Literary adaptations — book-based dramas and series worth watching

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Bookish Dramas and Limited Series from The Hollywood Reporter, June 20, 2022 issue

THR critics note six shows that expand upon their source material, bringing cherished novels to the small screen

CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS (HULU)

Engineered by the same team that delivered Hulu’s 2020 hit Normal People, including director Lenny Abrahamson, screenwriter Alice Birch and source material author Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends follows another bookish, withdrawn young woman through a life-changing romance. This time it’s Frances (Alison Oliver), a Dublin college student of modest temperament and modest means who in her free time performs feminist spoken-word poetry with Bobbi (Sasha Lane), her more extroverted and free-spirited ex-girlfriend turned best friend.

At one of their performances, the girls meet and befriend Melissa (Girls’ Jemima Kirke, perfectly cast), a 30-something writer of some renown, and soon become enmeshed in her older, posher social circle, which includes Melissa’s handsome actor husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn). His mutual infatuation with Frances soon evolves into a full-fledged affair that forces her to reconsider her relationship with the world around her, but also with herself.

Conversations With Friends is frequently lovely to look at, in a measured way that reflects the way the characters look at one another — intently, while trying to seem casual. The camera rarely feels intrusive, but it also misses nothing. It notes the glint of Nick’s wedding ring as he runs his hand through his hair, or Frances’ self-conscious impulse to fix a spaghetti strap when Nick addresses her in front of Melissa. And it notes the way other characters note these, which is often with an air of stubborn nonchalance. — ANGIE HAN

STATION ELEVEN (HBO MAX)

HBO Max’s limited series does an often potent job of splitting the difference between depicting a global catastrophe that will invariably be compared to our current pandemic and evoking the sadness and trauma it causes, even if the Emily St. John Mandel novel it’s based upon was published in 2014. Patrick Somerville’s 10-episode adaptation occasionally mines the visceral terror of a society in the midst of a burgeoning flu, and it wouldn’t be unjustified for that to scare some viewers off. But Station Eleven is much more about contemplating the aftermath, delving into notions of healing and how much any “new normal” should resemble the old. On the page, it’s a frequently ephemeral theme, one that has maybe been overarticulated for the screen, without necessarily draining the story of its power.

The series begins in Chicago at a production of King Lear that ends in tragedy. Well, all productions of King Lear end in tragedy, but this one is onstage, as leading man Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal in a glorified cameo) has a heart attack. The only person in the audience to try to help is Jeevan (Himesh Patel), who reacts on reflex but without any medical expertise. In the chaos, Jeevan takes one of the young actresses in the cast (Matilda Lawler’s Kirsten) under his wing, a temporary bit of babysitting that becomes full-on guardianship when a fast-spreading, 99.99 percent lethal virus pushes Chicago and society to the brink of ruin.

Years later, Kirsten (now Mackenzie Davis) is part of the Traveling Symphony, a roaming band of musicians and thespians led by the Conductor (a nicely eccentric Lori Petty) and performing the works of Shakespeare in a circuit of survivor communities. The troupe’s motto is “Survival Is Insufficient,” which refers in micro to the need to protect and perpetuate art, to maintain a grasp on commonly accepted sources of beauty and inspiration. — DANIEL FIENBERG

SHINING GIRLS (APPLE TV+)

In lieu of telling you what Apple TV+’s Shining Girls is really about on a plot level — the core premise of the source material has been reconfigured into a spoiler — I’ll tell you what the eight-episode series is about on a practical level.

No single actor in the past 25 years has a more reliable TV track record than Elisabeth Moss. Although Shining Girls may not instantly stand as a key data point on her unimpeachable résumé, it’s further proof that when it comes to audience buy-in, whether the story is seemingly conventional or dauntingly out there, having Moss at the top of the call sheet is as close to a guarantee as you’re ever going to get.

Lauren Beukes’ book has a juicy hook, but I didn’t think it really delved especially well into the ramifications of that hook. And in giving roughly half of the novel over to the perspective of the antagonist, it undermined The Shining Girls — the “The” has also gone missing in the transition to TV — as an exploration of surviving trauma. — D. F.

