They say not to judge a book by its cover, but how about by its screen adaptation? A film version used to be the logical and desirable next step for any successful literary property, but in the past decade-and-change those have often been TV shows instead. The book-to-TV pipeline is dense and mighty, and the promised binge of a book club favorite is as highly-anticipated as any primetime drama. What changes did the author (often part of the production team) allow or implement? What works better (or worse) on screen? Did this need to be a TV show, or could it have been left alone in its original form?
In fall 2023 alone, IndieWire noticed a significant number of new TV premieres based on novels, short stories, or comics. From Apple’s “The Changeling” to Netflix’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” FX’s “American Horror Story: Delicate,” and the “Scott Pilgrim” anime, the page and small screen are still closely connected, eager to share each other’s stories.
With more and more book adaptations on TV, it’s easy to forget the growing list of entries past, or to get lost in the changes, successes, and failures. When it came to picking the 15 best, IndieWire looked at quality shows, even if the source material wasn’t of the same quality. We also limited this list to series that debuted in the past 20 years, and it still wasn’t easy! If you’re looking for more in this category, check out our most controversial film and TV adaptations, best literary adaptations on Netflix, and this cute critics survey from 2017.
Below, in no particular order, are 15 exceptional TV shows based on books.
Ben Travers contributed to this list.
1. “Friday Night Lights” (NBC, Direct TV)
Here’s to good friends livin’ large in Texas. H.G. Bissinger’s non-fiction chronicling of one high school football team’s journey led to a watchable movie and indelible TV show. On NBC (and then DirectTV), Peter Berg turned the Odessa, Texas into Dillon and Coach Gary Gaines into Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). With creative liberty on his side, Berg crafted a cast of characters out of both high school archetypes and the authentic complexity of people — characters like Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), Lyla Garritty (Minka Kelly), Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) and mother Tami Taylor (Connie Britton). “FNL” furthered the noble mission of the film and book before it, making every viewer of the story invest immensely in high school football — only to realize that it wasn’t the game that mattered, but the rich team of players. —PK
2. “Sharp Objects” (HBO)
Just because a story is being adapted faithfully doesn’t mean it can’t be adapted with style. Jean-Marc Vallée brought Gillian Flynn’s debut novel to life with distinct visual flair and stunning performances from Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson. Camille (Adams) returns to her hometown to report on two tragic murders, only to dig up her own worst demons both internally and at home. You cannot tell me that every Sunday-night HBO appointment miniseries about a murder (“Mare of Easttown!” “White Lotus!” Even “The Undoing!”) — and their growing number — doesn’t owe something to “Sharp Objects,” isn’t chasing that feeling. That last scene will haunt us forever, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. —PK
3. “Normal People” (Hulu, BBC Three)
Maybe it was the pandemic (it wasn’t), the springtime (it wasn’t), or the searing chemistry between Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal (it was!), but Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name had no right to hurt us the way it did. Unlike the lukewarm “Conversations With Friends” adaptation that would follow, “Normal People” understood exactly what made the original source material so irresistible, and how to translate Marianne (Edgar-Jones) and Connell’s (Mescal) layered, years-long relationship on screen. In the hands of Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, the emotional beats crackle as much as the sex scenes, leaving the audience hungering for more after 12 episodes. —PK
4. “The Underground Railroad” (Prime Video)
To date, only one Colson Whitehead novel has been adapted for the screen — and not for lack of trying. “Sag Harbor” was optioned in 2021 when Max still had “HBO” in front of it. “The Nickel Boys” is set to become a feature film in the next year or so. “The Intuitionist” was Barry Jenkins’ first dream adaptation, which emerged long before he directed the staggering limited series based on Whitehead’s acclaimed 2016 novel, “The Underground Railroad.” If prospective writers weren’t already intimidated at the prospect of tackling the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s work, they certainly should be after seeing what Jenkins has done.
