The rise of the literary miniseries
If you're a voracious reader — or even a casual one — you'll probably recognize the names of three of the big TV miniseries debuting on cable and subscription streaming services within the next two weeks. On May 17, Hulu will be making available all six episodes of its new adaptation of novelist Joseph Heller's antiwar satire Catch-22. On May 23rd, Sundance TV will air the first two parts of its eight-episode version of Umberto Eco's historical mystery The Name of the Rose. On May 27, NatGeo will launch a six-part, three night miniseries based on Richard Preston's nonfiction medical thriller The Hot Zone.
Forget books on tape. These are all books you can watch.
If you're a film buff, though — or even just an occasional moviegoer with a long memory — you might recognize these titles for a different reason. All three of these books have been adapted to the big screen before. Mike Nichols directed a flop version of Catch-22, released in 1970. The Name of the Rose, starring Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater, was a solid international hit in 1986. And a star-studded — and super-unofficial — Hot Zone adaptation drew huge crowds in the spring of 1995, under the title Outbreak.
None of the movies are classics. The Name of the Rose is the best of the bunch, even though director Jean-Jacques Annaud ditches a lot of Eco's literary/historical criticism in favor of emphasizing the book's pulpier murder-mystery elements. Catch-22 is visually striking, but too lumbering to be as funky and funny as Heller. And Outbreak is pretty much a total botch, replacing Preston's scientific precision and slow-mounting terror with silly disaster picture cliches.
Are TV producers taking a second crack at these books to try getting them "right," taking advantage of the extra running-time and more adventurous audiences that television allows? Probably — at least in part. I can't speak to NatGeo's Hot Zone, because I haven't seen it yet, but I've watched both The Name of the Rose and Catch-22, and both are very full adaptations of their source material.
Catch-22 comes from the producing-directing team of George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who've previously worked together on The Ides of March and Good Night, and Good Luck, among other projects. They and Australian screenwriters David Michôd (best-known for the movie Animal Kingdom) and Luke Davies (who wrote Lion) effectively capture the absurdity of Heller's novel, which depicts military life during World War II as one long, dehumanizing con-job. More importantly, this new Catch-22 has the space to include more detail about the book's characters: the stressed-out everyman Yossarian (played by Christopher Abbot), the scheming Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), the surly Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), the blustery superior officer Scheisskopf (George Clooney), and more.
As for The Name of the Rose, this Italian-German co-production restores Umberto Eco's more philosophical musings about the true nature of Christ and Christianity, and about whether the early 14th century Catholic Church was conspiring with their wealthy benefactors to obscure it. As an inquisitive friar (played by John Turturro) investigates the strange goings-on at a monastery renowned for its extensive library and skilled scribes, he finds himself thrust into the middle of ancient debates about poverty and public service as fiercely contentious as any modern university faculty meeting — and all of that's before monks start turning up dead.
So let's stipulate that both of these novels benefit from the miniseries treatment. There's still something more to this sudden wave of TV projects that turn literary properties into multi-part "events."
The first trend is simple to explain: Success breeds imitators. In the wake of Hulu's award-winning The Handmaid's Tale (itself previously adapted into a movie) and HBO's Big Little Lies, production companies and network executives may just be scouring bookstores now for any beloved bestseller they can option.
The Handmaid's Tale and Big Little Lies though are ongoing series. The miniseries boom represented by the likes of Catch-22 and The Name of the Rose speaks more to the ongoing influence of Netflix on the way that people package and consume mass media.
Here are two seemingly random but actually correlative examples:
1. A few weeks back, Quentin Tarantino took advantage of Netflix's offer to release the unedited version of his talky western The Hateful Eight. Rather than presenting this new cut as one long movie with an intermission, as he did when it ran in theaters as a 70mm "roadshow" release, Tarantino instead divided the film into four hourlong "episodes." He made it into a Netflix miniseries, in other words.
2. Two months ago, boutique home video label The Criterion Collection unveiled its new streaming service, with a notably Netflix-like addition to its interface. Some curated selections of films have been packaged together, encouraging viewers to binge-watch them all.
There's nothing insidious about any of this. Back when network TV bought and aired recent theatrical releases, some movies were run over multiple nights, with bonus material added. The first two Godfather movies were famously edited together into chronological order, with new footage, then broadcast as a miniseries during the era when minis like Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man were big business.
As for the Criterion Channel design ... well, that's just smart business. Everyone who works in media over the past decade-plus has struggled to keep up with consumers' habits, trying to find ways to guide readers, viewers, and listeners to the quality content they might otherwise overlook. If Criterion can take advantage of the completist impulse Netflix has nurtured — "Don't just watch this 90-minute thing, watch five more that are similar!" — then the worst that will happen is that their subscribers will see some great films, and get their money's worth.
All these trends — from the re-selling of already-popular stories to the repositioning of every form of audio-visual narrative into binge-able chunks — has to do with catering to what audiences seem to want. Unknown properties are harder to sell than stories that already have well-known titles like The Name of the Rose. And it's apparently easier these days to get people to sit still for multiple chapters of a closed-ended story than it is to persuade them to watch a single three-hour movie.
Is this the future of entertainment, or just the present? That's the question that everybody in Hollywood who has bet big on multi-movie franchises and similar hot storytelling trends — in some cases unwisely — has to be asking themselves. Will every movie and book we've ever loved get reapportioned into Netflix-style TV "seasons" for the next decade or so? Or will some other new way to enjoy media come along soon — and with it, eventually, yet another version of Catch-22? What comes first with these projects: the content or the form?
That's a conundrum fit for Joseph Heller himself.