Some of the very best limited series on TV over the past ten years have been adaptations of stand-alone crime novels. As I write this, Anatomy of a Scandal, based on a novel of the same name by Sarah Vaughan, is the number one show streaming on Netflix. Before Anatomy of a Scandal we had Pieces of Her, from the brilliant Karin Slaughter novel, also a number one show. And before that we had The Secrets She Keeps (Michael Robotham), Big Little Lies (Lianne Moriarty) and The Stranger (Harlan Coben). The list goes on.
There’s more than one reason these stories so successfully translate to television. The novels they are based on were written by some of our best writers. Writers who understand how to blend character and plot and meaning and tension into something truly entertaining. But I also think that stand-alone novels (or short, defined series) have characteristics that make them particularly suited to adaptation for limited series, something beyond the obvious benefit of a closed ending. There’s something about the natural constraint of a limited run that lends itself to better story-telling. The writers know where they’re going, and how much time they have to get there. The very best of these shows deliver tightly plotted, meticulously balanced, wildly ambitious stories that also give something extra. A layer of insight or thoughtfulness or development of theme that is hard to deliver when you’re juggling all the demands that come with an open ended series.
As I write this, Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal (written for the screen by David E. Kelley and Melissa George James Gibson) has just knocked the juggernaut that is Bridgerton off the No. 1 perch at Netflix. I asked Sarah Vaughan why she felt the story appealed to readers and viewers so strongly. She said – ‘I think it offered several strong female leads; a good twist; a discrete world that viewers are fascinated by and which is replete with questions about power – Westminster and the Old Bailey; a great title, and potent, timely themes.’ Agreed. And it’s clear that all of these elements could be (and have been) achieved in a series novel, but I would argue that it might have been difficult to do so as powerfully as Sarah Vaughan did in Anatomy of a Scandal if the author was simultaneously concerned with building characters and story-lines to support a long-running series.
Karin Slaughter’s Pieces of Her was a bestselling stand-alone novel and it’s a brilliant book, written by an author of extraordinary talent and equally impressive work ethic. It’s not hard to understand why it was picked up for adaptation. But many books are optioned, fewer make it to the screen, and fewer still make it all the way to number one. Asked why the story appealed to such a wide audience, Karin Slaughter says that it is about the mother-daughter relationship – ‘I think the mother-daughter relationship has a universal appeal, and the thing I liked best about the series was that they kept the heart of the book, which was a love story between a mother and daughter.’ The core emotional journey of the characters that was so central to the book was preserved.
There are exceptions to my argument that stand-alone novels make the best limited series. Mick Herron’s clever and original Slow Horses has been adapted and is showing right now as an Apple Original and is absolutely addictive viewing. And of course there are other examples. But I think it’s interesting to note that Mick Herron did not originally intend Slow Horses to be the start of a series. When he started the book he intended it to be a stand-alone.
I love a long-running book series. There’s something about coming back to a well-loved character in a familiar place that is always a joy and a thrill. A continuing series on the television offers the same pleasure. But when I look back over the last few years, and think about the shows that stand out in my memory, they are always defined-run, punchy, fresh and ambitious limited series.
So I say, keep them coming. Pretty please.
Karin Slaughter, Pieces of Her (Netflix)
Andrea knows everything about her mother, Laura. She knows she’s spent her whole life in the small beachside town of Belle Isle; she knows she’s never wanted anything more than to live a quiet life as a pillar of the community; she knows she’s never kept a secret in her life. Because we all know our mothers, don’t we? But all that changes when a trip to the mall explodes into violence and Andrea suddenly sees a completely different side to Laura.
Sarah Vaughan, Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix)
Sophie Whitehouse has a lovely home, two adorable children, and a handsome, successful husband. In other words, she has the “perfect” life. But everything changes the night her husband James comes home and confesses an indiscretion. Suddenly, her neat, ordered world is turned upside down. Did she ever really know the man she married? James’s revelation is just the tip of the iceberg. He stands accused of a terrible crime. But the truth is even more shocking than anyone ever could have thought. Is James the guilty perpetrator or an innocent victim of a toxic agenda?
Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny, biting, and passionate; she remembers everything and forgives no one. Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare but she is paying a price for the illusion of perfection. New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for a nanny. She comes with a mysterious past and a sadness beyond her years. These three women are at different crossroads, but they will all wind up in the same shocking place
Harlan Coben, The Stranger (Netflix)
Adam Price has a lot to lose: a comfortable marriage to a beautiful woman, two wonderful sons, and all the trappings of the American Dream: a big house, a good job, a seemingly perfect life. Then he runs into the Stranger. When he learns a devastating secret about his wife, Corinne, he confronts her, and the mirage of perfection disappears as if it never existed at all. Soon Adam finds himself tangled in something far darker than even Corinne’s deception, and realizes that if he doesn’t make exactly the right moves, the conspiracy he’s stumbled into will not only ruin lives—it will end them.
Michael Robotham, The Secrets She Keeps (BBC)
Meghan doesn’t know Agatha, but Agatha knows Meghan. And the one thing Agatha looks forward to each day is catching a glimpse of her, the effortlessly chic customer at the grocery store where she works stocking shelves. Meghan has it all: two adorable children, a handsome and successful husband, a happy marriage, a beautiful house, and a popular parenting blog that Agatha reads with devotion each night as she waits for her absent boyfriend, the father of the baby growing inside her, to return her calls. Yet if Agatha could look beyond the gloss and trappings of Meghan’s “perfect life,” she’d see the flaws and doubts. Meghan has her secrets too, especially one that she dare not ever tell. Soon the lives of these two women will collide in the most spellbinding and intimate of ways, until their secrets are exposed by one shocking act that cannot be undone.
Dare Me, Megan Abbott (USA + Netflix)
Addy Hanlon has always been Beth Cassidy’s best friend and trusted lieutenant. Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, a long-established order of things that has brought them to the pinnacle of their high-school careers. Now they’re seniors who rule the intensely competitive cheer squad, feared and followed by the other girls — until the young new coach arrives.
The Sinner, Patra Hammesfar (USA + Netflix – Anthology Series)
Cora Bender killed a man on a sunny summer afternoon in full view of her family and friends. But why? What could have caused this quiet, lovable young mother to stab a stranger in the throat, again and again, until she was pulled off his body? For the local police it was an open and shut case. But Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian refused to close the file and started his own maverick investigation. So began the slow unravelling of Cora’s past, a harrowing descent into a woman’s private hell.
Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn (HBO)
Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, reporter Camille Preaker faces a troubling assignment: she must return to her tiny hometown to cover the unsolved murder of a preteen girl and the disappearance of another.