“You’d need to read the book to understand” – homework for watching tv

I read some tweets the other day about someone watching a series called Little Big Lies. I’ve not watched it myself, but the billboard near my local town centre suggests it’s a tv series on Sky Atlantic starring Nicole Kidman, Reece Witherspoon and another lady whose name I can’t remember. Anyway, the Twitter conversation went something like this:

@firstperson – Just watched 1st ep of #littlebiglies. So frustrated! Why would anyone act like that?!?! 😡

@secondperson – Ah, the thing is, you really have to have read the book to understand that scene properly.

Wait, what? Are we in the business of producing tv shows that come with homework now?

I was interested, so I posted about it on my Facebook page, and my friends (not naming any names, but particularly Dario) were outraged. I mean, some made jokes, but most were very taken aback about the idea that you need to have read the source material to fully understand the show. To clumsily paraphrase Dario, ‘The show should inspire you to read the book, but it shouldn’t be necessary for you to enjoy the show on its own.’

“Wait, what? Are we in the business of producing tv shows that come with homework now?”

I absolutely agree. Television and film are a completely separate storytelling medium to books and comics. If someone is adapting to the screen from a book, they must be able to tell the story completely and in full – that is their job. It’s not the job of the audience to go off and do some pre-show reading to understand why someone is behaving in a certain way. I doubt the Game of Thrones franchise would have been as popular if the entire book series had been required study before watching episode one! The series isn’t finished for a start!!

“I was over the moon to hear the phrase “eats an onion as if ’twas an apple” in a recent episode of Inside Number 9″

However, that’s not to say I don’t love a cheeky Easter Egg – a little nod to someone who’s been with the story for the journey. The wry smile when a small character is named after an author or artist, a little giggle when a character from the book is referenced offhandedly; I was over the moon to hear the phrase “eats an onion as if ’twas an apple” in a recent episode of Inside Number 9 – a reference from the League of Gentlemen script book from about 2001. That’s a treat though, it’s not necessary for the enjoyment of the show.

I think it’s very frustrating, and quite exclusionary, for shows and films to be made that don’t give the audience a fighting chance to understand the story in the context of what they’re watching. By all means, make the creative changes to get the story told, but don’t insist your audience be experts in the stimulus before they watch.

The writers are getting paid for the film, the audience isn’t – who should be doing the research work?

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