Television as Translator: How TV Has Become Fiction’s Final Destination

An axe falls. Ned Stark’s head rolls. An android kills her creator. She discovers her soul. A blind super hero puts on a horn-rimmed costume. He achieves his destiny. An unknown culprit murders a children’s author. His actions birth endless possibilities. Each of these four circumstances occurs in a modern television series. They all have one thing in common. Each sequence comes from a story that did not originate on television. They were created for a different medium. But it was television that truly gave them life.

If we examine some of television’s greatest recent successes, they include a clear majority of properties that previously existed in another medium. Programs such as “Game of Thrones,” “The Defenders” and “Westworld” each began their existence as a book, comic book, and film (respectively), and found new life on television. Now, with the release of Steven Soderbergh’s “Mosaic” as both an HBO mini-series and an interactive mobile app, another boundary has been broken in television’s multimedia conquest. “Mosaic” is the pinnacle of television’s greatest modern accomplishment: its ability to act as a translator of fiction from all other mediums. All four of these series represents television as translator.

Book to Television: ‘Game of Thrones’

It’s perhaps morbid to declare that “Game of Thrones” became the phenomenon it did because of death scenes, but it happens to be true. The series, based on George R.R. Martin’s popular fantasy novels, made headlines with its first season’s penultimate episode, when would-be protagonist Ned Stark met his gruesome end on a chopping block. This shocking development created the series’ trend of murdering beloved characters and morphing their deaths into compelling cultural moments. The mass slaughter of the Stark family during the infamous Red Wedding became an even bigger cultural moment, the impact of which is still discussed today. Both Ned’s death and the Red Wedding were important scenes in George R.R. Martin’s novels too, but due to the more limited scope of a book page, they couldn’t possibly achieve the kind of mass impact that the TV series created.

“Thrones” infamous character killings play to the strengths of the television format. The series’ murderous reputation has enabled it to effectively tease fans about an endangered character’s fate and stretch the suspense across seasons (particularly between seasons 5 and 6). The suspense generated between books simply cannot match it. While George R.R. Martin has not released a new book since 2013, the “Game of Thrones” showrunners have faithfully released a new season on a semi-yearly schedule, consistently building on the series’ fine-tuned momentum. The time between books can be a huge detriment to fan enthusiasm. Even die-hard book fanatics have been forced to turn to the TV series, which has outpaced Martin’s books, and now appears set to complete the “Game of Thrones” story before he does.

In its race to the finish line, “Game of Thrones” has wisely decided to cut out excessive chunks of Martin’s narrative, which became increasingly unwieldy in his last two novels. Seasons 5, 6 and 7 trimmed Martin’s subplots to the bone, dispensing with huge chunks of unnecessary narrative and punching up the series’ pacing in the process. This speaks to one of the major benefits in television over books. A novel can easily become meandering and indulgent on the whims of the author. Television, because of its mandate to fit a particular time slot and a seasonal episode order, necessarily needs to condense narrative excess. This can be a detriment in some cases. But with “Game of Thrones,” the translation from book to television has led to tighter, more effective and engaging storytelling.

Film to Television: ‘Westworld’

“Westworld” was adapted from a single 40-year old film. The series delves deep into the human psyche, asking profound questions about identity. The robotic citizens of the Westworld amusement park play through the mysterious maze to find an elusive, coveted artifact: their human soul. Like “Game of Thrones,” the concept originated in another medium. Though not a novel, “Westworld” was a film written by novelist Michael Crichton. The film was well-received in 1973, but it was a brief sci-fi thriller, incapable of and uninterested in achieving the thought-provoking depths attained in the series.

The “Westworld” movie was told from the perspective of the human characters, with the robots ultimately serving as rudimentary villains. When the robots malfunction, they take on a Terminator-like quality, hunting their targets relentlessly. “Westworld” the series probes deeply into exactly why the robots malfunction. In the movie, a simple computer virus is to blame. In the series, it’s nothing less than the robots’ repressed memories and all-too-human souls that drive the eventual rebellion against their human creators. The series works better, not just because of the increased storytelling depth, but because it addresses the deepest questions that the film raises but never answers. Without a true voice given to the robots, we never come to understand their genesis. The series gives us those answers, and in so doing, solidifies Crichton’s “Westworld” concepts.

