It seems like in the last decade their have been a lot of adaptions of books to the small screen just as there have to the big screen. Some have been more successful than others. The granddaddy of them all would have to A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, but True Blood, Dexter, Pretty Little Liars, The Walking Dead and Sherlock have had a great deal of success as well. There are others as well that are more of a mixed bag/outright failures: Legend of the Seeker[based on Goodkind's books], Dresden Files, Lying Game, Pillars of Earth, Under the Dome. I'm sure there are others as well. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black might be based on books as well[or based on a series based on books]. Feel free to discuss other adaptations as well. Looking over the list I think one thing is clear: the closer the adaptations stay to the books the better. This makes sense. The books aren't popular because the author is good at naming characters; they are popular because the author is good at telling a story. So if you don't stick with that story than you are just throwing darts coming up with a new story.
The Dresden Files and Legend of the Seeker were both hot messes since they both seemed to have little resemblance to the series on which they purported to be based other than rough sketches of the main characters and their names. I recently read two books that I thought I'd look at in more depth that were adapted for television: Outlander and the Cold Dish. Follow me over the squiggle for spoilers galore though I won't give away the ending to The Cold Dish.
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson is the first of the Walt Longmire Mysteries. It was a little outside of my comfort zone in terms of the types of books that I normally read, but I'm glad I did. As the series title, it is close to a hard-boiled detective story though don't hold me to that as I am not sure as to the precise definition of a hard-boiled detective story. The Cold Dish centers around the murder of a rapist and the subsequent targeting/murder of others involved in the rape of a young Indian girl. Walt Longmire is the sheriff of the Wyoming county where the novel takes place and the rape investigation/trial as well as the death of his wife have hit him hard, but as the book progresses he seems to rejoin the world at large. In the beginning, the reader is led to believe that the rapists had gotten off scott-free as frequently happens in rape cases, but as the book progresses we learn that they were convicted/sentenced. But it still left a sour taste in many character's mouths who were unhappy with the extent of the punishment.
But the novel is so much more than just a look at a murder investigation. There is a lot of sarcastic, humorous banter between the characters as well as well-fleshed characters/backstories as well as some side stories. You care about the characters and the ending packs an emotional punch for everyone involved. It is also a very interesting look at both Wyoming and Indian/Cheyenne/Sioux culture. A central character in the story is a sharp shooter rifle that was used by the Cheyenne at Custer's Last Stand, and then hidden and passed down through the generations. You also get a sense that some characters are more attuned to Indian culture than others[even the little things like whether to call them Indians or Native Americans]. For someone like me that doesn't really now much about the culture it was very interesting.
Longmire was adapted by A&E and is now in its third season. I watched the pilot on Netflix after finishing the book. It started out so promisingly, but then it fell flat and collapsed under its own weight into just another procedural. The opening scene seemed right out of the book. Katee Sackhoff, Starbuck from the recent Battlestar Gallactica, struck me as perfect casting for Vic, but then it seemed like the 30 seconds we see her in the opening scene is all we see her the whole episode despite her being a major character in the book. Henry Standing Bear came across as much more stereotypical than the nuanced portrayal in the book. When he becomes a suspect in the case, the viewer can't help but get the impression that the reason is racist. In the book when he becomes a suspect there are very good reasons, and Walt never believes that Henry did it, but feels it is a professional responsibility to keep the option open. The murder itself lost all nuance as the victim went from being a rapist to a heroic father trying to save his daughter from a brothel with the perpetrator being exactly who you'd think. You could try to project that the father maybe wasn't a completely good guy as he had abandoned his daughter for likely racist reasons, but as a viewer that seems to take a couple of leaps. Walt's interaction with the reservation also seemed much changed for the worse. The ending was essentially the complete opposite of the book and very unsatisfying. It seemed an attempt to make Walt flawed, because the TV show was too lazy to explore his actual flaws as fleshed out in the book. I think they would have been much better served to spend 3-4 episodes per book and then do 3-4 books over the course of the season. Sherlock, the closest analog, takes the equivalent of 2 episodes per story and I think the Sherlock Holmes stories are shorter than a full book.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is a different beast entirely. I actually thought when I first picked up the novel that it would be closer to my comfort zone of epic/high fantasy, but it isn't really. Despite the main character Claire traveling back in time, it is really more of a historical fiction/romance. The novel is about a WWII nurse who while on vacation with her husband is transported back in time to the 1700s. She is then caught up in the conflict between the Scottish and the English as she both tries to survive and make a life for herself as she also is trying to get back to her time. I think my expectations influenced my reaction to the book, but it was still an enjoyable read. Claire is a strong character who is just trying to survive and get home and perhaps discovers something else about herself along the way. It was a very enjoyable read.
It was adapted for television by Starz and released for viewing a couple of days ago on Starz's website and your cable's VOD services. It formally debuts this Saturday, I think. In many ways it is better than the book. I've already rewatched it once which is something that I only ever do for Game of Thrones and perhaps Doctor Who. I just fell in love with the cinematography and the music and the pacing and the costumes and the scenery. The pilot is pretty much a scene for scene portrayal of the book up to the arrival at the Scottish castle. Some of the dialog even feels like it came right from the book. Most of the pilot takes place in the 1940s and there seems to be a lot of attention to detail. There is a flash back scene of Claire doing field medicine during the war which is very well done, and a nice touch considering they probably could have gotten away with not having it. It really has the feel, much like some of HBO's productions, of a very long movie being presented for TV viewing. I also like how the Gaelic speech isn't subtitled as it really helps the viewer to identify with Claire. The internal monologue voice-over by Claire is very well done and serves the same purpose. The vase observation from the book was included as well, and I thought it worked even better on screen with her looking in a shop window. It came across a little hokey in the book for me. I had to double check that Frank and Black Jack Randall really were the same actor. Much like Orphan Black, there is a resemblance, but they also are different. The 1700s version seems to have a harder appearance as you would expect from a harder time. For anyone who is a fan of the books or even someone who has never read the books, I couldn't recommend this show enough. I know a number of people around here are fans of the books.