When Tom Perrotta sat down to adapt his 2017 novel “Mrs. Fletcher” into a seven-episode limited series of the same name for HBO, he was facing a world that had changed in the way people spoke about gender and sexuality from when he was penning the book. So although he still had a very specific piece of source material from which to draw, he approached the limited series as a new telling and told his writers’ room the book wasn’t to be taken as the “ultimate authority” on the tale.
“I try to be flexible,” Perrotta says, adding that aside from the fact that the world changed post-#MeToo and Time’s Up, simply casting actors and expanding a story to evolve over multiple episodes affects how that story gets told. TV episodes often run longer than the time it would take a reader to consume the original version of the story.
Perrotta is hardly alone with the task he undertook to transform specific source material into a televised event. However, he, at least, had the luxury of being the architect of the original version, a fictional tale of a middle-aged mother who experiments with her sexuality when her son goes off to college. That undoubtedly granted him more freedom to make changes as he saw fit.
For many writers and producers adapting limited series or original TV movies, there are added layers of having to reinterpret someone else’s tale: They have to balance an accurate portrayal and yet be creative for the format.
“The opportunity we have in television is that you build a real sympathy for these characters, and you feel what they feel,” says “The Terror: Infamy” showrunner Alexander Woo.
Woo’s anthology drama followed Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II. They were not just facing the complications of having their lives stolen, but also a literal haunting by the ghost of someone from their past. Woo was able to lean on actor and consultant George Takei’s personal experience as a child in one of those camps, among other accounts. This aided in details both in story and setting.
“On the first day of shooting in the mess hall [George] blurted out that the plates looked too nice,” Woo says. Because the plates were reused so much, the production design team went back and chipped many of them to make the show “feel as true to the experience as possible.” But first-hand memories also aided in creating the right tone for the characters.
“They always make it too miserable,” Woo recalls one of his consultants telling him about past pop-culture projects about the internment camps. “That tells only the side of the story where the Japanese Americans were just taken, which of course is real. But there is also the side of the story of the resilience and resourcefulness of the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated — because they were able to make a home out of these horrible surroundings.”
Due both to the genre nature of the program, as well as “out of respect” for the people who had experiences in the real-life camps, Woo fictionalized a good portion of the story, including the grounds themselves, in order to avoid being locked into the specific geography, layout and events that took place at the real camps.
Other projects lean further into re-creation. Netflix’s “When They See Us” dramatized events from the late-1980s through the early aughts when the young men wrongfully convicted as the Central Park Five were first arrested, through their time in jail and eventual exoneration. For this, Ava DuVernay not only went back to some of the real-life New York locations to film (including Central Park itself) but also included the real men in the production process. “To finally give them a voice, it had to be all about them,” the writer, producer and director previously told Variety.
Similarly, when Susannah Grant was creating “Unbelievable,” which weaves multiple narratives about sexual assault, starting with a survivor and leading into two detectives who will ultimately bring that survivor’s rapist to justice, she made it a point to speak with the real-life survivor, Marie (played by Kaitlyn Dever), a few times for the project. “We took all of our cues, even if not directly from her,” she says.
More often than not, though, the written or otherwise previously produced source material for a new limited series or original television movie has to stand on its own. Such was the case for projects including HBO”s “Catherine the Great” and “Chernobyl,” as well as Lifetime’s “Patsy & Loretta.” In these, the subjects of the stories had passed on, causing the writers and producers to have to rely on historical documents that survived the decades, news stories and experts on the subject matter. Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice” mixed a bit of both worlds, in that its central figure, Roger Ailes, passed away in 2017, but many of the other figures in his life who were depicted for the limited biopic are still around.
In order to not skew too much toward those people’s perceptions of Ailes, executive producer and director Kari Skogland says they were “very careful not to lean into making him evil,” even when he was performing acts for which he was later villainized in the media, be it weaponizing the masses through the way he had Fox News cover events or sexually harassing the women around him.
“He didn’t get to where he got to without a lot of people buying into his methods and his process, so it was important to capture that because a big part of the story is us saying, ‘We are complicit across the board with the Roger Ailes of the world,’” Skogland explains.
Being a visual medium, all of theses stories also had to be expanded upon from their original source material for format, as well as length.
In the case of “Unbelievable,” Grant says this gifted an opportunity to dramatize how Marie’s relationship to the world in the wake of such a traumatic experience shifted. In some moments, the audience is alone with Marie; in others, the show explores interactions with everyday people, such as Marie’s supervisor at work, to show how “unsafe and vulnerable” she felt in the wake of the assault.
It also allowed “Unbelievable” to explore the “drive and determination, the passion and commitment” of the detectives who eventually caught Marie’s rapist. Grant spoke to the real-life detectives to get guidance on their professional procedures, but then allowed herself license to expand the story into their personal lives — including beyond the moment of capture.
“It was important to me to show it wasn’t just a fist-pump victory,” Grant explains. “One word that we really kept alive in the story room was ‘aftershocks.’ The repercussions of this crime go well beyond what you might anticipate. People are aware of women who are victims of this crime, and I think people don’t really take in how many other people are touched by it and have to endure some aspect of it.”