Netflix has come a long way from the days of mailing us DVDs. Now, the streaming service isn’t just making it easier to binge-watch existing shows – it is creating its own line-up of original programming… and it is absolutely killing it. From historical dramas to real-life crime, from anime to teen horror, Netflix has an original series for everyone – especially bookworms. Many of the most popular Netflix series are based on books, and with good reason. Adaptations come with an existing fan base without the need to create an entirely new story from scratch. It’s no wonder Netflix loves adapting them!
But as any book lover can tell you, adapting a story well isn’t always easy. Some books lend themselves well to a direct adaptation, but some elements may not make the cut, characters might be changed, and sometimes, too many changes means an adaptation that disappoints. Other books might serve solely as an inspiration, with several major changes – and although that sounds less enjoyable for fans, it often works out better.
However a show approaches it, there are bound to be some readers who aren’t pleased with the end result, but Netflix has certainly managed some series better than others. With even more adaptations on the way, we’ve taken a look at some of the most (and least) accurate takes already on Netflix, as well as what we’ve got to look forward to.
House of Cards
Heading into its fifth season, House of Cards is an American adaptation of the British miniseries created by the BBC, which is in turn an adaptation of the book by Michael Dobbs. Dobbs’s original novel was written in the 1980s, when the Conservative politician was inspired to write a political thriller after Margaret Thatcher came to power. When Netflix acquired the rights in recent years, the streaming service decided that the series needed an American makeover.
A vast amount of the original story was changed – everything from the setting (London to Washington), to the political party (Conservative to Liberal), to the time period (1980s to 2010s), to the characters (in myriad ways). The new series is modernized, sexed up, and aimed squarely at a US audience who wouldn’t connect to the original ideas of aristocracy and British politics. However, the central issues of the book are still front and center in the show – political machinations, greed, corruption, and ambition. House of Cards captures the spirit of the book, but with a modern, American twist.
Verdict: If you want a more literal interpretation, press play on the original BBC series. But if you are happy with a new take on the same themes (that is still ongoing!), stream the Netflix show.
This gory tale of werewolves and gypsies in small-town Pennsylvania was an initial hit for Netflix, although it was eventually canned after three seasons. Based on the book of the same name by Brian McGreevy, the show is a great example of what happens when the source material runs out. The first season of Hemlock Grove worked wonderfully as a direct page-to-screen series. Some of the gorgeous prose from the book is lost (isn’t that always the way?), but the characters translate perfectly, and the dialogue is often lifted straight from the novel.
There were a few changes made – to the character of Shelley and to the Godfrey Institute, for example. These didn’t stray far from text, though, and served to enhance the show rather than detract from it. However, after the first season wrapped up, Netflix was left with a problem – McGreevy had only written one book, but the series was popular enough to warrant a second season. The next two seasons were created largely from scratch, and it showed – seasons two and three just weren’t the same.
Verdict: Watch the first season and enjoy how well it was adapted, but maybe skip the next two.
Orange is the New Black
One of Netflix’s best-known original series, Orange Is The New Black, follows Piper Chapman, a middle-class white woman who ends up serving time in a women’s prison for drug smuggling in her early 20s. Based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, the show has been widely praised for its blend of humor and drama, and for creating conversations around some of the more serious issues with the US prison system (such as the treatment of transgender prisoners and issues of racial conflicts and overcrowding). The series takes the basic premise, Piper’s name and crime, most of the characters and many of the stories directly from the memoir, but it’s definitely not a direct adaptation.
Most of the changes made to the series serve to sex it up – literally, in some cases. Piper’s conflict with Red goes from “angry cook glares” to “Piper is nearly starved to death." Piper herself, who served her time quietly in real life, has developed into something of a wannabe gangster by the shows fourth season, and causes some real trouble. There is far more sex and romance in the series, especially with Piper’s ex – a woman who she barely served time with in real life. These changes might frustrate fans of the original, especially as they intentionally turn the drama dial up to ten. However, these changes also allow Piper’s adventures in prison to continue for many seasons to come, which a more direct take wouldn’t do.
Verdict: If you can overlook the high-drama and exaggerations, you’ll still love the characters and the overall plot. If you can’t stand the idea of Piper being anything but a good girl, though, you may not be able to stomach it.
Netflix teamed up with Marvel for their first foray into live-action superhero stories, and it definitely helps to have a comic book powerhouse on board. Daredevil (based on the comic book character of the same name) takes a look at the early stories about the Man Without Fear and changes just enough to bring them up to date. Although the series doesn’t tackle any specific comic book arc, it creates new stories with well-loved characters, and just enough call-outs to the comics to keep fans happy.
