Ranked: The Best & Worst TV Shows Based on Books

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  • Publish Date: August 13, 2014

Page-turners worth binge-watching?

ImageSean Bean (pictured, with head) in TNT's new Legends, based on a novel by Robert Littell.

If there is one thing TV programmers like these days—aside from superheroes, zombies, and adaptations of Scandinavian TV dramas—it is the (semi–)literary world. Though networks have been adapting novels and nonfiction books to the small screen for decades, the practice has accelerated in recent years, to the point where you probably have a few on your DVR as you read this.

This summer alone has seen the launch of book–based series Crossbones, Undateable, The Last Ship, The Musketeers, The Leftovers (just renewed for a 2nd season), Outlander, and The Strain, with Legends launching tonight and Intruders later this month. The coming season could bring a dozen more adaptations, with new shows ranging from BBC America's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to Bravo's Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce and MTV's Shannara (based on Terry Brooks' novels). The trend looks likely to continue further, with recent pilot orders given to adaptations of Jean M. Auel's The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, and Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle, among other projects.

Which page–to–(small–)screen adaptations have been the most successful? Below are all TV series based on fiction and nonfiction books that have debuted in the U.S. since 1985, ranked from best–reviewed to worst–reviewed according to each show's first–season Metascore. For the sake of making the list more manageable, however, there are some exclusions:

  • Miniseries and TV movies are NOT included. There are far too many of them to include here, so we have focused on regular TV shows only. (Sorry, original House of Cards.)
  • TV shows based on comics/graphic novels are NOT included. There are a lot of those too, and they will be covered in a separate article later this year.
  • We have also limited the list to shows based on a specific work (or related series of works) by a known author. Thus, shows based on fairy/folk tales are excluded, as are shows that are inspired by a combination of various stories by multiple authors (so no Penny Dreadful, Once Upon a Time, or Grimm).

The best TV shows based on books

1. Homicide: Life on the Street 94 (NBC, 1993–99)
Based on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) by David Simon

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When Homicide debuted on NBC following Super Bowl XXVII, it was like nothing critics had ever seen before. (Homicide, that is, not the Super Bowl; the latte was yet another Bills defeat.) Grittier, more naturalistic, and more smartly written than any TV cop show that preceded it, Homicide was unafraid to let murder cases linger unsolved, spend an entire episode in an interrogation room, or provide numerous prominent roles for African-American actors to better represent its Baltimore setting.

It was here that the terrific Andre Braugher became a breakout star, and it is here where Richard Belzer began his record-setting, decades-long run playing Detective John Munch, who has since popped up on eight other shows. While the perpetually ratings-challenged series lost some of its greatness in later seasons when network executives continued to meddle in the show's casting and format, it is still generally regarded as the finest cop show in network television history.

Homicide was adapted (by producer/director Barry Levinson and film critic-turned-screenwriter Paul Attanasio) from an award-winning nonfiction book by a Baltimore Sun reporter named David Simon, who had spent a year embedded with a Baltimore police homicide unit. Though Simon originally declined an opportunity to work on the TV program, he began writing for the series in its second season, and came on board as a producer in season 6. His growing TV experience gave him the confidence to handle the adaptation of another of his nonfiction books into an HBO miniseries, The Corner. And from there, Simon went about constructing a series from scratch. The result was perhaps the best-ever TV series, period: The Wire.

2. Boardwalk Empire 88 (HBO, 2010–14)
Based on Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (2002) by Nelson Johnson

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Set during Prohibition-era Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire is based on a nonfiction account of local mob kingpin Enoch L. "Nucky" Johnson, here changed to Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (and played by Steve Buscemi). Though this Martin Scorsese-directed, Terence Winter-scripted series hasn't quite matched the same stellar ratings or levels of acclaim as past HBO hits like The Sopranos (which Winter also wrote for), it has still done fairly well for the pay cable network, securing 40 Emmy nominations over its first four seasons. A shortened fifth season—which will wrap up the series for good—launches on September 7th; here's the new trailer.

