The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘content’ as ‘the stuff that streaming services need to make themselves stand out when there are roughly eight billion of them all trying to convince you that you’re living in a golden age of consumer-driven choice when in fact the landscape is a dystopian mess built on sand’. Don’t look it up, just trust me.
Thankfully, it’s not all bleak. Just as a green shoot may sprout in the most inhospitable environment, art can still flourish within a corrupt system run by creatively bankrupt bean counters. We’re still getting some TV across those eight billion streaming platforms – much of it coming from books.
In fact, the limited series format is arguably a more natural home for a literary adaptation than a two-hour movie. There is less need to dramatically slim down the story (or split one book into the dreaded and rarely satisfying Part One and Part Two), more scope to explore different characters and plot threads, and to give the viewer that wonderful feeling of being fully immersed in a fictional world over a number of days or weeks.
So, with that in mind, here are six books (and book series) that deserve a big-budget streaming adaptation.
House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z Danielewski
Let’s start with an easy one – a 700-page experimental horror novel featuring multiple layers of reality, extended digressions into dense academic parody, text-based visual play, and various other stylistic flourishes specifically conceived to work on the page. House of Leaves is one of those novels that has been regularly described as ‘unfilmable’; there’s been talk of film and TV versions over the years, including an appropriately bizarre pilot script written by the author himself, but none have got far.
In the right hands, though, House of Leaves could make a fascinating limited series. The key would be to meet the book on its own unique, disorientating level, rather than trying to tone it down. Different episodes could focus on different layers of the narrative, moving between photojournalist Will Navidson’s investigation of the titular house (which is bigger on the inside, but not in a fun way), deceased academic Zampanò’s analysis of Navidson’s video footage, and drug-addled tattoo artist Johnny Truant’s psychological collapse as he tries to decode Zampanò’s (possibly fabricated) analysis of the (possibly fabricated) footage (told you there were layers).
And just as the book plays with form, so could the series – you could have a true crime-style mockumentary episode, followed by a prestige horror drama, then a claustrophobic character piece, then something weirder and more abstract.
Plus, through the magic of casting, you could even make the character of Johnny Truant bearable to be around, thus instantly surpassing the source material.
Ideal format: Six episodes of prestige weirdness on Apple TV+
The Borrible Trilogy (1976 – 1986) by Michael de Larrabeiti
Back in the dim and distant mists of time, before YA was YA, before Goodreads and Twitter campaigns and Amazon average star ratings, bookshops were a Wild West populated by books like The Borrible Trilogy. Books that a well-meaning parent or auntie might buy for a young child, thinking it sounded like a bit of harmless fun. In actual fact, that child was getting the literary equivalent of what Mary Whitehouse called “teatime brutality for tots”, a dark, twisted and thoroughly unsentimental adventure that was as exhilarating as it was traumatising.
The titular Borribles are homeless children who, once they’ve lived on the streets for long enough, gaining pointy ears and losing the ability to age, essentially becoming immortal elf creatures. They scrape a living in London’s shadowy corners, trying to avoid the vicious attention of the police, and the even more vicious attention of their natural enemy, the Rumbles (basically evil Wombles). The books are inventive and extremely brutal – for many young readers, this was the moment when they realised that their faves could be suddenly and viciously killed off.
The books’ anti-authoritarian, avowedly pro-child messaging was timely when they were first published – and if anything, they gain new resonance in an age of austerity, rampant child poverty and mass surveillance.
Get this sick filth on our screens!
Ideal format: Three seasons (one per book) on Netflix
Possible casting: Some popular young actors with massive Instagram followings so Netflix is less likely to cancel it after one season
Manhunt (2020) by Gretchen Felker-Martin
Speaking of sick filth – if some creative exec somewhere is looking for some bleeding-edge post-apocalyptic horror that makes The Last of Us look tame, they could do worse than adapt Gretchen Felker-Martin’s eye-poppingly violent 2022 novel Manhunt.
Set in a world where a viral outbreak has turned anyone with high levels of testosterone into feral killing machines, Manhunt takes various familiar tropes from post-apocalyptic, dystopian and zombie horror and filters them through an explicitly and unashamedly trans viewpoint. It’s a superbly fresh approach, offering fresh twists on these tropes and rooting them in culturally relevant contemporary concerns.