Centered on Cora (who’s embodied with utter magnificence by Thuso Mbedu), the 10-episode story imagines the real-life underground railroad as an actual railroad, where conductors guide a train through the antebellum South by way of transporting slaves to safer states, communities, and lives. Cora was born on a plantation and, long after her mother makes her own run for freedom, her teenage daughter flees, as well. Soon, she’s on a perilous tour of sorts, where each new destination poses unknown threats and dilemmas. Where should she go? When should she stay? How can she find the resolve to go on when faced with so much animosity, danger, and disregard? It’s here that Jenkins’ delicate touch proves invaluable. Cora finds beauty, kindness, and hope in her freed brothers and sisters, fellow escapees, and even the land around her. Be it the goodwill of Caesar (Aaron Pierre), the perseverance of Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), or the love of Royal (William Jackson Harper), Cora’s path forward is filled with as much of the best of humanity as the worst.
“The Underground Railroad” is a pivotal story not just because of how it recontextualizes American history, bridging the past and the present, but because of how beautifully it captures the people at its center. It understands the book and builds from it, in ways all adaptations should strive for, but none could copy. Bring on “The Intuitionist,” Barry. We’re ready. —BT
5. “Station Eleven” (HBO)
Emily St. John Mandel’s series comes to gorgeous, spectacular life in this HBO adaptation that deserved every award but was somehow mostly overlooked. Maybe it was too soon to watch the quickly collapsing dominoes of a global pandemic — even if the show’s flu is deadlier than any virus in human history. Himesh Patel, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mackenzie Davis, and Danielle Deadwyler are part of the unimpeachable cast, with Matilda Lawler giving an immense performance as young Kirsten in flashbacks with Patel. “Station Eleven” shares fundamental similarities with “The Leftovers,” examining collective grief and trauma and the human connections that make any amount of suffering tolerable — and the future worth saving. —PK
6. “The Baby-Sitters Club” (Netflix)
IndieWire has written before what a top to bottom delight the two seasons of Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club” book series is. Appropriately updated to modern times but still just as charming, the series – which charmingly features Alicia Silverstone as lead Kristy’s mom – deals with all kinds of growing up foibles, and much like the original book series, concentrates on the girls’ business acumen alongside boy troubles and friend fights. This is exactly the kind of tween show that all TV should aspire to. Happily, you don’t have to be 12 to get quite a lot out of this big-hearted joy. —ES
7. “Watchmen” (HBO)
Some TV adaptations follow middling film ones, and that’s okay. Plenty of viewers watched the watchmen with Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie, but some critics found it inaccessible to those unfamiliar with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ source material, or insufficiently resonant to the modern viewer. The same can’t be said of Damon Lindelof’s 2019 series, which used the text as inspiration and connected it to the Vietnam War, Tulsa Massacre, and contemporary racial politics (Lindelof’s own history with the latter is complicated, but he has stressed in interviews that he strived for a diverse writers room on “Watchmen” and to listen rather than talk). The result is a brilliant mosaic of surreal narrative puzzle pieces, led by the superheroic performances of Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. —PK
8. “Pachinko” (Apple TV+)
Time is one of the key traits books and television share. Both storytelling platforms allow their narratives to burrow and sprawl, to sit and evolve, to pivot quickly or hit you with the weight of hours, weeks, and years of shared experience. Time allows for these choices, and while plenty of writers point to time as the reason a book is better off adapted as a series than a film, few creators understand its power and importance like Soo Hugh does in “Pachinko.” Adapting Min Jin Lee’s 2017 book of the same name, Hugh crafts a saga both intimate and sweeping, using one to build the other, through the recounting of a single woman’s life. Sunja, born in Japanese-occupied Korea during the early 20th century, moves to Japan as a young adult and eventually settles there. “Pachinko” sees her in three different stages. First, as a very young girl, then as she’s forced to flee her home country, and much later, when she’s a grandmother preparing to revisit Korea for the first time since leaving. At its heart, “Pachinko” is a family story. Its episodes are filled with universal milestones like marriage and death, affairs and relocations, kids and long-lost friends. Many of these moments are cast against the backdrop of immense shifts in history, from world wars to devastating earthquakes, yet Hugh’s vision balances the scale between personal and global. A reunion between two people feels as earth-shaking as the literal ground being ripped open. Credit all-around — production design and costumes, actors and directors — as “Pachinko” comes alive because of its intricate, immediate use of time, how it ties us together and tears us apart. —BT
9. “The Leftovers” (HBO)
The “Lost” finale didn’t go over so well, but it didn’t stop Damon Lindelof from leaning into his love for the abstract, this time diving headfirst into Tom Perrotta’s post-apocalyptic novel. Perrotta co-created the series and served as executive producer, which helped it expand upon or make changes to the novel that felt seamlessly woven into the show. Season 2 rest characters and locations, and episodes regularly departed (ha) from reality into unknown realms or Kevin’s (Justin Theroux) subconscious. As the Season 2 theme song cheekily hinted, this was not a series to watch in search of answers and explanations, but to question the essence of humanity and who we are in the face of collective grief and unforeseen circumstances. —PK
10. “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix)
Give or take a “Tiger King,” did any show benefit from airing during the pandemic more than “The Queen’s Gambit”? Hitting right at the moment (fall 2020) when we all desperately needed something new to watch, it was a great advertisement that a quality show – no matter what it’s about – could potentially always find a massive audience. Making a star out of Anya Taylor-Joy, the little-known tale (based on a book from the 1980s) tells the tale of a chess prodigy in the 1960s, learning to play in the orphanage where she grew up and rising to worldwide domination. Spunky and sharp, it was an easy story to get totally wrapped up in. Who saw this one coming? —ES
11. “Fleishman is in Trouble” (FX)
This is another rare example where the adaptation is better than the book it is based on (especially odd as book author Taffy Brodesser-Akner adapted the show herself). Starring Claire Danes, Jesse Eisenberg, and Lizzy Caplan the book has some “Gone Girl” vibes, but really the show is a deep exploration of middle age ennui and the lifestyle hang ups among NYC’s wealthy but not fabulously wealthy set. Sharp and thought provoking, the series garnered multiple Emmy nods and generated a ton of think pieces about The Way We Live Now. —ES
12. “My Brilliant Friend” (HBO)
Lots of TV shows draw from books, but “My Brilliant Friend” somehow feels like a book. The breathtaking Italian drama is based on Elana Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, and watching it evokes the same feeling as curling up with a dense read on a lazy day. Margherita Mazzucco stars as Elena “Lenu” Greco, an aspiring writer growing up in a small neighborhood outside Naples where everyone knows each other’s business. Despite their complicated relationship, she can’t resist the pull toward best friend Leela (Gaia Girace), and the women’s lives remain intertwined well into adulthood, exacerbating their love, their competition, their need for each other. —PK
13. “Unorthodox” (Netflix)
Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography about being raised in a Hasidic community before ultimately escaping it following an unhappy marriage, “Unorthodox” was a moving, complicated four-part miniseries that shows just how difficult it is to leave our past behind. Featuring a standout performance from Shira Haas, the series earned eight Primetime Emmy nominations following its 2020 debut. —ES
14. “Big Little Lies” (HBO)
Beautiful vistas, dark secrets, and an A-list cast? It’s easy to spoof, but HBO’s all-star adaptation of the popular book by Liane Moriarty was a Sunday night treat when it aired in 2017. All these movie stars – Nicole Kidman! Reese Witherspoon! – doing television. It was a treat to watch a project with so many meaty roles, and the cast all made a meal of the opportunity (Laura Dern, in particular, was doing a lot with a little). Although a Meryl Streep-supporting second season failed to hit the highs of the first (that tends to happen when you go beyond the book and the original central murder mystery!) it still holds up as an all-time vibe watch. Let the waves wash over you and enjoy every scream, costume, and incredible monologue about wealth. —ES
15. “Bridgerton” (Netflix)
So, here’s a little secret: The book series upon which Shondaland created the show….isn’t very good. There are a lot of better romantic tales! But this Netflix show is a monster and that is because for a certain subset of people (including this author) regency-era love stories will always be wish fulfillment pleasure. Focusing on a different main couple each season is a great way to keep the series fresh, and both seasons feature steamy scenes with a diverse cast of hotties. Featuring breakout turns from Rege-Jean Page, Phoebe Dynevor, Jonathan Bailey and more, it’s not a bad way to spin a chilly weekend on the couch, swept up in the problems of the 19th century aristocracy. —ES