(tie) 3. Masters of Sex 85 (Showtime, 2013–)
Based on Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love (2009) by Thomas Maier

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The highest-scoring Showtime series to date not named Homeland, Masters of Sex is, like the two shows above, also based on a nonfiction book, this one a lengthy biography of human sexuality pioneers William Masters and Virginia Johnson by journalist Thomas Maier. Adapting a book that spans many decades is no easy task, but writer/producer Michelle Ashford (The Pacific, Boomtown) seems to have pulled it off; the show's currently airing second season has collected even better reviews than its debut season. And if you want author Maier's take on how the series compares to his book, check out critic Alan Sepinwall's weekly episode recaps; Maier (who also serves as a producer on the program) usually offers his insight in the comments section.

(tie) 3. Sherlock 85 (PBS, 2010–)
Based on Sherlock Holmes books and stories (1887–1927) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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One of two Sherlock Holmes series currently on the air (along with the CBS entry Elementary), the BBC's Emmy-nominated Sherlock uses a different individual Doyle story as the loose inspiration behind each two-hour episode, though events have been transported to present-day London. Series co-creator Steven Moffat is no stranger to adapting classic British literature to the small screen, having already done so for the 2007 BBC series Jekyll (based loosely on Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Of course, the Emmy folks seem to think Sherlock is a TV movie (or, rather, a bunch of 'em), but since it is a recurring show with multiple episodes across multiple seasons, it seems more like a "series" to us. And there is at least one more season to come, though you may not get to see it until 2016.

(tie) 5. Call the Midwife 80 (PBS, 2012–)
Based on Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times (2002) by Jennifer Worth

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Another PBS import of a BBC drama series, Call the Midwife focuses on, well, a group of nurse midwives, who work in London's East End in the 1950s. The first two seasons are based on a trilogy of memoirs by nurse Jennifer Worth, though, having exhausted the source material, series creator Heidi Thomas has since moved on to original storylines (with the blessings of the author, who died as the show entered production). A surprisingly massive hit in the UK (though less so here, where it hasn't quite captured the American imagination like Downton Abbey has), Midwife is set to return for a fourth season next spring.

(tie) 5. Justified 80 (FX, 2010–15)
Based on Pronto and Riding the Rap (and short stories) (1993–) by Elmore Leonard

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Just one of several critic-approved Elmore Leonard adaptations listed on this page, Graham Yost's neo-western Justified is the only one to turn those appreciative reviews into lasting commercial success. Perhaps one reason for that longevity is the involvement of Leonard himself. Up until his death last fall, the author (who didn't always approve of adaptations of his work) spent time on the set mentoring Yost, who in turn was driven (along with the other writers, who took to wearing "What Would Elmore Do?" wristbands) to continue to produce work that Leonard would be proud of. And Leonard was inspired by the success of Justified to continue writing additional stories about lead character Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant), which were then recycled back into the show. All good things must end eventually, though, and Justified will conclude with a sixth season in early 2015.

(tie) 7. Game of Thrones 79 (HBO, 2011–)
Based on A Song of Ice and Fire series (1996–never) by George R. R. Martin

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Yes, it probably should be ranked higher, but it took critics (and the general public) a while to warm up to just how good a TV program based on a series of fantasy novels could be. Of course, they aren't just any fantasy novels; George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books have won millions of fans by elevating (or even transcending) the genre with complex, more realistic storytelling and an ever-expanding cast of schemers that wouldn't seem out of place in a more modern-day setting (well, if they weren't so dreadfully bad at wedding planning). At the rate Martin is writing additional installments, however, it is likely that within a few years he'll be adapting David Benioff and D. B. Weiss's TV series for his books, rather than the other way around.