There are, however, a few changes made from the comics. Wilson Fisk, evil kingpin, is given more depth and a slightly more sympathetic storyline. Matt Murdock’s backstory is updated to make his prowess as a fighter a little more believable (ninja trumps boxer!). Karen Page’s character sees the most changes – becoming darker and more capable. Like any good adaptation, the changes here work. The new take on Fisk adds depth, and Karen becomes so much more than her secretary-eye-candy-helpless-damsel origins.
Verdict: Even die-hard comic book fans can appreciate the Netflix take on this long-standing character and some of the updates. Definitely worth a watch.
The second comic adaptation in the Netflix/Marvel collaboration, Jessica Jones does an equally impressive job of bringing the central character to the small screen. Unlike Daredevil, however, Jessica Jones looked at a specific story arc from the comics – that of Jessica’s involvement with Purple Man. Still, the series didn’t attempt to lift the story directly from the pages of the comics. They kept the key elements (Purple Man’s abilities and their horrifyingly destructive effect on Jessica), but spun them into a new story. Some of the changes were cosmetic. Purple Man is referred to as Killgrave (his real name in the comics), and loses his purple skin for the sake of realism.
Others were practical – in the original story, Jones is sent to kill Daredevil, ends up battling Scarlet Witch, and is psychically healed by Jean Grey. Setting up a big crossover between shows wasn’t part of the plan for season one of Daredevil, and rights issues get in the way of other big Marvel names showing up, so the story was altered around that. Done with style, flair, and an understanding of the core characters, it works. Simplifying the adaptation also helps new viewers who aren’t familiar with the sprawling Marvel universe, and helps the series stand alone.
Verdict: A brilliant take on the source material. The changes to the story may bother a few hard-core comic fans who loved the original Purple Man story, but even those will probably be impressed with the finished product.
Shadowhunters (Mortal Instruments)
Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series has been adapted before, with a film version released in 2013 that was intended as the start of a trilogy. Unfortunately, with a lackluster box office performance, the sequels were cancelled, and fans of the books had high hopes that Netflix could salvage a live-action Shadowhunters series. Unfortunately, Shadowhunters failed to impress, with too many deviations from the source material that just didn’t work. Multiple characters are made younger and more attractive, with many character relationships, personalities and motivations changing as well.
The story itself doesn’t follow the same careful unspooling as the books do, with far too many secrets revealed too early, and several major plot changes that seem to make little sense. There are too many major alterations here to make the show a direct adaptation, but too much is kept the same as the books to consider it a series inspired by the books.
Verdict: A muddled re-telling of a great series that makes too many changes to too little purpose. Potentially a fun watch, but only if you’ve never read the books.
Coming Up: Luke Cage, #GirlBoss, Anne of Green Gables, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Netflix is continually learning and bringing even more book-based content to us in the near future, and we’ve got high hopes for these upcoming series. Luke Cage, the third in the interconnected Marvel shows, will be arriving on screens at the end of this month – and if it is anything like Daredevil or Jessica Jones, it promises to be fantastic. The other comic adaptations do a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the characters in brand-new adventures, and we expect the same from this latest addition.
Another series that we have high hopes for is Lemon Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, set to launch early next year. As long as the series finds a balance between sticking to the source material and making necessary changes, it should be a sure-fire hit.
Two more upcoming adaptations that may be a bit more problematic are Anne of Green Gables and #Girlboss. The story of Anne Shirley is a classic one, and many feel that it would be impossible to improve on the live-action version from the ‘80s, starring Megan Follows. With talk of a grittier, more updated version, some fans fear that this new series might not capture the charm of the original. However, the success of House of Cards – which was a fantastic adaptation despite huge changes – should put fears somewhat to rest.
Finally, #Girlboss. Another adaptation of a memoir, the book charts the rise of Sophia Amoruso from petty criminal to office peon to the head of a fashion empire. This inspirational story will be given the comedy treatment for a lighthearted and inspirational new show . Although it’s a new approach for Netflix, this has the potential to be the new Orange is the New Black.
Whatever Netflix decides to take on after that, we’re willing to bet that more adapted series will keep coming – and keep improving. Although some series (like Hemlock Grove and Shadowhunters) failed to hit the mark, the streaming service still has an impressive track record when it comes to adaptations. We’re more than happy to see what they do with more of our favorite reads!
Which series would you like to see tackled by Netflix? Comment and let us know!