Television

Normal People and 9 more book-to-screen adaptations available on CBC Gem

Novel-to-screen adaptations are all over our screens and we might not even know it.

Novel-to-screen adaptations are all over our screens and we might not even know it.

(CBC)

Reading books is wonderful but there are times you just want to see it all play out in front of your eyes in the form of a well adapted show or movie.

Some of our most popular shows were novels first: from Heartland to Murdoch Mysteries to Coroner. Take a look at those and seven other instances of CBC adapting popular novels below.

Did you think that was all when it comes to book adaptations? Think again! Here are 10 more shows with literary inspiration that you can now watch on CBC Gem.

Normal People

Normal People is a 12-episode, 30-minute drama series, based on Sally Rooney's New York Times best-selling novel, which follows the tender but complicated relationship of Marianne and Connell from the end of their high school days in a small town in the west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. 

Honest, smart and intoxicating, the series sees the pair weave in and out of each other's lives and explores just how complicated intimacy and young love can be. And belonging to two different socio-economic backgrounds adds to the drama as Marianne and Connell's relationship is continually tested, beyond love and sex, seeing them deal with the subtleties of class.

Normal People is a true transposition of the book to screen as adapted by the author herself and writers Alice Birch and Mark O'Rowe who had some challenges in the process of writing a screen version we see on CBC Gem.

"The biggest challenge of adapting the book was trying to make the inner lives of the characters legible through their outward actions. In some ways Normal People is a novel about the differences between the characters' outer and inner selves, so we had to find new ways to dramatise those differences on screen. As with all aspects of the adaptation, my co-writer Alice Birch was enormously helpful in tackling that challenge," says Sally Rooney, who also co-wrote the series.

"Structurally, making the book fit into 12 episodes that feel compelling and like their own little story, but also work across the whole, was obviously difficult because that's not how Sally conceived it. The interiority of each character ― that internal monologue / world is always difficult to translate to screen. Lots of missed communication or misunderstandings happen in the novel and that's hard on screen without being expositional," says Alice Birch, co-writer of the series.

Normal People: Adapting the novel

2 years ago
Duration 2:45
The cast and creators of Normal People talk about adapting the novel to screen.

"She closes her eyes. He probably won't come back, she thinks. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They've done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another. You should go, she says. I'll always be here. You know that." — Excerpted from the book Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska is a teen drama mini-series. A tale of love and loss, a poignant and hilarious exploration of friendship, and a celebration of smart, flawed, soulful, teenagers trying to find their way out of the labyrinth ― created by Josh Schwartz (Gossip Girl). 

The series is based on award-winning author John Green's first novel of the same name which has achieved a cult status with over seven million copies in print since its publication in 2005.

While the story is classified as a young-adult fiction, the characters and events of the plot are grounded in Green's life recounting his time at Indian Springs School, where he wrote the novel as a result of his desire to create meaningful young adult fiction that touches on themes of meaning, grief, hope, and youth-adult relationships.

Tonally similar to 13 Reasons Why, Looking for Alaska thrusts us into the perspective of Miles "Pudge" Halter (Charlie Faulkner Plummer of Boardwalk Empire) who is done with his safe life at home and heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School where he goes to seek the "Great Perhaps," the famous last words of the French Renaissance writer, François Rabelais. 

His life soon becomes the opposite of safe as the gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating girl down the hall, Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth of The Society), pulls him into her world and steals his heart. Nothing is ever the same for Pudge and his friends after an unexpected tragedy.

"I wanted so badly to lie down next to her on the couch, to wrap my arms around her and sleep. […] Not even have sex. Just sleep together in the most innocent sense of the phrase. But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane." ― John Green, Looking for Alaska

The Little Drummer Girl

Based on John le Carré's best-selling literary masterpiece of the same name, The Little Drummer Girl is a passionate love story and a deeply immersive thriller that follows the story of Charlie (Florence Pugh), a fiery and brilliant young actress who meets a mysterious stranger (Alexander Skarsgård) in Greece as he draws her into a high-stakes international espionage operation.