(tie) 7. Orange Is the New Black 79 (Netflix, 2013–)
Based on Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (2010) by Piper Kerman

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While House of Cards (#14 on our list, below) might be the show that first put Netflix on the map, Orange Is the New Black is the series that proved that it is here to stay as a player in the world of original TV production. Based on Piper Kerman's account of her time spent behind bars on a drug trafficking conviction, Orange is currently waiting to see whether it collects on any of its nine first-season Emmy nominations (while its second season, which launched a few months ago, might be even better). Of course, in addition to adding characters and storylines not present in the memoir, Jenji Kohan's dramedy also takes numerous liberties with the true-life story, as the central characters' real-life counterparts are fond of pointing out (for example, here, here, and here).

(tie) 7. A Young Doctor's Notebook 79 (Ovation, 2013–)
Based on A Country Doctor's Notebook (1975) and other stories by Mikhail Bulgakov

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We're guessing (at least if you live in the U.S.) that you were unaware that there is a critically acclaimed, period dark comedy currently on the air that stars Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe and Mad Men's Jon Hamm—playing the same character, no less. This British production is so under the radar here because of its home: the little-watched arts network Ovation (which you may also be unaware of). This semi-autobiographical tale about a morphine-addicted doctor in the year 1917 is based on the writings (and life) of Russian surgeon-turned-author Mikhail Bulgakov, best known for his classic novel The Master and Margarita. A second season of the series debuts on Ovation next Tuesday at 10p.

(tie) 10. Friday Night Lights 78 (NBC/DirecTV, 2006–11)
Based on Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (1990) by H. G. Bissinger

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NBC actually adapted Buzz Bissinger's nonfiction account of high school football in a small Texas town twice. Their first, unsuccessful attempt, was the 1993 series Against the Grain, which was loosely inspired by the book (producers did not have official rights) and took a disappointingly wholesome, feel-good approach that rubbed critics the wrong way (even if it did star a young Ben Affleck as the team quarterback). The second attempt, of course, is one of the better TV dramas of the last 10 years, especially if you pretend the "Landry kills!" storyline never happened (as the show's producers seemed to do in later seasons). Author Bissinger, by the way, is the cousin of Peter Berg, who directed the theatrical film in addition to bringing Friday Night Lights to the small screen.

(tie) 10. Gideon's Crossing 78 (ABC, 2000–01)
Based on The Measure of Our Days (1997) by Jerome Groopman

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Our top 10 started with Andre Braugher, and it ends with Braugher again. Here, he plays a doctor rather than a cop—he's Dr. Ben Gideon, the chief of experimental medicine at a prominent Boston teaching hospital, where he must split time as an administrator and instructor (while simultaneously trying to raise three kids as a single father). Even if Gideon's Crossing came off as overly serious and talk-heavy, critics admired the show's smarts and realism, both probably influenced by the source material, a well-received and thoughtful book by Harvard Medical School professor Jerome Groopman. Though ABC tried to generate interest in the series—including a two-part crossover episode with hit series The Practice—low ratings doomed Crossing to a single-season run, and the series has never been issued on DVD.

The rest ...

