The 10 Best Book to TV Show Adaptations

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The 10 Best Book to TV Show Adaptations

The 2010s may very well be remembered as the era of book-to-TV adaptations. “Peak TV” or “Prestige TV” has used literature of all stripes as part of its goal of gaining credibility with critics and discerning audiences. However, the phenomenon is not strictly one that coincided with the streaming era; it just rode the wave. Some of the best literary adaptations to make it to the small screen practically pre-date cable.

However, the major shift in shows that draw their story from the bookshelves is that it’s not all classics written by authors a century past. Sure, there have been adaptations of Tom Jones (1749), Great Expectations (1861), and Howard’s End (1910) in the last decade. But novels that once would never dream of getting a lush, big-budget TV version made are also on the list, including Bridgerton, Orange is the New Black, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Here’s a rundown of some of the best adaptations ever to grace the small screen to watch (or re-watch) this summer.


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Game of Thrones (Seasons 1-4)

Based on: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series

The recent major wave of book-to-TV adaptations is a direct result of the success of Game of Thrones. Without HBO taking a chance on filming a series literally written as to be unfilmable, there would be no Outlander, no His Dark Materials, and no forthcoming Harry Potter TV series. Not only was HBO’s gamble smart, but it changed the way people thought about on screen fantasy, and its super faithful rendering of the story’s intricacies made producers more open-minded about the types of stories audiences would watch.

Though the show ran off the rails when it ran out of books to use as source material, and its final season will most likely be used as a cautionary tale in filmmaking classes for generations to come, those first four seasons were superb in capturing the world of Martin’s novels on screen. An entire continent rose, stretching from Beyond the Wall to Dorne and across the Narrow Sea to the Free Cities of Braavos. Dragons were no longer imagined, they were real beasts to be mourned as much as the human characters when they inevitably died.


The Underground Railroad 

Based on: Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad

Despite sounding like it was based on a historical account, Barry Jenkins’ limited series, The Underground Railroad, is actually an adaptation of the 2016 novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead. An alternate history sci-fi/fantasy with a whole lot of magical realism interjected in the story of Cora and Caesar’s flight to freedom, Whitehead depicts the metaphorical railroad as an actualfacts subterranean proto-subway system, complete with engineers, conductors, tracks, and tunnels. 

The clever conceit allows audiences just enough removal to depict the horrors faced by those who made the dangerous trek to freedom. The series also garnered Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and a Peabody. The close-ended nature of the story also meant the series has a definitive conclusion and remains a perfect encapsulation of Whitehead’s masterpiece.


Wolf Hall

Based on: The first novel Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

Every so often, a British miniseries comes along where every great British actor seems to have been cast in it, and all of them are firing perfectly in sync to create a great work of televisual art. Wolf Hall was one of those moments. Despite being yet another retelling of Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall as Henry VIII’s second of six wives, this version, told from the view of Thomas Cromwell, is a fascinating perspective on the 1600s Divorce and Beheading of the century.

Boasting an all-star lineup of Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy, Bernard Hill, Jessica Raine, Anton Lesser, Joanne Whalley, Jonathan Pryce, and Saskia Reeves (not to mention early appearances of future stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Tom Holland), Wolf Hall isn’t just an acting masterclass. It’s also one of the few with period-correct costuming and lighting, not to mention a few gorgeous easter eggs wherein the series recreates famous portraiture of the era. Seriously stunning.


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Dark Winds

Based on: Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn & Chee series

The police procedural series Dark Winds, which premiered in 2022, and is set to return for Season 2 this summer, is a startlingly faithful adaptation of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn & Chee series, one of the few best selling mystery series to be set in Navajo Nation Police. Hillerman initially developed officers Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) and Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) separately – the first three books only feature Leaphorn, and then the next four center on Chee. However, over the 18 books series the two meet, team up in Book 7, and become a perfectly matched duo.

Police procedurals tend to use their source novels less as a guide and more of a jumping-off point. Considering the way the series developed, most would assume Dark Winds, hidden away on AMC+, would not bother to stick close to the novels. However, Season 1’s stayed true to the third book, the Leaphorn-driven Listening Woman, mixed with the Chee-centric People of Darkness, and the ongoing series is all the stronger for it. 


Pride & Prejudice

Based on: Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride & Prejudice

There is but one true Mr. Darcy, and he is Colin Firth of the 1995 Pride & Prejudice miniseries adapted by Andrew Davies. Most adaptations of Pride & Prejudice (or really any Austen novel) tend to focus on romance and fail to capture the characters or the social commentary at work in the story. Davies is one of the few with the knack for landing all three in equal measure. (There’s a reason ITV turned to him to create Sanditon from Austen’s unfinished final novel.)

