Hits & Flops: The Most Notable Book-to-TV Series Adaptations

Game of Thrones

Book-to-screen adaptations have been popular for decades, but it seems like just about every series that comes out nowadays has been adapted from a popular novel or memoir. Apple TV+ specifically seems like it’s aiming to turn every book ever made into a series, with nearly all of their newest releases coming straight from the publishing world (Pachinko, Dark Matter, Palm Royale and Lessons in Chemistry, just to name a few).

No complaints here! This is a great trend for authors, and viewers (though it would be nice if people actually read books instead of just watching their onscreen adaptations), but it sure gets difficult to keep up with them all. Here’s just a short list of some of the best (and worst) book-to-screen TV adaptations, starting with my personal favorites.


MAID, from left: Margaret Qualley, Andie MacDowell, M', (Season 1, ep. 106, aired Oct. 1, 2021).

Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix/Everett Collection

This Netflix limited series was so good. Telling the story of a young mother who leaves an abusive partner and is homeless for a while before she gets a job as a maid (with very little help from her bohemian mother), it stars real-life mother-daughter duo Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley. Hopefully they have a healthier relationship than their characters!

Fleishman Is in Trouble

FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE, from left: Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, God, What An Idiot He Was!!', (Season 1, ep. 104, aired Dec. 1, 2022).

Giovanni Rufino/FX/Courtesy of FX via Everett Collection

This FX series based on the novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who also wrote and cast the show, was a unique and thoughtful portrayal of parenthood and relationships in the modern world. With universal themes and a deep understanding of the human psyche that anyone who has been in a relationship can relate to (even if the setting, an upscale Manhattan neighborhood filled with wealthy overachievers, is specific and elite enough to at times be off-putting), the limited series starring Jesse Eisenberg as Toby Fleishman, a recently divorced doctor, is a complex and often amusing window into a world where everyone attempts to have it all.

But the problem is, of course, that no one can have it all. After Toby’s ex-wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), disappears, his life begins to unravel, and viewers have a front-row seat to the demise of their entire marriage via flashbacks of the start of their relationship, which is littered with red flags conveniently ignored by love goggles. Basically every character is having a midlife crisis simultaneously, so that makes the series an interesting watch at the very least, but it is also very well-written.

Game of Thrones

Emilia Clarke; Game of Thrones; HBO; Season 4

HBO/Macall B. Polay

This one is such an obviously great book adaptation that I almost forgot about putting it on this list (perhaps because the last season was so bad I removed it from my memory)! I cannot think of another book series in history that has had so many people, readers and nonreaders, so anxiously awaiting the next book, let alone another TV series in which viewers know the name of the author as much as they know the names of the actors playing his characters. Following the long battle for the Iron Throne in the fictional kingdom of Westeros, and its penultimate battle with frozen zombie White Walkers, this show was epic in scope and even more epic in its fandom. Other than the last season or two, the series was excellent. Kudos to George R.R. Martin for creating such a complex and interesting world, and to the showrunners for bringing it to screens. He is really living the dream.

Luckily, GOT fans can distract themselves from wondering when The Winds of Winter will finally be released by watching the prequel series, House of the Dragon, which will air its second season this summer, and is another excellent book-to-screen adaptation.

Paper Girls

PAPER GIRLS, from left: Sofia Rosinsky, Riley Lai Nelet, 'Weird Al Is Dead', (Season 1, ep. 102, aired July 29, 2022).

Anjali Pinto/Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection

I have not read the comic book series on which this short-lived series was based, but the show was amazing! It follows four young girls who become unwittingly caught up in a conflict between warring time travelers after going through a portal on Halloween in 1988. As they travel between time periods, they encounter future versions of themselves, and have the most interesting/funny/heartbreaking conversations. I was looking forward to a second season, but unfortunately, that’s not happening.

The Leftovers

THE LEFTOVERS, (from left): Amanda Warren, Frank Harts, Justin Theroux, 'Pilot', (Season 1, ep. 101, aired June 29, 2014).

Paul Schiraldi/HBO/Everett Collection

This fun sort-of dystopian HBO drama series starring Justin Theroux was based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (who is also responsible for the films Little Children and Election, and the somewhat less successful show Mrs. Fletcher) in which 2% of the world’s population disappears. For some reason, this creates a lot of turmoil, resulting in all sorts of odd subcultures and problems, including one bizarre cult that entails wearing white, a vow of silence, and smoking a lot of cigarettes. Margaret Qualley is also in this. Also notable: The Leftovers has one of the best series finales I’ve ever seen.

The Queen’s Gambit

THE QUEENS GAMBIT, Anya Taylor-Joy, (Season 1, premiered Oct. 23, 2020).

Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

This Netflix series hit it big during the 2020 lockdowns when everyone was stuck at home and needed something to watch. What else would explain such a successful TV phenomenon about chess? Based on a 1983 book by Walter Tevis, it followed a female chess prodigy in the 1950s and ’60s and made the actress who played her (Anya Taylor-Joy) a huge star.

The Last Thing He Told Me

THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME, from left: Angourie Rice, Jennifer Garner, 'Keep Austin Weird', (Season 1, ep. 103, aired April 21, 2023).