  TV Show Network/Year(s) DVD/Blu Streaming
1277 DexterShowtime, 2006–13 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004) by Jeff Lindsay
  77 RoswellWB/UPN, 1999–2002 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu+ Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Roswell High series (1998–2000) by Melinda Metz
1476 House of Cards [U.S.]Netflix, 2013– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon Add to Netflix Queue
Based on House of Cards (1989) by Michael Dobbs
1575 Maximum BobABC, 1998  
Based on Maximum Bob (1991) by Elmore Leonard
1673 China BeachABC, 1988–91 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue  
Based on Home Before Morning (1983) by Lynda Van Devanter
  73 ElementaryCBS, 2012– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on Various Sherlock Holmes books and stories (1887–1927) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1872 FlashForwardABC, 2009–10 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu Amazon iTunes
Based on Flashforward (1999) by Robert J. Sawyer
  72 OutlanderStarz, 2014–Add to Netflix Queue 
Based on Outlander (series) (1991—) by Diana Gabaldon
  72 The Starter WifeUSA, 2008 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on The Starter Wife (2006) by Gigi Levangie Grazer
  72 The StrainFX, 2014–  Amazon iTunes
Based on The Strain trilogy (2009–11) by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
  72 Under the DomeCBS, 2013– Amazon Add to Netflix QueueAmazon
Based on Under the Dome (2009) by Stephen King
23 71 The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency HBO, 2008–09 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue 
Based on The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (series) (1998–) by Alexander McCall Smith
  71 Wallander PBS, 2008– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu+ Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Kurt Wallander novels (1991–2009) by Henning Mankell
25 70 The ChronicleSci–Fi, 2001–02  
Based on News From the Edge series (1997) by Mark Sumner
  70 HugeABC Family, 2010 Amazon Add to Netflix QueueiTunes
Based on Huge (2007) by Sasha Paley
  70 Karen SiscoABC, 2003  
Based on Out of Sight (1996) by Elmore Leonard
2869 HannibalNBC, 2013– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris
  69 The MusketeersBBC America, 2014–Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas
30 68 The Nine Lives of Chloe KingABC Family, 2011Add to Netflix QueueiTunes
Based on The Nine Lives of Chloe King trilogy (2004–05) by Liz Braswell (as Celia Thomson)
3167 About a BoyNBC, 2014– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on About a Boy (1998) by Nick Hornby
3267 LongmireA&E, 2012– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Walt Longmire series (2004–) by Craig Johnson
3365 Army WivesLifetime, 2007–13 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives (2006) by Tanya Biank
  65 Dave's WorldCBS, 1993–97 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue 
Based on Dave Barry Turns 40 and Dave Barry's Greatest Hits (1990) by Dave Barry
  65 The Dead ZoneUSA, 2002–07 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu Amazon
Based on The Dead Zone (1979) by Stephen King
  65 The LeftoversHBO, 2014–  
Based on The Leftovers (2011) by Tom Perrotta
  65 Surviving JackFox, 2014  
Based on I Suck at Girls (2012) by Justin Halpern
3864 Christy CBS, 1994–95 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue 
Based on Christy (1967) by Catherine Marshall
  64 Kitchen ConfidentialFox, 2005 Amazon Add to Netflix QueueHulu
Based on Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) by Anthony Bourdain
4064 Love MonkeyCBS, 2006  
Based on Love Monkey (2004) by Kyle Smith
  64 Sleepy HollowFox, 2013– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (story) (1820) by Washington Irving
  64 Strike BackCinemax, 2010– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on Strike Back (2007) by Chris Ryan
  64 True BloodHBO, 2008–14 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries series (aka The Sookie Stackhouse Novels) (2001–13) by Charlaine Harris
44 63 The 100CW, 2014– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on The 100 (2013) by Kass Morgan
  63 House of LiesShowtime, 2012– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time (2005) by Martin Kihn
  63 The Lying GameABC Family, 2011–13 Add to Netflix Queue
Based on The Lying Game (2010) by Sara Shepard
  63 Mob CityTNT, 2013  Amazon iTunes
Based on L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City (2009) by John Buntin
4862 666 Park AvenueABC, 2012–13 Add to Netflix Queue
Based on 666 Park Avenue (2011) by Gabriella Pierce
  62 Rizzoli & IslesTNT, 2010– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on Rizzoli & Isles series (2001–) by Tess Gerritsen
  62 The UnitCBS, 2006–09 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on Inside Delta Force: The Story of America's Elite Counter Terrorist Unit (2002) by Eric L. Haney
51 61 The Last ShipTNT, 2014–Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on The Last Ship (1988) by William Brinkley
  61 Life As We Know ItABC, 2004–05 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue 
Based on Doing It (2004) by Melvin Burgess
  61 TurnAMC, 2014–  Amazon iTunes
Based on Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring (2007) by Alexander Rose
5460 Against the GrainNBC, 1993  
Based on Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (1990) by H. G. Bissinger
  60 ResurrectionABC, 2014– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu+ Amazon iTunes
Based on The Returned (2013) by Jason Mott
5659 BittenSyfy, 2014– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Bitten (2001) by Kelley Armstrong
  59 Mr. SelfridgePBS, 2013–Amazon Amazon iTunes
Based on Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge (2007) by Lindy Woodhead
  59 Once Upon a Time in WonderlandABC, 2013–04  Amazon iTunes
Based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll
59 58 The FinderFox, 2012  Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on The Locator series (2006–12) by Richard Greener
  58 The HuntressUSA, 2000–01  
Based on The Huntress: The True Saga of Dottie And Brandi Thorson, Modern–Day Bounty Hunters (1996) by Christopher Keane
  58 PrivilegedCW, 2008–09 Amazon
Based on How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls (2007) by Zoey Dean
6257 Black SailsStarz, 2014– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  57 The Carrie DiariesCW, 2013–14 Add to Netflix Queue
Based on The Carrie Diaries (2010) by Candace Bushnell
  57 CrossbonesNBC, 2014– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu Amazon iTunes
Based on The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (2007) by Colin Woodard
  57 IntelligenceCBS, 2014  Amazon iTunes
Based on Phoenix Island (2014) by John Dixon
  57 UnforgettableCBS, 2011– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on "The Rememberer" (short story, from the book Who Can Save Us Now? Brand–New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories) (2008) by J. Robert Lennon
6756 King & MaxwellTNT, 2013  Amazon iTunes
Based on Split Second (and King and Maxwell series) (2003–13) by David Baldacci
6855 BonesFox, 2005– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Déjà Dead (and full Temperance Brennan series) (1997) by Kathy Reichs
  55 DraculaNBC, 2013–14 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu Amazon iTunes
Based on Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker
  55 The Dresden FilesSci–Fi, 2007 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu Amazon
Based on Storm Front (and Dresden Files series) (2000) by Jim Butcher
  55 GCBABC, 2012Amazon Hulu Amazon iTunes
Based on Good Christian Bitches (2008) by Kim Gatlin
  55 Monday MorningsTNT, 2013  Amazon iTunes
Based on Monday Mornings (2012) by Sanjay Gupta
  55 The Secret CircleCW, 2011–12 Add to Netflix Queue
Based on The Secret Circle series (1992–2013) by L. J. Smith
7454 FalconeCBS, 2000  
Based on Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia (1988) by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley
  54 Gossip GirlCW, 2007–12 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Gossip Girl series (2002–11) by Cecily von Ziegesar
76 53 8 Simple Rules...ABC, 2002–05 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue 
Based on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter: And other tips from a beleaguered father (not that any of them work) (2001) by W. Bruce Cameron
  53 CrusoeNBC, 2008–09 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe
  53 HavenSyfy, 2010– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on The Colorado Kid (2005) by Stephen King
  53 Legend of the Seeker Synd., 2008–10 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu+ Amazon iTunes
Based on The Sword of Truth (series) (1994–2013) by Terry Goodkind
  53 Secret Diary of a Call GirlShowtime, 2008–11 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (2005) by Belle de Jour
  53 Spenser: For HireABC, 1985–88  
Based on Spenser series (1973–2011) by Robert B. Parker
8252 Brewster PlaceABC, 1990Amazon 
Based on The Women of Brewster Place (1982) by Gloria Naylor
  52 The FirmNBC, 2012 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on The Firm (1991) by John Grisham
  52 Pretty Little LiarsABC Family, 2010– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Pretty Little Liars series (2006–) by Sara Shepard
  52 Sex and the CityHBO, 1998–2004 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes
Based on Sex and the City (1997) by Candace Bushnell
86 51 The ClientCBS, 1995–96  
Based on The Client (1993) by John Grisham
  51 HellcatsCW, 2010–11  
Based on Cheer: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders (2008) by Kate Torgovnick
  51 Women's Murder ClubABC, 2007–08  
Based on Women's Murder Club (series) (2001–) by James Patterson
8950 EastwickABC, 2009–10  
Based on The Witches of Eastwick (1984) by John Updike
  50 UndateableNBC, 2014  Amazon iTunes
Based on Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won't Be Dating Or Having Sex (2010) by Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle
  50 The Vampire DiariesCW, 2009– Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on The Vampire Diaries series (1991–) by L. J. Smith
9249 Accidentally on PurposeCBS, 2009–10 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Accidentally on Purpose (2008) by Mary F. Pols
9348 Emily's Reasons Why NotABC, 2006Amazon 
Based on Emily's Reasons Why Not (2004) by Carrie Gerlach
94 45 A Man Called HawkABC, 1989  
Based on Promised Land (1976) by Robert B. Parker
  45 TarzanWB, 2003  
Based on Tarzan series (1912–47) by Edgar Rice Burroughs
9644 Hemlock GroveNetflix, 2013– Amazon Add to Netflix QueueAdd to Netflix Queue
Based on Hemlock Grove (2012) by Brian McGreevy
9743 TekWar Synd./USA, 1994–96 Amazon 
Based on TekWar series (1989–97) by William Shatner (and Ron Goulart, uncredited)
9842 How to Be a GentlemanCBS, 2011–12  Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on How to Be a Gentleman: A Contemporary Guide to Common Courtesy (2001) by John Bridges
  42 In the Heat of the NightNBC/CBS, 1988–94AmazoniTunes
Based on In the Heat of the Night (1965) by John Ball
  42 The Mob DoctorFox, 2012–13Amazon Amazon iTunes
Based on Il Dottore: The Double Life of a Mafia Doctor (2004) by Ron Felber
  42 Past LifeFox, 2010  
Based on The Reincarnationist (1999) by M.J. Rose
10240 Lipstick JungleNBC, 2008–09 Amazon Add to Netflix Queue Hulu Amazon iTunes Add to Netflix Queue
Based on Lipstick Jungle (2005) by Candace Bushnell
10338 Notes from the UnderbellyABC, 2007–08  
Based on Notes from the Underbelly (2005) by Risa Green
10436 Are You There, Chelsea?NBC, 2012  
Based on Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea (2007) by Chelsea Handler
  36 Mr. BelvedereABC, 1985–90  
Based on Belvedere (1947) by Gwen Davenport

