10 TV picks: literary adaptations

In the beginning was the word, and these 10 TV picks are all books that were turned into critically-acclaimed TV dramas.

From ITV’s true crime drama Des to Sky Atlantic’s Lovecraft Country, via the gentler confines of All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5, these 10 literary adaptations are available to watch now.

Des - ITV

David Tennant is masterful in ITV’s three-part drama about the arrest and subsequent trial of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who was sentenced to life in prison after murdering at least 12 men between 1978 and 1983.

Tennant stars alongside Daniel Mays in the adaptation of Killing for Company by Brian Masters (who is himself portrayed in the drama by Jason Watkins).

ITV’s biggest drama launch of the year to date, Des is horrifying and utterly absorbing, and stays with you long after the final credits.

What they say: ‘Tightly controlled and compelling … A serial killer drama with brains and heart.’ Den of Geek

Lovecraft Country - Sky Atlantic

Lovecraft Country is the story of a young black man who goes in search of his missing father across segregated 1950s America.

Adapted by Misha Green from Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name (with executive producers including JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele), it is a dark fantasy drama that combines the supernatural with the ‘racist terrors of white America’.

Starring Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Courtney B Vance and Michael Kenneth Williams, it is a road trip the likes of which you have never seen before.

What they say: ‘It is that rare thing: a show that can deliver gut-punch messages of contempt (and hope), yet which remembers throughout that it’s a drama, keeping one thrillingly on the edge, ripe and reeking with surprise.’ Observer

All Creatures Great and Small - Channel 5

If ever a series seemed machine tooled to bring succour to the nation in these unprecedented times, then surely it is Channel 5’s veterinarian period drama, All Creatures Great and Small.

This new adaptation of James Herriot’s much-loved stories, starring Samuel West, Anna Madeley, Nigel Havers and the late Diana Rigg, began with Channel 5’s biggest audience in almost five years and has already been recommissioned.

A partnership between Channel 5 and PBS in the United States, its executive producer Colin Callender said: ‘It’s given audiences a bit of an escape from pandemic and politics. Its themes of community and family hark back to a kinder, gentler world.’

What they say: ‘Piles on the charm without ever getting cloying … The sense of warmth and community feels nigh on irresistible.’ Daily Telegraph

Little Birds - Sky Atlantic

Sky original drama Little Birds is inspired by Anaïs Nin’s posthumously published collection of erotic short stories.

Set in 1950s Tangier, in what was said to be one of the last outposts of colonial decadence, the six-part series is a surreal and stunning mix of sex, satire, politics and feminist fantasy.

Juno Temple stars as the American debutante who arrives longing to break free of society’s conventions (she’s come to the right place) alongside Hugo Skinner as her conflicted aristocratic fiancée and Yumna Marwan as the dominatrix who seizes her imagination.

What they say: ‘If Wes Anderson and EL James had a love child, and that baby had a trippy, lucid dream, it would probably look and sound a lot like Sky Atlantic’s Little Birds.’ Independent

Moscow Noir - Channel 4/All 4

Moscow Noir follows the epic fall from grace of a Swedish investment banker in Moscow at the end of the 20th century.

A sumptuous modern noir, the eight-part series stars Swedish actor Adam Pålsson (The Bridge, Before We Die, Young Wallander) and is based on the first of a trilogy of thrillers by Swedish writers Camilla Grebe and Paul Leander-Engström.

It is a tale of power and fortune, blackmail and deception, full of shattering, unexpected twists. In the words of one of its protagonists: ‘In Russia, the only constant is chaos.’

What they say: ‘A pulsating yet quietly profound thriller unravels as both a snapshot of a unique place and time, as well as a parable for our own extreme and unpredictable times today.’ Entertainment Focus

Singapore Grip - ITV

ITV’s adaptation of JG Farrell’s 1978 satirical novel The Singapore Grip follows the fortunes of a British family living in 1940s Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion.

Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement), the six-part series stars Luke Treadaway, David Morrissey, Georgia Blizzard, Elizabeth Tan, Jane Horrocks and Charles Dance.

A darkly comic take on the British Empire, it is a sumptuous looking drama with a serious message about imperialism.

What they say: ‘A biting satire about the effects of British colonialism … We need more dramas like this on TV.’ Metro

The Plot Against America - Sky Atlantic

Counterfactual drama series The Plot Against America imagines an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election, keeps the country out of war and turns it towards fascism.

A six-part adaption of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name, its TV incarnation was masterminded by David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of The Wire.

Told through the eyes of a blue collar Jewish family in New Jersey, The Plot Against America stars Winona Ryder, John Turturro and Anthony Boyle. It is gripping, horrifying, and relevant.

What they say: ‘A disturbing evocation of an America that superficially looks the same, but is being horribly transformed. A fascinating dramatisation of a complex, chilling novel.’ The Arts Desk

My Mad Fat Diary - E4

My Mad Fat Diary, based on the 1990s diaries of author Rae Earl, is a very funny teenage drama but it is also so much more than that.

The story of a troubled teenager trying to start a new life for herself, My Mad Fat Diary is a winning portrayal of teenage friendship and romance, and was praised for its intelligent and sensitive handling of mental health issues.

It ran for three series on E4 and starred Sharon Rooney alongside Claire Rushbrook, Ian Hart, Jodie Comer and Keith Allen. And it’s got a banging ‘90s soundtrack.

What they say: ‘Funny, proper rude, and totally believable.’ The Guardian

Rebus - Drama

The TV adaptation of Ian Rankin’s best-selling crime novels ran for 14 episodes across seven years on ITV.

Solving brutal murders while tackling personal demons, the tough-talking, hard-drinking Edinburgh-based Detective Inspector John Rebus was brought to life first by John Hannah and later by Ken Stott.

But there’s one mystery that everyone’s favourite Scottish sleuth will never be able to solve - which one was your favourite?

What they say: ‘The dialogue crackles with dark humour and hardboiled sass.’ Culture Vulture


Catch 22 - Channel 4

Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel was famously described as ‘unfilmable’ but if anyone was able to break the curse, then it was George Clooney.

The Oscar-winning actor starred in, executive produced and directed a handful of episodes of this six-part adaption of the classic satire, an absurdist black comedy about the lives of a group of US airmen based in Italy during WW2.

With a cast including Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler and Hugh Laurie, this adaptation managed to retain the power of Heller’s complex novel while making it supremely accessible to a TV audience.

What they say: ‘Violent, frenetic and disquieting … a dizzying, daring triumph.’ The Guardian


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