The series has kept extremely close to the source material and the plot of John le Carré's 1983 spy novel, even borrowing dialogue straight from the pages of the book. But, the story has been trimmed in places to accomodate for television format with subtle but significant changes happening mostly in the final episode ― which shed a different light on the rest of the characters and their journeys.

"She hardly cared. They wanted her. They knew her through and through; they knew her fragility and her plurality. And they still wanted her. They had stolen her in order to rescue her. After all her drifting, their straight line. After all her guilt and concealment, their acceptance. After all her words, their action, their abstemiousness, their clear-eyed zeal, their authenticity, their true allegiance, to fill the emptiness that had yawned and screamed inside her like a bored demon ever since she could remember." ― John le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair is a 2018 seven-part historical drama series written by Gwyneth Hughes (Dark Angel) — based on William Makepeace Thackeray's novel of the same name ― starring Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) as Thackeray's timeless anti-heroine Becky Sharp.

Thackeray's literary classic is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, and follows Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English society in a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having. Becky's story of villainy, crime, lovemaking, laughing, cheating, fighting and dancing takes her all the way to the court of King George IV, via the Battle of Waterloo, breaking hearts and losing fortunes as she goes.

The novel was first published over 100 years ago in 1847 as a 19-volume monthly serial continuing until 1848, under the subtitle Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, which was essentially reflecting and even satirizing the author's view of the conventions and flawed British society at the time. It was also published as a single volume novel in 1848 with the subtitle A Novel without a Hero.

Though the series stays very true to the plot and characters of Thackeray's novel, the writers and showrunners decided to make her best friend, Amelia Sedley, a little less of a "canary" than she appears in the novel but also a more prominent lead. They saw the story developing as a tale of friendship between the two which resulted in them bringing the two characters together more often than originally written in the novel and cutting out or condensing a few details from the book in order to create a more concise and clear seven-episode television story.

"Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions." ― From the book Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

To date, the novel is considered a classic literary piece and has inspired several audio, film, and television adaptations: including the film version starring Reese Whitespoon, and the series version available now on CBC Gem.

The ABC Murders

John Malkovich (The New Pope) stars as Hercule Poirot and Rupert Grint (Harry Potter) as Inspector Crome in this book-to-series adaptation by Sarah Phelps ― based on one of Agatha Christie's greatest murder mystery novels, The A.B.C. Murders, published in 1936.

The story is set in 1933 where an older and greyer Hercule Poirot receives letters threatening murder from a sender that signs themselves only as "A.B.C." When Poirot takes the letters to the police looking for help, he finds that all his old friends have moved on. But soon there is a murder, and in order to have any hope of catching the killer, the once great detective must take matters into his own hands.

"Who are you? You don't belong to the police? 'I am better than the police,' said Poirot. He said it without conscious arrogance. It was, to him, a simple statement of fact." ― Agatha Christie, The A.B.C. Murders

While the series' plot stays truthful to the book, Sarah Phelps has made three major changes. First, Poirot's faithful companion Arthur Hastings was not in the series, making Poirot a loner which in turn dramatizes the story. 

Second, the killer is obsessed with Poirot in the series and plays mind games with him by linking all the murders to events from his past, while in the book none of the murders have to do with Poirot. And Third, Poirot's friend Inspector Japp dies of a heart attack which has a young Inspector Crome go head-to-head with Poirot while in the book Japp's fortune is less dramatic and he actually works with Poirot on the case.

Ordeal by Innocence

Shaded in the moral ambiguity of murder, Ordeal by Innocence is a provocative psychological puzzler of guilt, vengeance, and blood secrets another one of Sarah Phelps' adaptation of Agatha Christie's novels of the same name, which was published in 1958.

The story is set in 1954 at Christmas time, centering around an eccentric family and a wealthy philanthropist, Rachel Argyll, who is murdered at her family estate Sunny Point. Her adopted son Jack Argyll, a young delinquent, is arrested for her murder but he vehemently protests his innocence and the family is left having to figure out who amongst them is the killer. 

