Our list of 5 Fantasy and Sci-Fi TV Shows That Are Actually Better Than The Book
Whenever there is a new film/show adaptation of a popular book, readers always say “well, the book was better”. And they are usually right! However, sometimes an adaptation can actually improve on the source material. Here are five (plus one honorable mention) fantasy and sci-fi tv shows that are acutally better than the book they are based on.
Based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta, the HBO adaptation (from showrunner Damon Lindelof) exhausted the story of the novel in its first season. The book and the show tell the story of a sudden vanishing, in which 2% of the world’s population dissapear without a trace. While the first season developed into a strong narrative, its oft-overly dour and dark tone was a turn off for a lot of viewers. However, once the show unshackled itself from the book, it truly came into its own. Seasons 2 and 3 of The Leftovers introduce many new memorable characters (including adding Regina King to the cast), while exploring issues of grief, faith, and life moving on in a more balanced and poignant way than the book/first season do. Lindelof and the post-season 1 writing team just understood the story they were telling better than anything that came before.
His Dark Materials
I have previously written about why HBO’s adaptation of His Dark Materials is the most slept on fantasy series, and part of this is that overall, the series is a massive improvement on Philip Pullman’s original trilogy. Now, the improvements are not really visible at first. I will be the first to admit that the first season of the show is not better than The Golden Compass (one of the best fantasy books ever written), mostly because the show’s budget reduced the number of daemons that could be shown on screen (dimming the impact of one of the first major twists). However, the second and third seasons dramatically improve on their source materials. Pullman really struggled to keep the story going in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass; his series spun out of control with too many plots, ideas, and characters that became a bit of an enjoyable albeit chaotic mess. The show does a nice job of streamlining Pullman’s story, cutting a lot of the fluff and instead getting at Pullman’s core ideas related to organized religion, faith, and love.
This is likely to be a bit of a controversial choice, since the original novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is so beloved by many. No matter how much you love the book (and I also love the book), you have to admit that parts of the book have aged poorly. I don’t fault Pratchett and Gaiman for this; the world is constantly changing and attitudes and ideas that work at one time don’t necessarily work 30 years later. The Amazon adaptation of the story does a fantastic job of retaining the heart of the original book, while also updating it for a more modern audience. The best example of this is the backstory and relationship between the two main protagonists – Crowley and Aziraphale, played to pitch perfect perfection by David Tennant and Michal Sheen (respectively). The show deftly explored themes related to close male friendships and queer love. I’m not sure how the upcoming second season will expand upon the world without a novel (although Gaiman is involved and says it is based on an outline for a new book Pratchett and he worked on together), but I’ll be one of the first ones watching.
The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman was a deep examination of what it means to be a fantasy fan as you grow up. As we move into adulthood, do we automatically lose the magic of our favorite stories? Grossman really started the new subgenre of critiquing immature and idealistic portal fantasies (recently taken up by Senan McGuire in her Wayward Children series and a recent novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky), but the book was bogged down by a whiny main character and a too-dour tone that at times made it a big of a slog of a read. The show quickly understood that its moody main characters, Quintin and Alice, and its gray aesthetic weren’t really working, and quickly shifted its focus to a campy and colorful examination of the pure weirdness of fantasy worlds. The show never lost its ability to tell chilling and dark stories, but it lightened up its tone while shifting its focus to the more entertaining members of its cast (we just won’t talk about how it fumbled the ball with Quintin’s arc as it moved through its run).
How do you take a pretty generic and forgettable YA science fiction novel and make it something pretty great? Well, you throw everything away except the core premise and build the show from there! The 100, which aired for seven seasons on The CW, is an interesting case of adaptation because the first season of the show was written and made less than a year after the book (also called The 100) was published. This meant that the show’s writers were only basing it on the first novel, and none of author’s Kass Morgan’s other three books in the series. This ultimately worked in the show’s favor, as the show was able to put its characters in more interesting ethical dilemmas and got to explore the lengths Clark and the rest of the 100 to save themselves and their loved ones. While the show was not consistently great (and the ending was flat out bad), when The 100 was working it was by far the best science fiction series on television.
Honorable Mention: Interview with a Vampire
I’m putting this as an honorable mention because AMC’s adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire has only released one season so far. However, that seen was bloody brilliant. The series took Rice’s main story arc and aesthetic, pushed it up a bit further in time, and really emphasized the queer elements of the relationship between Louis and Lestat. This not only aesthetically differentiated the show from the popular film adaptation, but also added layers to Rice’s original story. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, do yourself a favor and do so!