It’s also a sprawling book whose detailed world-building and colourful cast of flawed, fragile characters would really benefit from the enhanced breathing space of a streaming adaptation. A series would have room to dig into the different approaches that survivors of the plague have taken, from the trans women struggling to survive by gathering oestrogen, to the fascistic militia groups dedicated to hunting them down.
And in a world where something as gross as The Boys can be a monster hit, you probably wouldn’t even need to tone down the violence… much…
Possible casting: Hunter Schafer as Fran, Elliot Fletcher as Robbie
Ten Low (2021) by Stark Holborn
Look, someone needs to say it – it’s time to leave Firefly behind, OK? It was literally 20 years ago. Many of us loved it. But it’s gone, it’s most likely not coming back, and let’s face it, a lot of it probably hasn’t aged terribly well.
So how about a space western for the 2020s? A grimy, dusty, blood-streaked saga of the galactic frontier, unapologetically diverse, with tantalising mystical undertones and no awkward parallels to the American Civil War?
Plus, aliens, something conspicuously lacking from Firefly.
Like Manhunt, Ten Low is another example of fantastically detailed world-building – it’s set on the grim desert moon of Factus, one of the most joyfully unpleasant settings in recent science fiction, and an environment that would look fantastic realised on screen. Within that environment, you get a twisting plot, shifting loyalties, lots of bloody action, and all sorts of colourful characters – including a teenage girl who also happens to be an imperious military general with combat skills for days.
Leave tradition behind, embrace the future (of space westerns).
Possible casting: Michaela Coel as Ten Low
All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders
Most of the entries on this list so far have trafficked in violence and horror to some degree – and while All the Birds in the Sky certainly deals with heavy and topical themes, at its heart the book is a character drama, and a hugely emotive and absorbing one.
Following the lives and tumultuous friendship of budding witch Patricia and budding scientist Lawrence, All the Birds in The Sky is a delightfully inventive book, skilfully threading big, heady science fiction concepts with weird and wonderful mystical ones. A limited series would allow room for a full exploration of all these great ideas – and just as the book follows Patricia and Lawrence from childhood to adulthood, a series could do the same, either through parallel narratives in different time periods, or perhaps a more linear approach with younger actors giving way to older ones in later episodes.
Whatever the approach, it’s a unique, imaginative and ultimately hopeful story. Which would be nice right now.
Ideal format: Six episodes on Hulu / Disney+
Possible casting: Saoirse Ronan as adult Patricia, Asa Germann as adult Lawrence
Animorphs (1996 – 2001) by K.A Applegate
This one is a bit of a cheat, because the Animorphs books have technically been brought to the small screen before, in a two-season adaptation that ran between 1998 and 1999. However, not only was that a very long time ago – and not only do very few people remember it – but crucially, it was rubbish. And while you could (convincingly) argue that the books were also sometimes rubbish, they weren’t always rubbish. When they were good, they were really good (or at least, that’s how I remember it, and I’m damned if I’m going to go back and check). And that goodness deserves an adaptation.
If you’re of a certain age, it’s likely that the Animorphs series – like The Borrible Trilogy for another generation – was your first taste of young adult fiction that felt really dangerous. It followed the lives of a group of human children trying to fight an invasion of Earth by parasitic alien slugs called Yeerks that burrowed into people’s brains in order to take control of them. All these children had to fight back was their anonymity – and the power to transform into any animal they touched, a power that the books mined to thrilling, silly, and often grotesque effect.
While the books – of which there are more than 50 – were frequently goofy, they also dealt with some pretty heavy themes. Child soldiers, terrorism, rampant paranoia, PTSD – hell, by the end of the series, our plucky young teen heroes were literally on trial for war crimes. There’s a lot of scope there for a really exciting, knotty, intense series, full of wonderfully wacky SF concepts – time-travelling space deities playing chess with whole species as pieces! Telepathic alien centaurs! Indestructible pacifist robots! The Howlers (if you know, you know).
Honestly? Above all? I just want a decent adaptation of Book 26.
Someone send a copy to Jeff Bezos.
Ideal format: Ten seasons on Prime Video, enough to adapt all the major stuff but also leave out some of the filler
Possible casting: Some hip young talent that a writer not in their mid-30s would know. And Clancy Brown as the voice of homicidal Yeerk commander Visser Three