ErnestHemingwayIt’s a dark time day for us booklovers, especially the U.S. variety. Noting the many high-lit imports that inspired high-brow movies and TV shows here in the States, the Atlantic asks: “Is American literature too Too Dark for TV?”

The subhead warns: “The executive producer of Masterpiece Theater says Jane Austen works a lot better on screen than Hemingway does.”

Atlantic pop critic Spencer Kornhaber‘s post then asserts: “While an fan of the American canon might bristle at those comments, consider the history of literary adaptations. Whereas English Literature 101 authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen have inspired a host of well-loved movies and TV shows, often, when talking about American writing turned into viewing, you end up talking about ‘genre’ works: science fiction, Westerns, comic-book films, The Hunger Games. Most American novels widely regarded as classics have been made into movies or shows at one point or another, but many have yet to receive an on-screen treatment that lives on in the cultural memory.”

Well, if you say so, Mr. Kornhaber. I’m not by background a high-lit crit and I notice you aren’t, either. So your judgments are hardly definitive. As for your post’s big source, Rebecca Eaton, producer of the Masterpiece TV series, the “OBE” after her name says it all. The woman has more or less specialized in processing Brit Lit for U.S. television audiences, and Queen Elizabeth II has shown her gratitude by bestowing upon her an honorary “Order of the British Empire.”

Another problem, Mr. Kornhaber, is your dismissal of genre works. Few are high lit, given that they’re written to cater to the masses, not challenge their expectations. But exceptions abound. To give one example, is Dashiell Hammett outside the realm of literature? He isn’t as dead as Jane Austen—well, at least not in his grave as long—but he is one example of the difficulty of identifying True Lit.

Mr. Kornhaber concludes: “But as for perhaps the most famous work of American literature that has been repeatedly adapted over the decades, Eaton seemed mystified. ‘The Great Gatsby really is a very enigmatic story—what is this really about?’ she said. ‘It amazes me that it keeps getting taught.’” Um, that would be news to Prof. Maureen Corrigan, National Public Radio critic, as well as author of an excellent, if slightly too worshipful, book titled So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

But wait! I promised TeleReaders more lit-doom links, and here they are, ready for dissection in our comments area:

Nielsen Says Book Sales Up Are Slightly in First Half of the Year, But Can We Trust Their Numbers? (Ink, Bits & Pixels). Granted, this includes books in a bunch of categories, but since many lit lovers start off reading less venerated titles, the link seems apropos .

–Have Editors Reigned Too Long? (Digital Book World).  Why are we asking this question, whether or not the issue is book publishing? The world needs more editors, not fewer, even if the title for them nowadays might instead be something like “producer.” No, the real question should be, “Have MBAs and bankers and their allies reigned too long?” Yes, I agree with Matt McInnis, quoted in the article, that people with the title “editor” have “stifled innovation.” But if we don’t want publishers to churn out just crap and otherwise maximize just for popular appeal, then we’d better retain a proper respect for the E word or at least updated variants of it.

Pandering to or Presuming Shorter Attention span (Publishers Weekly). Ah, fits in with the preceding item! Dumber and dumber, eh?


  1. Thanks for the catch, Nate. Fixed. You’re welcome to the just-invented name any old time. Since you do a great job of covering a lot of stuff beyond e-books, including the P variety, I can understand the switch from The Digital Reader and the use of the word Ink. That said, you’ll always be The Digital Reader to me.

    For now, this site remains TeleRead even though we’ve also branched out. Still fits in a way. “Readers” are curious about many things.


  2. Since “Masterpiece” is a British show with American funding as well as British funding, it’s not terribly surprising that it uses English novels instead of American ones.

    Sadly, classic British writers have considerably more cachet than American writers among the literati, and Americans are particularly prone to this snobbery. That makes viewers more prone to watch a movie based on a British novel than otherwise.

    While classic British novels are about a community of some sort or another, classic American novels are about the individual. That makes the American stories more intimate and less attractive for a series or a movie.

    However, some American classics have been widely adapted as movies, plays, and TV series. Many of Hawthorne’s, Mark Twain’s, James Fenimore Cooper’s, Fitzgerald’s, etc., etc., novels have had numerous versions.

    As to American genre novels, they are big picture which makes better video.

  3. As someone who does read literature, I could not care less what Hollywood or TV does or does not do to bring the written word to the visual medium. The Sound and the Fury, for example, is a great book, but not the type I’d want to sit and watch on the screen. Somebody recently made it into a movie, but the odds of me seeing it are slim to none. My time would be better spent rereading the book. In fact, I can’t think of any book I’d want to see on TV or the cinema.

    I think Kornhaber’s concern is misdirected and much ado about nothing.

    Drama has least has a chance for the screen since it was written to be seen. I’ve watched a few nice Shakespeare plays but – as a rule of thumb – the bigger the budget, the worse the production.

  4. @MrsMac and @Marilynn and @Greg M:

    MrsMac: Big thanks. Yes, I meant Queen Elizabeth II (not sure how I made that slip, except my wife and I last night were discussing an ancestor of hers named Mary). Always, always write in with glitch reports so that, long term, we’re right. I’ve made the fix. Readers like you add to the value of the site, and we always appreciate corrections.

    Marilynn and Greg M: Thanks for your own perspectives. Yes, Marilynn, many great American works are focused on individuals. But even they can have a strong sense of place and an appreciation of community. Consider Look Homeward Angel, the ultimate celebration of the individual. Eugene and the other Gants are very much a part of Altamont. I’d love to see a PBS series reviving interest in Thomas Wolfe. Good luck, eh?

    On a related matter, you’re so, so right about snobbery and about a bias in favor of adaptations of British novels.

    I’d love for Paul St John Mackintosh, TeleRead’s much-valued contributor from the UK, to speak up. Of course, as a Scot duly underwhelmed by the present trogs in London, he is probably only a reluctant citizen of the UK.

    Greg: As for your not caring about Hollywood, actually the people there can be rather useful in popularizing great works–short term and long term. I would agree with you that some canonical novels just don’t adapt well, at least not if the screenwriters lack imagination. High-lit fiction is so often about people’s thoughts. Not easy to depict on the screen. But there is still hope. The recent Great Gatsby movie was controversial, with some considering it just a nice picture book equivalent (not to mention the sound track with music outside the time frame of the book). But I actually liked it. Scriptwriters should write for their own medium, as long as they are true to the spirit of the adapted books (not the same as being true to the letter).

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail