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Down With Big Word: Seven Recent Books That Would Make Excellent TV Miniseries

By Brian Byrd | Lists | January 14, 2014 |

By Brian Byrd | Lists | January 14, 2014 |

Believe it or not, writing occasional pop-culture pieces is not my full-time job. I’m actually a [REDACTED]. This career can keep me on the road for long stretches of time, sometimes in cities with nightlife options that would make the Amish cringe.

So I read books to pass the time. I’ve discovered a rather large and under-reported problem with books, however: you can’t watch one. How are you supposed to understand the plot, build emotional connections, or know what characters look like without pictures? It’s impossible. “What about audiobooks?!” scream the wordhadists. Ohhhhh, a Q-list actor will read the book to me. Nice try, words. That still requires imagination and attention and may well put me into an irrevocable coma.

Books are dying. They’re literally made from dead things. Yet thanks to the Lexicon Lobby, dozens of great books go unnoticed every year, their audiences limited by a stubborn, antiquated, slavish adherence to the printed page. It doesn’t have to be this way. By turning the following seven recently-published prose dumpsters into extravagant TV miniseries, everyone can enjoy these works the way their authors’ intended: visually.

Don’t worry. There are pictures.

The Martian, Andy Weir
Proposed Showrunner: Joss Whedon
Network: Sundance Channel
Length: 6 hours

Technically, Weir’s taut, realistic, darkly hilarious adventure isn’t available in America until February 11, but the Scottish author originally published his work as a free e-book last year so step back. The Martian chronicles the plight of Mark Watney, a botanist stranded on the surface of Mars and presumed dead. We’re not talking far-future Mars either, where thriving societies dot the slopes of Olympus Mons. Communication is done via rock arrangements, and Watney grows potatoes in bags of his own shit. Think Gravity with a funnier, equally resourceful, pootato-eating protagonist. The massive commercial success of that film proves there’s a market well-done hard sci-fi, and Whedon is the perfect person to capture the novel’s unique dark comedy/intelligent thriller mix. Casting is the challenge here. Watney would be alone on screen for huge stretches at a time. So whoever earns the role needs to blend acerbic humor with steely resolve. Is Nathan Fillion looking for work?


The Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar
Proposed Showrunners: David Milch & Alan Taylor
Network: HBO
Length: 10 hours

Think Watchmen with more geopolitics and heavier philosophical undertones. The non-linear narrative follows Oblivion, who can make matter vanish from the world, his friend Fogg (I’ll let you guess his power), and numerous well-drawn ancillary superheroes through nearly 100 years of global conflict, with large chunks taking place in and around World War II. The novel has plenty to say about love, hope, immortality, and humanity’s cycle of perpetual carnage, all wrapped inside a very entertaining if ultimately bleak adventure. Milch would salivate for the chance to tear into Tidhar’s themes, while Taylor - the Game of Thrones vet and Thor: The Dark World director - has the chops to bring the novel’s setpeices to vibrant life. Plus, a television adaptation solves the book’s lone legitimately grating issue - a lack of quotation marks and pervasive present-tense voice.


Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink
Proposed Showrunner: Aaron Sorkin
Network: NBC
Length: 8 hours

What’s the calculus behind an impossible choice? Five Days at Memorial attempts to distill an answer by examining the actions of staff at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center during Hurricane Katrina. As floodwaters rose, power failed, temperatures climbed, and help failed to materialize, doctors and nurses slowly accepted the fact that some patients were beyond saving, and acted accordingly. All told, 45 of the hospital’s 183 patients died; many - including some without do-not-resuscitate orders - as a result of morphine injections administered by medical professionals. Were their decisions laudable or criminal? Hard to say, even after finishing Fink’s supremely objective expose. The Social Network and even The Newsroom prove Sorkin can competently construct a fictionalized version of true-life events fraught with ethical and moral complexities. Given their viewers’ affinity for medical dramas, this could succeed on network television, perhaps airing around Katrina’s 10-year anniversary next August.