"'The family would come under suspicion,' he said, 'and it might remain under suspicion for a long time — perhaps for ever. If one of the family was guilty it is possible that they themselves would not know which one. They would look at each other and — wonder.'" ― Agatha Christie, Ordeal by Innocence

The book has been made into a graphic novel, stage play, a radio adaptation and this three-part series by Sarah Phelps who also created The A.B.C. Murders series, both of which are available on CBC Gem.

Ordeal by Innocence, the series, tonally veers off of the course that the book was taking to a more dark and gritty feel with major plot changes: from the identity of the murderer and what happens to him to the relationships between different characters and a completely different ending.

Little Women

Little Women is a three-part drama series adapted by Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) from May Alcott's novel of the same name which follows the story of the March sisters on their journey from childhood to adulthood under the guidance of their Marmee, while their father is away at war.

The novel was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869 and since has been adapted a number of times, from the first silent movie over a hundred years ago to the 1994 film and this CBC Gem version ― starring Maya Hawke as Jo March, Willa Fitzgerald as Meg March, Kathryn Newton as Amy March, Annes Elwy as Beth March and Emily Watson as Marmee.

The series stays true to the spirit and the plot of the original novel but as with any adaptation, creators take liberties to distill, take out or modify scenes to fit the television storyline mold. And in Little Women, Thomas has axed some of the less plot-driven parts including the Pickwick Club and all the girls' amateur dramatics as well as, to some extent, decreased the dose of religious musings including Marmee's religious moralising.

"I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them." ― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Das Boot

Das Boot is an adaptation of a 1973 novel of the same name by Lothar-Günther Buchheim and his 1995 sequel Die Festung — which are loosely based on his real-life wartime experiences. 

This German series is set in the Autumn of 1942, in occupied France, where a German U-boat U-612 was ready for its maiden voyage, preparing to head into the increasingly brutal warfare with its young crewmen, including the new captain, Klaus Hoffmann. 

The storyline is essentially split into two narratives — one on land around the French Resistance and the other around the boat and its crew ― but there are some historical discrepancies as both the novel and the series had a much darker ending compared to what really happened. 

"Nothing stimulates the brain cells like a desire to wipe out the other side." ― Lothar-Günther Buchheim, Das Boot

Wallander

Based on the award-winning novels by Henning Mankell, Wallander is a four-season drama series that follows Kurt Wallander, a sensitive but brilliant detective — and a man who takes each murder case he works on personally and will stop at nothing in his search for the truth. Even at the expense of his health and his family life.

Each season has three episodes with every episode following a separate book and since the series has not been filmed in the same order as the published novels, it resulted in changes to the backstories of the lead characters. 

Season one consists of the novels Sidetracked, Firewall, and One Step Behind.

"The desire for revenge can go on indefinitely, said Ekholm. There are no prescribed time limits. It's one of the oldest truths in criminology that an avenger can wait forever. If these are revenge killings, that is." ― Henning Mankell, Sidetracked

The second season was composed of adaptations of Faceless Killers, The Man Who Smiled, and The Fifth Woman while the third of An Event in Autumn, The Dogs of Riga, and Before the Frost. The latter had Wallander's daughter Linda as its protagonist detective, but since Wallander is the lead of the series, the story had to be adapted to have him remain there. 

And season four consists of an adaptation of The White Lioness, and a two-episode adaptation of Mankell's final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man.

Caught

Alan Hawco's adaptation of Lisa Moore's critically acclaimed thriller novel, Caught, is a classic "cat and mouse" story, set in 1978, that follows 25-year-old David Slaney (Allan Hawco) who is locked up after a drug deal goes wrong and with the help of a corrupt cop breaks out of prison in Nova Scotia. Hoping to build a stable and upstanding life for himself, he plans to finish a large-scale heist.

The book was published in 2013 and the same year was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

"Four years had been taken from him and he would not get them back and he could hardly draw breath seeing what he had been missing. 'All of who he was dilated. It hurt.'" ― Lisa Moore, Caught

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at cbc.ca/television and cbc.ca/comedy or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.

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