Each year, Kirkus publishes monthly roundups and in-depth reviews of notable book-based movies and shows. They’ve included such spectacular productions as Showtime’s 2020 miniseries of James McBride’s National Book Award winner, The Good Lord Bird, and Prime Video’s 2021 miniseries of Colson Whitehead’s Kirkus-starred alternate-history novel, The Underground Railroad. Here are eight highlights from this year, all available on streaming services:
El Deafo (streaming on Apple TV+): Cece Bell’s 2014 graphic memoir for children was a Newbery Honor book and a Kirkus Prize finalist, and it tells the affecting story of how the author, as a child in 1970s Virginia, tackled the challenges of living with deafness and using hearing aids. The original book features art that charmingly portrays the young Bell, her family, and friends as anthropomorphic bunnies, and the miniseries version—co-written and executive-produced by Bell—matched the original’s art style with aplomb. What made it truly remarkable, though, was the brilliant sound design—approximating Cece’s sometimes-frustrating experiences with a ’70s hearing aid, with all the tinniness, static, and distortion that entails.
Reacher (streaming on Prime Video): Former military policeman and drifter Jack Reacher has investigated numerous crimes and beat up more than his fair share of bad guys in Lee Child’s popular thriller series over two decades, and Tom Cruise played Reacher in two films. This year’s streaming series, developed by Punisher: War Zone co-writer Nick Santora, starred Titans’ Alan Ritchson and adapted the first book in the series, 1997’s Killing Floor. It was a fast-paced delight over eight episodes, with lively plot turns and brutal brawls to satisfy even the most jaded action fans. A second season is currently in the works, based on 2007’s Bad Luck and Trouble, which received a Kirkus star.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (streaming on Apple TV+): Samuel L. Jackson offered some of the best work of his career in this six-part limited series based on Walter Mosley’s SF–tinged 2010 novel with mystery elements. Jackson played elderly Ptolemy Grey, who struggles with progressive, severe dementia. After his great-grandnephew, Reggie, is killed in a drive-by shooting, a teenage girl named Robyn helps him out with day-to-day chores and becomes his companion and confidant. When an experimental drug therapy allows him access to memories he’d lost long ago, he’s able to find a hidden treasure from his past and also investigate Reggie’s unsolved murder. The series’ nuanced performances by Jackson, who poignantly highlighted Ptolemy’s inner strength, and Judas and the Black Messiah’s Dominique Fishback, who effectively embodied Robyn’s tough kindness, made this worth a watch.
Pachinko (streaming on Apple TV+): This streaming-series adaptation brought Min Jin Lee’s Kirkus-starred 2017 historical novel to vivid life on the small screen. The book tells the story of multiple generations of a Korean family from the 1910s to the 1980s. In one of the major storylines presented in the series, Oscar winner Yuh-jung Youn (Minari) and newcomer Minha Kim—both stunningly good—played older and younger Sunja, the daughter of a Busan fisherman who becomes pregnant as the result of an affair with Hansu, a wealthy married man (played by charismatic Lee Minho of Boys Over Flowers fame). Sunja later weds a Korean Christian pastor and moves to Japan, where she and her family face constant bigotry. The first season of the show only scratched the surface of the novel’s sprawling plot; we’re looking forward to a second season, currently in the works.
The Black Phone (streaming on Prime Video): Ethan Hawke delivered an undeniably terrifying performance in this horror film based on the short story of the same name from Joe Hill’s 2007 collection, 20th Century Ghosts. Director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) and co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill skillfully expanded on the brief but chilling tale about a 13-year-old boy plotting to escape a basement where his abductor, known as the Galesburg Grabber, has imprisoned him. The dank room also contains a disconnected phone, and one day, the boy receives a call from the spirit of one of the Grabber’s past victims. The filmmakers beefed up the brief tale by expanding on characters’ backstories, adding subplots, and even giving one character clear-cut supernatural powers. All of it deepened the narrative and ratcheted up the tension—a case study in effectively adapting short fiction.
Interview With the Vampire (streaming on AMC and AMC+): This new series functioned as a reboot and a sequel to Anne Rice’s legendary 1976 gothic-horror series starter. In the novel, an unnamed young journalist in the 1970s interviews a man named Louis, who claims to be a two-century-old vampire. Louis tells a sprawling tale of how he was transformed into a fanged creature of the night in late-18th-century New Orleans by colorful, amoral, and deeply self-centered vampire Lestat de Lioncourt. In the new series, nearly 50 years have passed since that initial interview, and Louis (sensitively played by Game of Thrones’ Jacob Anderson) summons the much older journalist (Eric Bogosian, always great) for another round of interviews to correct the record as he once again recounts his relationship with Lestat (an excellent Sam Reid). This version foregrounded the original story’s gay subtext and touched on the effects of institutional racism in the South, making a familiar tale feel fresh and new.
Rosaline (streaming on Hulu): In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the minor character of Rosaline is simply an offstage object of infatuation for Romeo before he meets his true love. Rebecca Serle’s 2012 YA novel, When You Were Mine, offered a very loose retelling of the classic play, setting it in the present day and telling itfrom the point of view of Rosaline, who, in this version, briefly dates Romeo before he leaves her for Juliet. The film Rosaline, directed by Karen Maine, was ostensibly based on Serle’s book, but other than having the jilted Rosaline as a central character, it bore little resemblance to Serle’s text; it’s set at the time of the original play and substitutes smart rom-com framework and quirky humor for the novel’s melodrama (and the play’s tragedy). Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, as Rosaline, was a snarky delight, and the film made for pleasantly light and fun viewing.
The Peripheral (streaming on Prime Video): This sharp streaming series, created and co-written by novelist Scott B. Smith, smartly adapted cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson’s 2014 SF thriller, which offers an offbeat take on time travel. In the book, set in the near future, Flynne Fisher is play-testing a virtual-reality game for a client when she unexpectedly witnesses a particularly gruesome murder; it turns out that the game is not a game at all but an apparatus that allows her to experience events some 70 years in the future—and that killing she saw is one that’s yet to come. The series altered a few plot elements and streamlined some of Gibson’s dense worldbuilding; it also offered lots of slick action scenes, giving the proceedings the glossy sheen of a top-notch spy thriller. Chloë Grace Moretz, as Flynne, did a fine job in a demanding role—one in which she occasionally has to play a digital consciousness in an android’s body. It’s a complicated story, to be sure, but both Gibson acolytes and newcomers could find much to like.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.