I’d like to think about this issue, though, from a slightly different perspective. Ironically, Mikhail Bakhtin, one of the most important theorists of the novel, didn’t characterize the novel as self-contained at all. Quite the opposite: “The novelist” he writes in “Novel and Epic,” “is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed.” He continues: novels involve ”the incomplete process of a world-in-the-making, and [are] stamped with the seal of inconclusiveness.”
Lately I’ve noticed a lot of television series credits that include “based on the book by…” Game of Thrones, of course. But Under the Dome was inspired by a Stephen King novel; the recent (and unfortunately recently canceled) Backstrom was based on a Swedish book series by Leif W.G. Persson; this summer’s Wayward Pines is based on a trilogy by Blake Crouch; and The Last Ship – just beginning its second season – is based on William Brinkley’s 1988 novel of the same name.
Until recently, books tended to get adapted for the big screen rather than the small. The history of literary adaptation goes back, in fact, to the very origins of film: George Melies produced Cinderella, based on the Grimms fairy tale in 1899. I could list hundreds of examples since then, but it might be simpler to point out that between 1994 and 2013, 58% of the top grossing movies produced were some sort of adaptation (Novels into Films: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema, George Bluestone, 2003).
In many ways this affinity between books and films makes sense. While obviously each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, they share many organizational qualities. Perhaps the most important of these is the emphasis on “resolution” as a virtue. Sure, we all know novels and films that don’t conclude in a tidy manner, but both artistic forms tend to tie things up neatly in the end. We might go so far as to call their stories self-contained. Maybe a book is a bit more sprawling than two hours, but that only gives literary snobs something to complain about, right? (I don’t know that I’ve ever left a theatre showing of a literary adaptation and not heard someone behind me mutter “the book was sooooo much better.”)
So books are more suited to films than television series? Well, maybe. Among cinema’s earlier adaptations, in 1924 Erich von Stroheim decided to film every nuance of Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899). His cut ran to nine and a half hours. The studio, as we might expect, cut this down to two, and the film flopped. Perhaps a TV series might have worked better? Perhaps novels can never really be contained in the short space of typical studio film length. And novels have found success on television in the past: ABC developed Robert Parker’s sparkling Spenser mysteries into Spenser for Hire, which ran for three seasons in the 80s. Another great series of mystery novels, by Jonathan Gash, was adapted by the BBC into the Lovejoy series (introducing Americans to the gifted actor, Ian McShane) in the early 90s. The BBC also produced novelist Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, which ran from 1987 to 2000. Of course, all three of those examples involve detective stories and all three were based on novel series (as is Game of Thrones).
This description sounds more like that of a television series than a novel. When you read a novel, you can literally see the end coming – the pages tick by one by one, becoming a thinner and thinner stack on your right hand side. Resistance is futile. Television series, on the other hand just don’t resolve, at least not until they must. Rather they actively avoid resolution, delaying it to the last possible moment, the “finale” (and how many of those have turned out to be satisfying?) Some soap operas have managed to milk the same plotline for decades (See Abigail De Konik’s essay on One Life to Live in How to Watch Television). Like life, you can’t count on anything: characters may appear or disappear (see The Walking Dead). The experience of watching television, at least in terms of the typical scripted series, seems totally at odds with reading a book.
In Bakhtin’s terms, however, we can draw a relationship between the two forms. How we do that involves his formulation of the novel as a “world-in-the-making.” For Bakhtin, the novel works as a form of virtual reality. It offers a “world” for readers to enter and experience. We don’t just read about Harry Potter, or Lisbeth Salander, or Huck Finn; we meet them, we know them, we experience life right along with them. Our emotions are tied up with what happens to them, and if that doesn’t render them “real,” then after all what can we regard as “real” in our lives?
Is the novel the apex of virtual reality? Bakhtin didn’t think so. In the same essay, he also wrote, “In many respects the novel has anticipated, and continues to anticipate, the future development of literature as a whole.” What does he mean here by “the future development of literature”? Literature that develops the virtual reality machine even further: films, which give voice and image to narrative; video games, which allow participants to experience narrative even more directly and to choose the path a story takes; and television. Television’s strength, a strength it has only just begun to discover, lies in its open-endedness. It goes on for longer stretches of time, it bursts the bounds of easy resolution, it feels more like real life.
Is television the apex of virtual reality? Certainly not. I suspect that our human impulse to art is driven by our psychological desire to replicate experience to an absolute degree. Call it the desire to play God, call it a desire to escape from the negatives in life, call it the postmodern condition – it all leads to the same place. I doubt we’ll ever give up the old forms – the poem, the novel, the play. After all, I still go back and play Ms. Pac Man from time to time even in a world that now offers Arkham Knight. But to the extent our creativity is tied to our urge to create experiences, it is also tied to technological growth. I doubt very much we will stop pushing the generic boundaries until it’s possible to plug our brains directly into the computer and live out an alternative existence. Mark my words: one of these days, you’ll notice, in fine print at the bottom of your vision, “This life based on the book by…”
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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