In a world of 500 scripted television series, one way creators are vying for the very limited attention of the audience — and to attract big-name talent — is by adapting already well-known works. Rather than having to start from the ground up when it comes to building the world, creating its characters and hooking viewers, adaptations come with a lot of the work already done. And with less risk, the rewards that are reaped automatically look that much bigger.
“It’s a massive draw because you have so much more information than you do when you just have a pilot script or a couple of episodes or even a full season. With the book, the format is so totally different [and] you have the ability to describe and develop and have so much character backstory, so it’s rife with things to help you bring these characters to life and tell the story really thoroughly,” says Jessica Biel, star and executive producer of USA network’s “The Sinner,” which earned two Golden Globe noms this year.
“The Sinner” is based on the novel by Petra Hammesfahr that follows a young mother who commits a violent and seemingly unprovoked murder and then must unravel some long-buried truths about her past to fully understand why.
FX anthology drama “Fargo” was adapted from the feature film of the same name. The first season premiered in 2014 with some similarities to the big screen version but no direct connective tissue. The story it told, and the characters it introduced, were unique then — but the name recognition helped center it in setting, themes and tone. Subsequent seasons diversified farther, with the third — which is now nominated for its third consecutive Globe — set half a dozen years ago in three different towns in Minnesota instead of the titular Fargo, N.D.
Other Globe TV nominees such as HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” stick much closer to their source material, though.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, follows the same titular handmaid (Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss) in the streamer as in the book. Her internal struggle to adjust to the new patriarchal regime of Gilead remains prevalent, with her inner thoughts and emotions that were conveyed in the text by lengthy first-person prose translated into voice-over in the show.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” as a show does push the boundaries from the book a bit, though — most notably when it steps outside of Offred’s perspective to invite the audience into secrets and events she does not yet know. This is most notable in the deeper dive it does into her husband (O-T Fagbenle), who is shown to have joined the rebel alliance.
“We added things that weren’t there, we moved things around, we changed things. I think we got the audience used to it, and also for ourselves, taught us how to do new and different things within the sensibility that Margaret has created and brought to life in the book,” showrunner Bruce Miller says. “We’re comfortable going beyond the text of the book but remaining in Margaret’s world. We got that confidence the first season.”
Adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, David E. Kelley’s version of “Big Little Lies,” tweaks some subplots — Jane (Shailene Woodley) knowing the truth about “Saxon” is arguably the biggest change — but keeps the core of the relationships and even the “whodunnit” of the murder mystery the same. (Admittedly, though, the motives behind the murder are slightly different from medium to medium.)
Despite the fact that the books can be considered giant spoilers for anyone coming into the shows cold, they are not deterrents from the storytelling. After all, it is not merely the “what” that is interesting — and award-worthy. The extra layers provided by nuanced performances, directing and shot composition — not to mention the addition of elements such as a musical score — all worked together to elevate the small screen’s offerings this year.
On the film side, though, adaptations proved to be not quite as popular with the HFPA. Filmmakers have been adapting published material for the big screen since the dawn of cinema, but this year, the awards race takes a back seat to original material.
Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” led the pack with seven nominations, while Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” took six each. While adaptations are useful in marketing a title to audiences, they are not a guarantee of awards tractions. Just look at “Call Me by Your Name,” which James Ivory adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel. It landed three nominations — two for acting, one for best picture, drama — but none for screenplay, even though Ivory has three previous Globes nominations for adaptations of similarly tony novels: “A Room With a View,” “Howards End” and “Remains of the Day.”
“Mudbound,” which Dee Rees directed from the screenplay she and Virgil Williams adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel, may be the biggest adaptation snub in the group. Mary J. Blige reps the only two “Mudbound” noms — for supporting actress and song “Mighty River.”
Carole Horst contributed to this report.