You think Game of Thrones is taking liberties with George R.R. Martin’s books? That’s nothing. All too often, when people adapt books for television, they basically treat the source material as a series of suggestions. Here are the 10 science fiction and fantasy shows that veered farthest from their book origins.
Mysteriously renewed, not just for its third season, which premiered last week, but for its fourth as well, Beauty and the Beast is the little show that could. Vaguely based on the CBS’s 1987 Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman (sporting enough lion makeup to introduce a whole new generation to the allures of bestiality), the CW’s version follows Catherine Chandler, an NYPD homicide detective who was saved by a “beast” on the night her mother was murdered. Several years later, she discovers that the beast was actually a hot ex-soldier (you caught the part where this was on the CW, right?) whose DNA was mutated through Army experiments. Romance ensues.
Still, clearly better than the original fairy tale and all its Stockholm-ey nonsense.
Based on a series of YA horror novels by L. J. Smith (which long predate the Twilight craze: the first book was published in 1991), The Vampire Diaries diverged from the original right out of the gate: “We had to create the rule for ourselves right away,” EP Julie Plec told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “The book is the jumping-off point for the world and anything goes from that point forward.” For example, while the books delve into “angels, and foxes, and mystical creatures, and hell dimensions,” the showrunners have substituted their own very complex mythology. And while character names have stayed the same, the characters themselves are frequently unrecognizable: the Elena of the books is initially more like the Katherine of the show, and vice versa.
Also — and this is clearly the most important thing — book-Elena is blond.
When the author of your source material feels the need to write a Slate article about how awful and racist your adaptation is...something’s probably gone amiss. The Earthsea series, one of the most beloved series in fantasy from one of its most beloved authors, features a protagonist with red-brown skin and a world peopled primarily by people of darker skin. The Earthsea miniseries, a white-washed piece of crap, features a protagonist who is, in the words of Ursula Le Guin, “a petulant white kid,” and, mostly, a lot of other white people. Here’s Le Guin on the importance of race in her novels:
My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?
And on top of all that, SyFy decided to toss out significant parts of the original and substitute their own plot. LeGuin notes that on top of misunderstanding the message of the books to be something about “the union of two belief systems,” the producers also “use[d] the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a silly plot based on sex and violence.”
Based on the 1988 novel by William Brinkley, The Last Ship shares a fair amount of its premise with its source material: they’re both about the crew of the USS Nathan James, a US Navy ship that’s at sea during a major event that decimates the world’s population. The difference? In the television series the event is a viral pandemic, and in the book it’s a nuclear holocaust. So the whole “finding a cure for the virus” plot line... not so much in the book.
The Riverworld novels, written by Philip José Farmer, feature a fantastically fun premise: every human ever, from every civilization and time period, ends up reconstructed along a huge river on a far-off terraformed alien planet (because there are so many different languages, Esperanto finally gets its moment of glory and takes off as the language of choice. Well done, Esperanto.) The characters are people like Sir Richard Burton, Samuel Clemens, and Mozart. We’ve already noted that this sounds like a great premise for a series.
Unfortunately, the producers disagreed (which really makes you wonder why they’ve tried to adapt this twice now), and in 2010 produced a four hour backdoor pilot/miniseries/tv movie thing in which neat plot ideas were cast aside in favor of EVEN BETTER IDEAS, like adding a new main character who spends the whole movie trying to find his girlfriend of two months and having all the characters mysteriously rewired to speak English so that they could have dull and confusing conversations about nothing.
John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick is a tempting property for television networks: Eastwick is the third attempt at an adaptation, and the first to make it to series (although only for one season). With a plot seemingly fueled by cosmos and characters flatter, sweeter, and smoother than the originals, the show isn’t exactly faithful to the original. But the biggest change is probably one of tone: while the novel is biting, dirty, and frequently upsetting, the series was most frequently compared to Desperate Housewives (which I guess you could argue is also frequently upsetting, but in a different way). A similar transformation might have worked well for Practical Magic, but falls sadly flat here.
Also, Eastwick was filmed on the same set used by Gilmore Girls, which meant that every thirty seconds I thought Lorelai and Rory were going to come around the corner and go to Luke’s and then every thirty-one seconds I was horribly disappointed. The town set has apparently also been used for shows like Supernatural, The Sarah Conner Chronicles, and Pushing Daisies.
There’s a headless horseman, a guy named Ichabod Crane, a woman named Katrina, and a place called Sleepy Hollow...and that’s about it, in terms of similarities to the original. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving, is set in 1790 (none of that Rip Van Winkle stuff, although that story was also written by Irving), and concerns a school teacher who vies with with another man for the love of the town heiress and is terrorized by stories about and the eventual appearance of a headless horseman who may or may not be real.
Of course, who cares about faithfulness to the original when a show is this batshit amazing.
Billed as Gossip Girl meets Charmed (hello I am SO sold on this as a television series), 666 Park Avenue by Gabriella Pierce is about an architect/witch who meets a gorgeous man and gets engaged to him, only to discover that her new mother-in-law is [spoiler] an evil witch (no mother-in-law jokes, please). 666 Park Avenue the television show is about a couple who moves into a fancy New York City apartment building, where the landlord is the Devil. So... the title is the same, I guess?
In this version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, the wicked Count eschews all that Gothic scenery and instead pretends to be an American entrepreneur bringing some sort of exciting new wireless electricity invention to London (a smokescreen for the revenge plot he’s masterminding). There are secret societies and reincarnated wives and sexy journalists — although of course in terms of on-screen Dracula adaptations, this is practically slavish faithfulness.
The show was sadly cancelled after one season, right when it was getting supremely awesome.
These two Frankenstein shows with startlingly similar names are both set to premiere later this year. They’re also both hilariously far from the original: The Frankenstein Code is about a corrupt and elderly sheriff who’s brought back to life in a younger man’s body. Meanwhile, The Frankenstein Chronicles, starring Sean Bean and featuring Mary Shelley as a character, is about a police inspector in 1827 London on the trail of a killer who may be trying to reanimate the dead.
And in case you’re wondering, The Frankenstein Chronicles had the name first. The Frankenstein Code used to be called simply Frankenstein.