What do The Handmaid's Tale, Catch-22, High Fidelity, and Little Fires Everywhere have in common?
They're all critically acclaimed novels later adapted into Hulu original series.
Unfortunately, not all of these adaptations did their source material justice.
Hulu's Catch-22 was a miss because it failed to capture the spirit of Joseph Heller's novel. Hulu transformed a satire into a tragedy. In the process, it robbed the story of its uniqueness and its greatest epiphany.
The novel is famous for its absurdist humor. The TV series couldn't capture it onscreen -- not even when passages from the novel were said verbatim. The tone and the delivery were off. Whenever the series tried to be funny, it came off as bleak instead of bleakly funny.
Without nailing the comedic aspects, Hulu's Catch-22 became a slog to watch, and the conclusion, completely different from the novel's ending, was depressing.
After watching Catch-22 Season 1 Episode 6, it didn't seem possible for it to be the last episode. Did the creators forget to read the novel's final chapter? How could they think Yossarian losing his sanity and continuing to fly combat missions was a good ending?
The problem with this ending isn't that it's different from the novel. The problem is it betrays the novel.
Having Yossarian go mad is essentially killing him. In the novel, Yossarian doesn't bend to the almighty Catch-22. Yossarian lives. The novel's final pages are hopeful and lead to a fitting, well-earned conclusion.
Hulu's ending is the antithesis of the novel's ending, and as a result, the story loses almost all meaning (and not in a clever "the meaning is there's no meaning" way).
Little Fires Everywhere has the opposite problems of Catch-22. It satirizes its characters too much. The novel's characterizations of its characters weren't always subtle, but many of the characters on the Hulu version are painfully cliched.
Elena is a control freak in both versions, but the Hulu version really amps it up. She's so strict about her schedule, she only allows her husband and herself to have sex on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Events unfold in a much more over-the-top manner than the novel depicts.
It's not unusual for a screen adaptation to up the drama, but on Little Fires Everywhere, the dramatics come off as forced and overdone, like the way Mia handled the investigation into the origins of the McCulloughs' adopted daughter on Little Fires Season 1 Episode 3.
The TV versions of Elena and Mia spend more time together than they did in the novel. It's understandable the screen version would want to include more scenes of the adult leads interacting, especially with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in those roles.
Those scenes should be the highlights of the series. However, they're among the worst scenes because of their repetitiveness and stiffness.
The series' better moments are the ones hewing closer to the novel's version of events, like Mia and Izzy's growing bond. Too bad the added, overblown dramatics suck away much of the enjoyment.
Why is The Handmaid's Tale more successful as an adaptation than Catch-22 or Little Fires Everywhere?
The Handmaid's Tale Season 1 did a great job of understanding the source material and translating it for the screen.
When the series couldn’t be faithful, it would repurpose narration and events from the novels in sensible ways.
Offred’s narration wasn’t as sarcastic or aggressive as June’s voiceovers’ are on the show, but it’s an understandable change. June’s voiceovers were her inner thoughts instead of a recording someone else could stumble upon.
Credit needs to given to the costume and set designers because capturing the look of Gilead and its inhabitants is as essential to the series success as adapting the plot.
The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t falter as an adaptation. It falters as an expansion. The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 and The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 sorely missed having the novel as a template it could follow.
The latter two seasons featured many narrative dead ends and constantly circled back to a status quo of June stuck in Gilead no matter how contrived. It made watching frustrating.
The Handmaid's Tale is Hulu's most critically acclaimed show, but the Hulu series most successfully adapted from a novel is High Fidelity.
At first blush, High Fidelity would appear to be the least faithful of the adaptations. The series takes place in a different location, different decade, and swaps the gender of many characters, including its lead, Rob.
However, the elements most important to High Fidelity’s identity: a story about someone re-examining breakups, love of music, and the philosophy of top-five lists are present on the Hulu version.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, High Fidelity knows how to translates its iconic narration onto the screen. It was great hearing Rob say, almost verbatim, the novel’s opening line right at the beginning of High Fidelity Season 1 Episode 1.
What elevates High Fidelity above most adaptations is how it successfully expands the story.
The novel features a character named Dick, who is one of Rob’s employees. Dick’s screen counterpart, Simon, is a far more developed and interesting character then Dick.
So much so that High Fidelity Season 1 Episode 8 was told from his perspective, and it was one of the best episodes.
High Fidelity might falter without having as much book material to work with like The Handmaid’s Tale.
It’s less likely to happen though because High Fidelity has already proven it can make changes and go in directions different from the novel while continuing to progress the story.
If Hulu is going to continue making original series from great novels, let's hope they’re more like its adaptions of High Fidelity and The Handmaid’s Tale and less like Catch-22 and Little Fires Everywhere.
Over to you, TV Fanatics!
Do you think Hulu is successful at adapting novels into TV?
Are you watching Little Fires Everywhere?
Hit the comments below.
Becca Newton is a staff writer for TV Fanatic.