George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is a powerhouse. Even stronger, and perhaps more popular, is the book series’ television counterpart. In light of the fourth season, which premieres tonight at 9 PM EST, I’m inclined to think about the characteristics of books that translate well on television and film. Three factors, it seems, turn the tides for these literary dynamos.
A Long & Large Series
What books that don’t appear on television may lack is length and size. Notice I distinguish between the two. I say length in reference to the number of books in a series, and size in reference to the page count in each book. A series like A Game of Thrones is slated to last merely because it has enough source material to fill at least six season (and now it looks like that may double if each book is split in two). Other titles that share this characteristic are True Blood, based on the The Southern Vampire Mysteries, the Walking Dead, inspired by the comic series of the same name, and Gossip Girl. While the Martin series wins on page count for individual books, the sheer volume of each series builds on early material and provides enough meat for producers to work with.
A Large Cast of Dynamic Characters
Again, all the others should throw in the towel. Martin has them beat. But aside from his Robb, Sansa, Jon, Arya, Ned, Catelyn, Theon, Cersei, Jamie, Joffrey, Tyrion, Danerys, Viserys, Stannis, and all the rest (I really can’t name all of them off the top of my head), you also have huge read-for-tv casts in other books. Gossip Girl comes with Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, Dan Humphrey, Nate Archibald, Jenny Humphrey, Chuck Bass, Vanessa Abrams, Lily van der Woodsen, Rufus Humphrey, and Ivy Dickens. Pretty Little Liars, another powerhouse (and one I’m unfortunately unfamiliar with) comes with a gaggle of girls and guys: Spencer, Hanna, Aria (popular name?), Emily, Alison, Ezra, Ashley, Mona, Caleb, Ella, Byron, and Maya, to name just the main cast. The point is simple: big casts leave a lot of room for a viewer/reader to get attached to someone. In the case of A Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, the viewer/reader may get attached to all of them.
A good book is going to have great conflict. Heck, a good series is going to have a number of great conflicts. But a book vying for a television series spotlight needs more. Conflicts have to be numerous and complex. They occur separately but intertwine beneath the bed sheets before rearing their head at the pillows and bursting forth into the far recesses of our eager imaginations. In the Martin series, we’re following Danerys Targaryen as she strives to build up a fierce army so she can take back the Iron Throne. Back in Kings Landing, Robert Baratheon aimed to kill her before she could even get the opportunity. We the readers are subject to dramatic irony, knowing something so vital that one of the many beloved characters does not know. At the same time, we understand there’s an informant. That’s the bit we aren’t sure of. We watch in anticipation, worried for Dany if we love her and eager for Robert if we hate her. Every viewer is captivated by story arches that play with their mind in this way, and that seems to be a big television translation selling point.
These ideas are basic, big-picture points. There are many more that surely play a part in winning over producers and networks. Interestingly enough, the relationship between books and television is no longer one-sided, and that makes translation a much bigger conversation. Successful television series like Castle, Supernatural, and even Buffy the Vampire Series (an oldie now, but forever a goodie) have spawned books and comic books. To enhance the relationship between reader and viewer, Hyperion Books published Heat Wave by Richard Castle in September of 2009, just months after the premiere of Castle, in which the main character Rick Castle writes a novel of the same name based on the other protagonist, Detective Kate Beckett. What these book/television relationships do is give the market for books and television shows a chance to survive in another form. What’s better than that?