Ryan Green/Apple TV+/Courtesy Everett Collection

The limited series follows a woman named Hannah (Jennifer Garner) who must forge a relationship with her recalcitrant teenage stepdaughter (Angourie Rice) while trying to find her missing husband — played by Game of Thrones alum Nikolaj Coster-Waldau — and attempting to figure out why he has suddenly disappeared. Compelling and nuanced, the show skillfully explores the idea of sacrifice, and the costs people pay for every decision they make in their lives. I read this book back in 2021 when it first came out, and I loved it. I really enjoyed the show as well, and got to talk to author Laura Dave about it last year.

Station Eleven

STATION ELEVEN, Mackenzie Davis (center, on horse), 'A Hawk From a Handsaw', (Season 1, ep. 102, aired Dec. 16, 2021).

Ian Watson/HBO Max/Courtesy Everett Collection

I have mixed feelings about this miniseries, as it was quite different from the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel (it’s almost like an entirely different story in some ways), which was one of my favorite books of the 2010s; however, the final episode was excellent, and it’s a worthwhile watch overall if you like post-apocalyptic dramas. It tells the tale of a small group of traveling actors who tour the Midwest after a deadly flu wipes out most of the population and has some great themes on the importance of art for survival.

The Crowded Room

THE CROWDED ROOM, from left: Amanda Seyfried, Tom Holland, 'Savior', (Season 1, ep. 101, aired June 9, 2023).

Apple TV+/Courtesy Everett Collection

Starring Amanda Seyfried and Tom Holland, who is also an executive producer, The Crowded Room (another one from Apple TV+) really puts the psychological in psychological thriller. Set in New York City in 1979, the story is told through a series of interviews with a curious interrogator named Rya (Seyfried) and a troubled young man named Danny (Holland), who is arrested following his involvement in a shooting. The entire cast deliver stellar performances, and Emmy Rossum is remarkable as Danny’s extremely complicated, memorable mother. Directed by Akiva Goldsman (the man behind A Beautiful Mind), this one is only inspired by a book (written about a real person) but the series is excellent, with a totally unexpected twist ending.

A Gentleman in Moscow

Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow, streaming on Paramount+ 2024.

Jason Bell/Paramount+ With Showtime

This limited series, set during the years after the Russian Revolution, does a great job of illustrating is how it felt to be living through such an unstable, horrifying time in history. All without ever leaving the Hotel Metropol, where protagonist Alexander Rostov, played by Ewan McGregor (and a very on-point Russian mustache), is imprisoned for the rest of his life. Kudos to author Amor Towles, and the series showrunners on that one. Probably because I am an immigrant from the USSR, my favorite part of this show is the setting, and the setting is also what sets it apart from other historical dramas; it’s an uncommon location and time period, and it is filmed beautifully and carefully, without making one feel as claustrophobic as the former aristocrat must have felt being stuck in a hotel for so many decades. It’s certainly better than getting sent to a Gulag, but a prison is a prison nonetheless — one of the many underlying themes of the show. A very interesting story, overall, but the highlight is probably the amazing cinematography. (For a more in-depth analysis of this series, click here.)

Presumed Innocent

Jake Gyllenhaal in Apple TV+ show Presumed Innocent

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

David E. Kelley and J.J. Abrams join forces for this modern retelling of the 1990 film of the same name starring Harrison Ford, based on the 1987 Scott Turow courtroom novel of the same name. While I can’t say much about it, as it won’t be released until June 12, I do recommend that you get Apple TV+ if you haven’t yet. This is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Following the journey investigating a horrific murder of an employee of Chicago’s district attorney’s office, after which one of their own is accused of the crime, this modern retelling takes a different approach that doesn’t necessarily follow its predecessor, with an assortment of new characters and storylines included and a real shroud of mystery surrounding who the murderer really is. The cast is fantastic, and a real family affair, with Jake Gyllenhaal playing lead protagonist Rusty Sabich and his brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard portraying lead antagonist/fellow prosecutor Tommy Molto, who are directly at odds with one another for the entire series. (Real-life husband and wife Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel also portray the district attorney and his wife.)

Other well-done adaptations to note: Shōgun, Single Drunk Female, Bridgerton, The Last Kingdom, The Boys

… And a Few Flops

It’s challenging to recreate stories meant for print, and kudos to filmmakers for even trying, but sometimes they really drop the ball on these adaptations. Here are some of my least favorites.

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (also author of Gone Girl) is probably my favorite book ever, so I was probably more disappointed than anyone when I sat down to finally watch this 2018 HBO series adaptation starring Amy Adams.

SHARP OBJECTS, from left: Amy Adams, Chris Messaina, 'Ripe', (Season 1, ep. 104, aired July 29, 2018).

Anne Marie Fox/HBO/Courtesy: Everett Collection

In my opinion this was a total flop, despite its excellent cast, which also included Chris Messina and Patricia Clarkson. I hated it, and could barely get through all the episodes. They somehow managed to deflate all the great tension of the novel and make all the characters flat and unlikable. It was a major disappointment and is probably the worst adaptation I’ve ever witnessed.

Big Little Lies

BIG LITTLE LIES, from left: Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, 'Somebody's Dead', (Season 1, ep. 101, aired Feb. 19, 2017).

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO/Courtesy: Everett Collection

I know this was a huge hit and even inspired a second season, despite the fact that Australian author Liane Moriarty never wrote a sequel to it, but I just didn’t like it very much; the characters were not very interesting or developed, and I found the plot extremely predictable. The soundtrack was great though, and it was very cinematically appealing.

Other flops to note: Saint X, High Fidelity, Nine Perfect Strangers, Normal People, You (excellent book series though).

What are your favorite book adaptations?

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