In a prior column, we looked at some of the science-fiction authors who found their way into the early television industry, writing stories for the latest communications technology. In more recent years, we've seen a dramatic increase in quality in speculative fiction television, much of which has come from the rich back history of science-fiction literature. Television shows such as The Walking Dead on AMC and Game of Thrones on HBO have become extremely popular, telling complicated stories that have attracted millions of viewers each night. Now, the translation of science-fiction novels into television shows is coming, and this is a trend that owes as much to technology as it does the availability of content to showrunners and networks.
Over the course of the post-war 1950s, the proliferation of television sets in the United States exploded. The number of households with a TV went from 0.5% in 1946 to 90% by 1962. The resulting rush for content prompted major television networks to begin producing science-fiction television shows. Some networks, such as ABC and CBS, had come from major radio networks, which often produced science-fiction stories for audiences.
Early shows, such as Captain Video and His Video Rangers and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, took advantage of new technological developments to explore genre stories in a new medium. These shows drew on existing science-fiction tropes, and often hired notable science-fiction authors to help develop the show's story and production. While science fiction had appeared frequently in cinema, serials appearing in the home allowed creators to reach new audiences and to tell stories on an ongoing basis. Other shows, such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, made the jump from the radio, demonstrating that the stories worked in multiple mediums. Other shows explored new formats: anthologies shows, which told a new story with each episode, likewise began to appear on television sets, such as Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957), The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), and The Outer Limits (1963-1965).
By the 1960s, science-fiction television was maturing: television shows such as Lost in Space told ongoing, serialized stories, but it was Star Trek that made a lasting mark on the science-fiction landscape. Conceived of by Gene Roddenberry, the weekly adventures of the Starship Enterprise brought in authors such as Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson and Theodore Sturgeon to develop a number of memorable episodes that retain their popularity to the present date. In the late 1970s, the popularity of genre films such as Star Wars and Alien helped to encourage networks to invest in new science-fiction shows. These popular series appeared well into the 1980s and explored the boundaries of genre television: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980), V (1983), and Max Headroom (1987).Also, one early example of a direct adaptation of a novel was Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, which aired as a miniseries 1980.
Throughout the 1990s, other major shows took advantage of computers to produce their visual effects: shows such as Babylon 5 and Star Trek: The Next Generation were able to bring in new visuals which wouldn't have been possible just a handful of years earlier. With each new show, showrunners and producers helped to push technological boundaries in everything from set production to visual effects. Science fiction is an inherently difficult genre to produce, which is why the genre was so successful as a literary movement: authors could create their own fantastic scenarios, technologies and settings irrespective of whether or not said elements could be rendered visually. Story-wise, earlier television productions relied on a number of consistent elements: sets, stock footage and models to manage costs.
As the cost for visual effects dropped, and as networks and cable began to provide shows with higher budgets, the quality of said shows also increased, either through better visuals, stories or both. During this time, a number of books were adapted for television, but nothing quite hit the same level of recognition within mainstream television audiences. Some have been successful, while others, such as Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea novels, were a dismal failure with audiences, critics and the author.
By the 2000s, the environment for high-quality television productions was primed. Speculative-type shows such as LOST, and non-genre shows such as Mad Men became critics’ and audience favorites, telling ongoing, complicated stories, running up against conventional wisdom that each television episode should be an introduction to the show. Often, these were described as novels for television. Rather than essentially telling the same or a similar story each week, these stories built on the stories which proceeded it, developing the characters and story as long as they remained on the air.
In 2006, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss began to adapt George R.R. Martin's long-running novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, working closely with Martin to ensure that the series would retain the same high level of quality as the books. In 2010, AMC ordered a pilot for an adaptation of Robert Kirkman's long-running comic book series The Walking Dead. The first season aired in 2011, loosely adapting the show from the comics, with Kirkman acting as an executive producer for the production. Additionally, CBS adapted Stephen King's novel Under the Dome. The popularity of these shows helped to demonstrate that long-running speculative-fiction literature could be adapted for the small screen successfully. Since then, the floodgates have opened.
Networks continue to produce a number of shows based on well-known novels. NBC's SyFy Channel, having missed out on the initial wave of high-profile genre shows, is working to capture some of that attention by releasing three shows in 2015: Dark Matter based on the graphic novel by Joseph Mallozi and Paul Mullie; The Expanse, based on the novels by James S.A. Corey; and Childhood's End, based on Arthur C. Clarke's novel. Additionally, the channel be releasing other adaptations in the future. A series based on Lev Grossman's The Magicians and Arthur C. Clarke's 3001 are slated for 2016, and the channel has also optioned John Scalzi's Ghost Brigades and Dan Simmon's Hyperion. Starz produced Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon's bestselling series, and Chuck Wendig's Miriam Black series, and has recently announced that they have the green light for a project based on Neil Gaiman's best-known novel, American Gods. FX has since produced The Strain, based on novels by Guillermo del Toro, while the BBC has created high-profile shows based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Sherlock Holmes and Susanne Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
Other networks not traditionally known for genre content have started to enter the game in a competition for viewers. For example, before Mad Men and The Walking Dead, AMC was known for rerunning old movies. The desire and necessity of shifting business strategy has become paramount as attention becomes diluted and major networks scoop up novels such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (Spike), Redshirts by John Scalzi (FX), Terry Brooks' Shannara series (MTV) and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (Fox). Even nontraditional media companies such as Netflix and Amazon have started to produce their own original content: Amazon has produced a pilot for an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, and has green-lighted the rest of a series based on the response, while Netflix has produced an adaptation of Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreavy.
While not all will be produced and released, there has been a shift in the expectations for adaptations from novels. In the past, an author could likely expect to sell the rights for a film adaptation, but it now seems that selling the motion picture rights for a television show is becoming more and more likely.
There are multiple reasons for this. First, audience expectations for high-quality programming have increased along with the number of channels available in a cable package; as a result, each channel has had to develop new streams of content that will appeal to a diverse audience. Secondly, the technical abilities to visually adapt a novel to a television show have increased and the cost to use that technology has dropped. In the past, shows had to create stock footage of spaceships from models that would be reused; now special effects artists have the ability to create high-quality visuals of entire worlds, dynamic space battles, and characters, which all helps to further realizes the author’s original vision. Finally, the enormous success and mainstream recognition of genre content has made it easier for channels and production companies to produce a genre television show. It’s now easier to take a risk and produce a genre show.
In many ways, technological innovation is what’s most encouraging the development of television shows based on novels. Audiences are no longer constrained by broadcast schedules: the rise of DVD boxed sets in the 2000s and services such as Netflix have prompted major changes in audience viewing patterns, allowing them to “binge” watch an entire show within a short amount of time and relieving showrunners of the need to create shows that are highly repetitive, shifting focus more on the development of characters and story. Furthermore, competition from nontraditional media has forced numerous production companies to pour resources into their products in order to compete.
More importantly, producers and creators can now fully realize on the small screen not only the visual parts of a novel, but also the complicated nature of the story itself. A television show running from eight to 22 episodes covers as many hours, far more than the length of a film, and with increasing production values, networks can create a production that both honors the original intent behind the books and produce a drama that appeals to audiences.
We're living in a golden age of serialized television. Production values and the recognition of the importance of stories have allowed for wide-scale optioning of science-fiction intellectual property, which will bring many new novels to a new medium for entirely new audiences.