Something More Than Night, Ian Tregillis
Proposed Showrunners: James Ellroy & Frank Darabont
Network: AMC
Length: 6 hours

A fantastical noir surrounding the investigation into an angel’s murder and the disappearance of a mystical trumpet, “Something More Than Night” is tasty chowder made from the most uncomplimentary ingredients imaginable: heaping mounds of mystery, handfuls of heavenly conspiracies, quarts of quantum physics, and dashes of Dashiell Hammett. It’s bizarre, confounding, lyrical, twisty, and often brilliant. A TV adaptation requires a certain visual panache - half the story is set in “heaven” - and while LA Noir/Mob City disappointed, Darabont proved apt at small-screen world-building during his stint on The Walking Dead. Convince Ellroy to handle the script, and you’re looking at a small-screen story for the ages.

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Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews
Proposed Showrunners: Joe Weisberg & Joel Fields
Network: FX
Length: 8 hours

Who doesn’t love a spy miniseries? What’s that, “The Assets,” ABC’s spy miniseries, was cancelled after just two episodes and historically low ratings (the premiere was the lowest-rated debut for a scripted series ever)? Hmm, who doesn’t love a great spy miniseries? That’s better. Written by a former CIA agent, Red Sparrow follows a talented but jaded CIA agent Nate Nash whose primary assignment is MARBLE, a powerful Russian intelligence operative who’s slipped info to the Americans for years. He squares off against Dominika, a brilliant, synesthesia-afflicted young “Sparrow School” graduate tasked with seducing Nash and ferreting out MARBLE. Yes, the romance angle unfolds exactly how you’d expect, but it’s earned. Packed with double- and triple-crosses, chest-clenching tension, and Cold War intrigue, Red Sparrow is supremely exciting yet grounded in ways few espionage thrillers seem to manage. This couldn’t be any more in Weisberg’s and Fields’ (The Americans) wheelhouse. Take the offseason and make it happen, you two.

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The Good Soldiers/Thank You For Your Service, David Frankel
Proposed Showrunners: David Simon and Ed Burns
Network: HBO
Length: 8 hours

Another non-fiction entry, this is a slight cheat given that The Good Soldiers was originally published in 2009, but its sequel Thank You For Your Service, arrived in 2013 to great acclaim. The former profiles an army battalion on the front lines of the Iraq War surge in 2007, while the sequel reconnects with the men and their families five years later to examine life removed from daily combat (hint: they don’t leave their sacrifices and struggles behind in the desert). Simon humanizes the scarred everyman better than almost any writer in television history, and the duo’s criminally overlooked Generation Kill miniseries should reassure anyone doubting their capabilities to work within the military genre. It’s fair to question why they’d want to revisit that world, but Frankel’s works give them the opportunity to do something unique in television - paint a realistic, all-encompassing portrait of modern war from deployment to the homefront.


The Circle, Dave Eggers
Proposed Showrunner: Charlie Brooker
Network: Showtime
Length: 6 hours

Like Black Mirror, Brooker’s deeply unsettling British anthology series, The Circle explores the obsessive, symbiotic, frequently dysfunctional relationship between society and technology. Through the eyes of Mae - an impressionable new employee at The Circle, a fictional social media conglomerate that has overtaken Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al - we get a firsthand look at the danger of (potentially) unintended consequences. Eggers’ trick is plausibility. Yes, the book is set in future, but not a radically distant or alternate one. Drawing lines between, say, The Circle’s desire to record every piece of information on earth and the unchecked proliferation of social media isn’t very difficult. Moreover, his characters come armed with compelling arguments for their questionable actions, and he frequently hides the capability for abuse behind a veneer of good intentions. You know it’s all propaganda, but a small part of your mind empathizes with their ambitions. That’s hand-tailored subject matter for Brooker. He’s uniquely suited to turn an already disturbing fable into an eerie modern classic.