There is no more common refrain among fans of a novel than that it could never be adapted as a film, but only as a television series. Preferably on HBO, to add the usual footnote. It reveals something though of how the thought process functions in readers. Films have the bigger budgets. They will look nicer. They will cast more famous actors. A viewer knows upfront that he will get to see the ending, barring exogenous bolts from the blue, because whatever the production’s quality, it is certain to at least be finished. Television series do not have any of those luxuries, retaining only the mundane advantage of sheer length. Size matters, and not just with thousand page tomes of fantasy. Readers must be bettors, because we’ll always pick the chance at filling a big canvas over the certainty of filling a small one.
It’s also a relatively recent phenomenon that television has been treated this way. Go back twenty years and take a look at “The X-Files” from the start, a show that was heralded for actually having over-arching story lines. Maybe one episode in four actually dealt directly with the larger plot, the rest of the episodes being devoted to the classic monster-of-the-week format. Consider it this way: most “X-Files” episodes can be watched in a completely arbitrary order without spoiling anything or even being confusing. That’s not exactly something that applies to most novels. Pull random chapters out of most novels and the result will be a mixture of abject confusion and detailed knowledge of what happens later in the story.
But barring television shows actually based on novels, one recurrent problem has been the gradual fan realization that a show’s story isn’t going anywhere. One unexplained polar bear too many and the suspension of disbelief comes crashing down as viewers start consciously realizing that someone is making this story up as they go along. There have been two responses to this.
First, some probably statistically insignificant quantity of viewers have begun not watching series at all until they finish their runs, opting to watch on DVD once they’ve been assured that the story ended up being worth while. That’s really a logical progression. Would you read a novel based on gushing reviews of the first three chapters, knowing that you will only get a chapter a week for the next five years, and that’s only if they bother finishing it? Call it the Whedon defense, but after finding the last hundred pages torn out of his first two novels, and only getting the first hundred pages of his third, we’ll be waiting for the whole manuscript on DVD in the future.
Second, networks and show runners have begun anticipating this problem and often allude in the pre-release interviews and press how the creator already knows how the show ends, or how a five season story line has been mapped out in its entirety. This is especially entertaining in light of the comparison to novels, since so many novelists have repeated iterations of the refrain that outlining is the bane of writing. It’s part of drafting, and changes completely in the course of actually writing the first draft.
And that’s a key to understanding the problems of television as a stand-in for novels. What we’re seeing on the screen is essentially the first draft, over and over, every week. When novelists tell a story, there are subsequent drafts changing things that didn’t work, tightening storylines, and working the words into a flowing narrative instead of the disjointed chapters that lurch off of the outline. On television, all we get are the disjointed chapters, never having the benefit of editing with an eye towards the overall story.
It’s not something that can be changed either, not unless networks start making shows in their entirety before airing a single episode. As they say, stories grow in the telling, and no amount of rigor in advance can stem the way a story evolves in unanticipated directions. Outlining, even writing five years worth of scripts in advance, won’t change the fact that one thing or another clicks differently than expected once the cameras start rolling. Crappy, misguided, experimental chapters don’t make it into the published novel, but they’re always going to be part of a television series.
Television is like live theater in slow motion. It’s the bonsai of art, not designed so much as coaxed before our eyes week after week. At least that’s what I tell myself when J.J. Abrams gives me freaking cartoons and soul magnets.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.