Crichton barely scratched the surface in his 88-minute film. The series burrows a tunnel of deep understanding into the robot’s minds. “Westworld” is an example of television as translator, expanding ideas that couldn’t really work within filmic constraints, and giving those ideas their fullest airing. What Crichton began in 1973 was not finished until 2016, when “Westworld” finally gave his intriguing concepts the breadth, philosophy and gravity they deserved. Its television translation working at it’s most effective, not only expanding on filmic concepts, but completing them.

Comic Book to Television: ‘The Defenders’

Netflix’s “The Defenders” is an interesting look at how television can be a cross-section of multiple mediums at once. The Netflix series “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage” and “Iron Fist” each began as a popular Marvel comic book. But the Netflix/Marvel series also take advantage of the franchise-building movie formula of “The Avengers.” Each of the four series contains a distinctive tone and sensibility that suits their protagonist’s unique disposition. When the characters finally interact in “The Defenders,” it feels like the meeting of four very different but equally authentic worlds.

The cinematic universe, with it’s studio-mandated formula, is never allowed creative room to breathe. Even with the more freewheeling efforts like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” the movies are still forced to maintain a comedic, light-hearted disposition. The comparative flexibility of “The Defenders” speaks to both the freedom of television and the strength of the series’ comic books roots. Television allows for a more direct and authentic translation of the comic book format than film does. Comic books, by their very nature, are designed to be told sequentially, with never-ending story arcs. The comic book format is far closer to the structure of television than film.

One of the more common criticisms of the Marvel movies is that they no longer operate according to the standard rules of cinema. A film is supposed to be complete unto itself, and the Marvel movies never are. As a result, there’s an inherent schism between comics and film, while comic books and television are a perfect marriage. They adhere to the same rules of storytelling. Long character arcs, episodic narratives, crossovers and cliffhanger endings. Television is natural and effective in its ability to replicate comic book storytelling. “The Defenders” is a direct example of how television can act as an ideal translator of fiction, combining movie and comic elements into something more critically successful than the films and more culturally impactful than the comics.

Interactive Television: ‘Mosaic’

“Mosaic” represents a ground-breaking initiative in television. The series is both a 6-episode limited HBO series and a choose-your-own adventure style interactive phone app. Steven Soderbergh’s series revolves around a murder mystery, and the various suspects each contain their own narrative. The narratives are broken up into separate branching segments on the app, which you can view in any order you choose. But the puzzle can’t be fully solved until you watch the television series. The TV version assembles all of “Mosaic’s” various character arcs into a single, mostly chronological, narrative. It’s only after finishing the app and viewing the TV series that the complete picture of “Mosaic” is finally understood.

The entire experience of “Mosaic” marks a remarkable step forward in television programming. Its interactive component grants viewers unparalleled access into the characters’ lives. You don’t simply watch them. You probe them, you investigate them. You take a direct hand in your viewing experience. But without the television series anchoring the narrative, there would be little incentive to play. It’s television that makes investing in “Mosaic” truly worthwhile. If “Mosaic” were released as an app only, it would have been far more difficult to find an audience, even with a name like Soderbergh’s attached.

Tying the app to a film could have been an option. But Soderbergh, wisely aware of the public’s consciousness and the shifting of quality entertainment towards television, likely knew better. The Soderbergh-produced Western series “Godless” began as 3-hour film script before finding new life on Netflix. Soderbergh’s own Showtime series “The Knick” granted him the creative wiggle room absent from a typical Hollywood film. By the same token, a single movie’s narrative could never have encapsulated the scope of “Mosaic.” But television, with its flexibility and increasing creative freedom, could do it. Television was the key. It was the factor that would bring attention to “Mosaic” and combine the app’s various threads into a single, watchable narrative.  

Conclusion: Fiction Translated

“Mosaic’s” release as a translator between TV series and phone app is symbolic of television’s power as a transcendent medium. Television eclipses bounds of format, allowing virtually any pre-existing property to shine regardless of its original medium. Whether it’s books, comics, films, or even phone apps, television is the great equalizer. It allows previously existing fictional works to thrive without losing any of their integrity.

With “Game of Thrones,” “Westworld,” and “The Defenders,” the television series improve upon the original versions and imbue them with resounding new life. With “Mosaic,” the television version completes the story and turns it into tangible entertainment. Every medium has its own intrinsic value, and there’s no denying the intimate thrill of reading a great fantasy novel, or the absorbing totality of watching a provocative sci-fi film. But it’s television that most effectively combines stories from other forms and maximizes their impact. Television has become the center of gravity for modern storytelling. Television is fiction’s greatest translator.