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The best TV adaptations aren’t direct translations. They’re windows into worlds.

Why do The Handmaid’s Tale and The Magicians succeed where other TV adaptations fail?

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale is at the top of a list of recent TV book adaptations.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

At the end of the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, I knew that viewers were in good hands.

“My name is June,” says Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss. In the Margaret Atwood novel the Hulu TV series is based on, readers can deduce that Offred — a “Handmaid” who is kept in sexual slavery in a religious theocracy — is probably named June. But Atwood never comes out and says so. The TV series drags that bit of the subtext into the text by the end of hour one.

On the one hand, that’s just something the series needs to do to function. Considering that it cuts between timelines — one in the present, when June is living as Offred, and one in the past, before the rise of the Republic of Gilead and its Handmaid program — it would be very strange to have characters in the past never refer to June by name (especially when we see the first meeting between June and her husband).

But it’s also a sign that The Handmaid’s Tale has put careful consideration into what it needs to do to function as a TV show. The book shows a very slim snippet of Offred’s life; the show will have to go beyond that snippet if it wants to run for multiple seasons. And by setting up the central conflict as being not between Offred and her society, but between June (the woman who would burn down everything) and Offred (the woman who doesn’t realize how much she’s already been changed by her time as a Handmaid), it’s evident the series has thought at length about how to leave itself room to maneuver.

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale hit rough spots here and there, but even in its weakest moments, it showed again and again that it understands the number one rule of TV adaptations: They can’t just be transcriptions of source material. They have to be windows into worlds.

TV is lousy with adaptations, but the best ones break free of their source material early and often

All TV adaptations must walk a line between faithful duplication and expansion of the worlds they’re set in, no matter the nature of the source material. Fans of Atwood’s book would have rightly cried foul if Hulu’s series focused on the people fighting to overthrow Gilead, rather than the subjugation of the main character. But, conversely, an overly faithful adaptation of the book would have run out of material within six or seven episodes.

There are certainly some shows that succeed as more straightforward adaptations. Notably, Game of Thrones spent five years changing George R.R. Martin’s novels, but not too much. The events of the books largely happened in the right order and still had mostly the same results. Yet even still, the show realized very quickly in season one that it needed to devote more time to characters who were less important on the page than they would be onscreen. (The books followed a strict point-of-view structure, focusing on the interior of one character’s head per chapter; TV, by necessity, couldn’t do that.)

The Magicians
The Magicians is another terrific recent TV adaptation.

The best TV adaptations, then, study the stories they’re based on — whether novels or comics or films — and find ways to turn them into larger explorations of the source material’s world. The Handmaid’s Tale’s first season hit many of the book’s plot points, but it also directly depicted the backstories of various characters whose tales were only hinted at in the book, as well as checked in with American refugees living in Canada, having fled their homeland.

Not all of these choices were greeted with hosannas by viewers, and not all of them were successful. But the simple fact that the series was constantly thinking about ways to make the book feel more like a TV show always gave me the sense that the people involved in the show knew what they were doing, even when I didn’t agree with a creative choice.

Something similar has happened on one of TV’s other terrific adaptations, Syfy’s The Magicians. That show’s writers have three whole books to play with, but thanks to the realities of TV production, they needed to include, in their first season, a character who doesn’t become a major figure until the second book. That forced them to expand the series’ world in the pilot, and by the end of season one, even though The Magicians show was using plot events from the source books, it was twisting them through its own version of the books’ universe. (It even explicitly suggested that its events had happened before, in other permutations, to let book traditionalists off the hook.)

You can also see this approach in Starz’s American Gods. That series is a more straightforward adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel — and occasionally suffers for it — but when it drops into the backstory of one or two characters in particular, as it does for whole episodes at a time, it has to flesh out the short stories about those characters from the book (where Gaiman will occasionally include character-specific interludes that run few pages in length). And in doing so, the show can indulge co-creators Bryan Fuller (who also helmed the even more skillful TV adaptation Hannibal) and Michael Green’s talents for building on these sorts of pop texts and turning them into modern myths.

This method of respecting the source material while simultaneously opening it up doesn’t always work. For example, I more or less liked the first season of AMC’s Preacher, but its season finale suggested that the show should have simply started from where the comics that inspired it began, rather than trying to ladle on a bunch of backstory. But as TV adaptations become more and more commonplace, it’s a strategy that’s paying dividends for the best of them.

TV has always had adaptations, but the most recent ones are necessarily more ambitious than their predecessors

American Gods
American Gods is at its strongest when it adapts its source text more freely.

You can point to older TV adaptations when having this discussion, too. Little House on the Prairie arguably opened up the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books to form a TV show, and plenty of detective series — including, in recent years, Bones and Bosch — have been based on crime solvers who were first introduced in the pages of crime fiction.

But these older adaptations had a slightly lower bar to clear than many of the newer entries. Bones didn’t need to be especially faithful to the books it was loosely based on because “someone who solves murders by looking at bones” was already a solid basis for a crime procedural. Similarly, Little House quickly moved away from the specific details of its source books, to live in the space between TV Western and small-town show — two genres TV fans were already familiar with.

With The Handmaid’s Tale or The Magicians, though, those specific details from the source books and the worlds they inhabited were a big part of what made the books so beloved. The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t suddenly become just another exploration of an anti-women dystopia because, well, there aren’t any examples of that in TV history. The show has source material to fall back on, but when it comes to transforming that source material into a TV show, the series operates with less of a net.

You only have to look at a series like AMC’s The Son — a bland, ineffective Western based on a Pulitzer-nominated novel — to see the problems that arise when a show holds its cards a little too close to its chest, in order to give itself plot points to lay out in seasons to come. Like too many TV book adaptations, it all but comes out and says, “Don’t worry; this will all pay off later.”

Or think of HBO’s recently concluded The Leftovers. Though I enjoyed its first season, it was occasionally too wedded to the Tom Perrotta novel that inspired it, and its finest hours are the ones that go way, way off-book to explore some other corner of the story’s universe.

The show got even better — and, indeed, became one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen — when it left the novel behind to explore scenarios of its own construction. It kept the spirit of the book (interpersonal stories told in the midst of an unfolding supernatural crisis), but it began singing its own tune.

The Handmaid’s Tale and The Magicians and other successful TV adaptations know this is the only way to survive in an increasingly crowded television landscape. If you’re going to make a successful adaptation for TV, you have to be a TV show first, and a faithful adaptation second. Reverse that equation and you’ll end up with a bland show that withers onscreen.