genuinely scary, and legitimately has something to say on trauma, whilst having plenty of easter eggs in there to sustain rewatches. And I know some were disappointed in Bly Manor, but it creates its own identity and it is an excellent show in its own right. But both do a brilliant job of bringing something new to much adapted and well known stories.