The other reason the 1995 adaptation is often treated like the one true version is that, unlike most, it’s not a movie. It’s not fair, but it’s the truth—the Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen version could never, simply because it was two hours instead of six. But it’s not six hours trying to fill time, but six hours that use that extra time to stay remarkably true to the novel.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 

Based on: Arthur Conan Doyle’s original collection of twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories

Usually referred to as “the Jeremy Brett version of Sherlock Holmes” to differentiate it from dozens of others, the 1982 Granada Television adaptation stands head and shoulders above its peers because, unlike so very many of them, it stuck super faithfully to the material. Nothing added, nothing removed, just a straight adaptation of each short story as a mystery of the week episode with David Burke as a pitch-perfect wide-eyed Watson. 

The series was so popular Brett returned with Edward Hardwicke as Watson in three sequel series, named for and based on the other three Doyle collections (The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes), plus five feature-length adaptations of Doyle’s full-length novels. However, those never quite matched those first twelve episodes, with Brett’s casually heroine and cocaine-addicted Holmes to its absolute lack of women, are startlingly perfect in their precise recreation of what’s on the page.


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Based on: The DC Comic by Alan Moore

Unlike several of the earlier series on this list, Watchmen is here because it literally has zero of the original source material in it. It is, instead, a piece of fanfiction, as its showrunner Damien Lindelof described it upon the premiere of the first episode at New York ComicCon in 2019. 

However, what the show’s writers, including Cord Jefferson, created instead was as pitch-perfect imagining of what Watchmen’s America would be nearly half a century on. The resulting series is a funhouse mirror of the real America’s racial problems through a lens where a giant squid impaled itself on the city of New York one day. It also rewrote the comic’s origin story to reimagine Superman as a vigilante Black cop, radically challenging comic fans’ ideas of what a hero is. Brilliant stuff.


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Alias Grace

Based on: Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace

The Handmaid’s Tale may have gotten the awards love, the bulk of the critical attention, and several extra seasons, but the CBC’s collaboration with Netflix to adapt Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical fiction novel Alias Grace was head and shoulders above Hulu’s red-robed torture porn. Adapted by Oscar winner Sarah Polley (Women Talking) and starring Sarah Gadon as the titular murderer Grace Marks, this faithful adaptation is just as disturbing as anything The Handmaid’s Tale served up.

The novel and series are based on the real-life Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian maid, whose murder of her employer and his housekeeper, became a Toronto sensation in the late 1800s. Both take the point of view of Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), hired to psychologically examine her, and whose attraction to her blinds him to her manipulations. Or is he the only one who sees her for the abused creature she is? Like the book, the series makes sure either reading can be true.



Based on: Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family 

Though Roots was remade in 2016, it’s the original 1977 miniseries, starring LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte whose legacy and fierce faithfulness to Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family that people should watch first. The main reason is that, unlike the 2016 remake, the 1977 version refused to shy away from onscreen violence. The miniseries’ power lay in forcing viewers (many for the first time) to be confronted with the reality of white America’s inhumanity to those they imported as human chattel.

More importantly, the original Roots miniseries ran eight episodes, not four, once again allowing for an adaptation that does not scrimp on the source material or condense the story down for easier digestion. It’s considered one of the turning points in the history of television for a reason, and is 100% worth rewatching almost 50 years on.


Brideshead Revisited

Based on: Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder 

There are very few perfect adaptations in the world, and considering the complete disaster the original creation of the 1981 Brideshead Revisited was, it’s amazing what resulted. In what should have been a death knell, the original scripts were tossed just as filming began. Instead, producer Derek Granger and director Charles Sturridge literally grabbed long passages from the novel and literally staged them note for note from the text. Despite a framing device that is not in the book, the resulting eleven-part series is quite possibly one of the most faithful adaptations of any novel to screen in history.

It helped that stars Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews were the perfect encapsulations of protagonist Charles Ryder and the man he loved, Lord Sebastian Flyte. Also, the series was not a predetermined six or eight-installment length, but simply allowed to be the length it needed to tell the whole story. (Some of those 11 episodes run a couple of hours at a pop.) But there’s a reason that, 40-odd years later, this series is still considered one of the great classics of televisual storytelling, and it’s absolutely worth your time.

Ani Bundel is an Associate Editor at PBS/WETA’s Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by Anglophiles for Anglophiles. A self-taught journalist from the school of hard knocks, Ani came up blogging in the fast-turn-around era. Ani’s other regular bylines can be found on CNN, NBC News, and more.

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