For all the moaning and wailing that is heard daily about this digital age and short attention spans, we live in literary times.
On Wednesday, it was announced that Netflix will adapt Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude for TV. The classic novel will be turned into a Spanish-language original series for the streaming service with the support of Marquez’s family. Marquez himself never allowed the rights to the work to be optioned for a film as he couldn’t see how it could be done.
Well, things change. There is every reason to believe, as the author’s sons do, that the talent in writing and direction required to turn the father’s novel into an estimable TV series exists right now. An adaptation of the novel’s sprawl through seven generations of the Buendia family and all of it steeped in the magical-realism genre, is not going to intimidate anyone involved or the audience.
There’s a trend here, and it’s about great books.
Already we have seen how an original, expansive approach to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has made for extraordinary television. It is a fact that the adaptation is far stronger, more nuanced and terrifying than the film version. The novel is expanded in scope, embellished and intensified to give the story the sort of depth and impact that the best of TV drama delivers. The core of the novel proved fertile ground for nuanced long-form storytelling teased out over hours and hours.
The HBO adaptation of the novel My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, about the long and complicated friendship between Lila and Lenu, also succeeded as art, but in a different way. While the Atwood adaptation was outward, expansive and meant to reverberate, the Ferrante adaptation went for dense recreation of the small slum world from which the characters emerge. The novel is complex, subtly emotional territory to explore and best understood if that tiny neighbourhood ecosystem is right there, plain and cramped. The adaption is, in fact, extraordinary in its use of the neorealism of one strand of Italian cinema and in its equal use of television’s traditional focus on one small room, street or area.
Coming in May from Hulu, and airing on a Rogers service in Canada, is a multipart adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a novel of huge complexity in its shifting planes of logic and insanity. A movie version made by Mike Nichols in 1970 caught only a portion of the book’s impact. Over six hours – I’ve seen two and they are exceptionally good – the adaptation is far more likely to do justice to the book, in full. The novel’s amazing emotional vitality – as much about the anxiety of living as it is about war – might look like an extreme challenge for TV, but not these days.
It’s not all peachy, of course, and sometimes it is the mediocre books that make for the best TV. Nobody is going to attach the tag “literary masterpiece” to the fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin that form the basis of Game of Thrones.
An interesting case is Sharp Objects, last year’s HBO series adapted from the early Gillian Flynn novel. As a novel, it was far from literary by most standards. Yet the HBO adaptation written by Marti Noxon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée amounted to a substantial exploration of cultural destruction and self-destruction. In particular, it was the work of Canadian Vallée – who also gave Big Little Lies its extraordinary beauty and visual force – that made Sharp Objects the series something more powerful that the sum total of the novel’s impact on the reader.
I look forward to Netflix’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, without qualm.