THE PURSUIT OF LOVE (AMAZON)

The Pursuit of Love marks the wildly promising directing debut of actor Emily Mortimer. The limited series, based on the novel by Nancy Mitford, has issues with pacing in its three-hour adaptation, and the swings from very broad comedy to earnest feminism aren’t always fluid, but there’s still so much confidence to the style and performances.

The series, set mostly between world wars, is narrated by Fanny (Emily Beecham), essentially orphaned by a mother (Mortimer) so impetuous, they call her The Bolter. When she isn’t advancing her schooling, Fanny is yearning for Alconleigh, the family estate owned by her Uncle Matthew (Dominic West), a gregarious and mustachioed World War I veteran whose dislike for foreigners is matched only by his irritation at educated women. Fanny’s closest friend and confidant is her cousin Linda (Lily James), who is in most ways Fanny’s opposite. If Fanny is sensible and enamored with Virginia Woolf, Linda is mercurial — always either laughing or crying — and in love with the idea of love.

As the two girls pass from adolescence into adulthood, they take sometimes parallel and sometimes diverging paths to romance and motherhood, and to independence during a historical moment in which female interiority was slow to be recognized and valued. Their story is a commentary on fictional treatments of female love and desire as much as a representation of those things. — D.F.

THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY (APPLE TV+)

If it is true that, as Coydog (Damon Gupton) says in Apple TV+’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, “all a man is, is what he remembers,” then the Ptolemy Grey (Samuel L. Jackson) we meet at the start of the story is barely a shell of whom he once was. A nonagenarian suffering from dementia, he can hardly make sense of what’s happening in front of him, let alone everything else that’s happened to him over the decades. But when a drug promises to temporarily restore all of Ptolemy’s memories — to make Ptolemy the fullest version of himself, going by Coydog’s logic — the question becomes what he’ll do with that rare gift.

It’s potentially rich territory for all manner of stories, from the intimate to the epic, and creator Walter Mosley (who also wrote the book upon which the six-episode miniseries is based) plucks a few different threads to weave together. Last Days is a little bit murder mystery and a little bit treasure hunt — but it’s most compelling simply as a drama, chronicling the (platonic) love that develops between Ptolemy and Robyn (Dominique Fishback), his teenage caretaker.

As the story progresses, the treasure hunt and murder mystery storylines take up more and more time and attention, with diminishing payoffs. A series that started out a heartbreaker ends in a shrug. Last Days never drops to the level of boring — if nothing else, it’s always a pleasure to slip into the warm glow of Ptolemy and Robin’s friendship, or sit back and admire Jackson’s nuanced performance. But a question Robyn asks early in the series starts to feel more pertinent: “What if you waste what little time you have looking for answers that ain’t there?” Robyn’s worries prove to be unfounded, in the sense that Ptolemy finds exactly what he’s looking for. Turns out, though, that Last Days is at its best when it’s not looking for concrete answers at all — when it’s just letting Ptolemy be. — A.H.

PACHINKO (APPLE TV+)

Somebody might try telling you that Apple TV+’s new drama Pachinko seems inaccessible for various reasons. Most of the dialogue is in Korean and Japanese. Its historical context is seeded 80-plus years in the past. Many of the actors are new to American television.

But Pachinko is ultimately only inaccessible if you lack empathy. The eight-episode drama is emotionally epic and tells a gripping yarn, one that is entirely specific to the experience of 20th century Koreans in their home country and Japan but has traces of countless other immigrant experiences, forced and unforced. Pachinko is a harrowing portrait of suffering balanced against an elating tale of familial resilience and female strength.

TV showrunner Soo Hugh has kept the core characters and narrative from Min Jin Lee’s book but has given its structure a major shake-up. Lee built her multigenerational saga over three “books,” told chronologically starting in 1910 and culminating in 1989. Hugh is, at all times, juggling two storylines simultaneously. The first introduces Sunja (Yuna as a child, Minha Kim as a teen and young adult), raised by her mother (Inji Jeong’s Yangjin) and father (Dae Ho Lee) in hard-working poverty at a boarding house in a fishing village a ferry ride from Japanese-occupied Busan. An interaction with a Korean-born Japanese fish broker (Minho Lee) with shady and powerful ties leads Sunja to Osaka, leaving everything behind for a new life in a country that wants no part of her. — D.F.

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