Are Netflix Series the New Novels?

Reading Novels

The appeal of Netflix is directly proportional to the appeal of reading a novel straight through. Think about it: the ‘bingewatching’ model could either correspond to reading a standalone novel, or an installment of a series of them.

The Netflix model in particular has thrown quite a curveball for our cultural expectations of how we process popular works of fiction. It used to be that novels came out and some would be adapted into films; films would come out and some of them would get sequels; and series would appear at regular intervals at a week’s stretch.

A lot of this still holds true of course, but with some notable exceptions. Novels – along with comic books: their evergreen and lucrative illustrated counterparts – are increasingly being primed for film and TV adaptation, while more and more, films are taking the serialised route In a trend that arguably began with the success story of Peter Jackson’s monumental adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and followed closely by that other fantasy-lit touchstone, Harry Potter, the dawn of the 21st century saw a more cavalier approach with how cinema treated their franchises, and their sequels.

It appears that, for all the tired talk about how we’re becoming an attention-deficient species, we’ve proven to be remarkably consistent in our attraction to long-form narratives. Think about it: if the average TV series is roughly six seasons long, that amounts to something like sixty-plus hours of total immersion in a fictional universe. Let’s face it: the phenomenon of binge-watching is a real one, and it’s enabled further by Netflix’s default policy of offering up entire seasons wholesale instead of doing it by incremental weekly drops.

Let’s consider two popular shows by way of example. The fantasy epic Game of Thrones – itself based on a series of as-yet unconcluded door-stopping novels by George RR Martin – and the recently finished Penny Dreadful: the Gothic pastiche draws liberally from the classics of Victorian Gothic literature but whose overall structure – and indeed, its very title – takes its cue from the low-rent serialised stories to hit Victorian London roughly around the same time that the novel was really gaining traction as a form.

Game of Thrones started by more or less adapting the first novel of Martin’s saga wholesale for its first season; despite the nipping and tucking by its show runners, the HBO programme continues to proceed much in the same way as a novel. The separating line between one episode and another is largely cosmetic – leaving viewers and media boffins with just enough time to cause a media/social media ruckus over whatever happened in last week’s episode, all the better to further perpetuate Game of Throne’s hold on the zeitgeist.

By contrast, a show like Penny Dreadful calibrates each of its individual episodes to full effect, sometimes even opting to create a mini-drama built on an extended flashback within its hour-long confines. It could even be down to its showrunner John Logan having a feature film pedigree (and so being more invested in stringing together micro-narratives than in painting over a large canvas in broad strokes.

As is the case with the superhero adaptations we’re likely to be enduring well into the first quarter of the 21st century, it looks as though long-form is here to stay, and that any differentiation between ‘book’, ‘film’ and ‘TV series. remains largely superficial.