... and the worst

106. Dinotopia 35 (ABC, 2002)
Based on the Dinotopia series (1992–2007) by James Gurney

WHAT THEY SAID THEN:

 

David Bianculli
New York Daily News

"The acting and special effects are equally unconvincing. The human beings in the story don't look remotely real, and the dinosaurs can't act."

Ultra-prolific TV producer Robert Halmi Sr., who died last month at the age of 90, had so many credits to his name that obituaries could scarcely begin to list them all. Few (if any) of his productions, however, were as misguided as this adaptation of James Gurney's illustrated book series about a utopia where intelligent dinosaurs co-exist with humans. The adaptation began life as a Disney Channel miniseries, but ABC executives became so excited at the prospects of its success that they ordered a regular primetime Dinotopia series—and began filming it, with a completely different cast—while the miniseries was still in production. That "calculated risk," as the network described it, backfired in a massive way. The $85 million miniseries featured a director unprepared for the intricacies of blue screens and computer-generated effects, and it turned out to be not quite the blockbuster the network was hoping for. And whatever small amount of goodwill that the miniseries had created with fans dissipated when the regular series launched later that year with an all-new group of actors, even cheaper-looking effects, and a lot less action—not to mention abysmal writing, which is what critics complained about the most. By the time the series was canceled six episodes into its 13-episode first season, it was drawing just four million viewers a week—dismal ratings for a high-budget series even by today's standards (let alone those of 12 years ago).

107. Murphy's Law 31 (ABC, 1988–89)
Based on the Trace series (1983–1987) by Warren Murphy

WHAT THEY SAID THEN:

 

David Friedman
Newsday

"A series so monumentally meaningless, so pathetically puerile, so irredeemably ridiculous that, within my limited professional context, it prompts the Biggest Question of them all: Why is there television?"

This Moonlighting knockoff (even down to the requisite Al Jarreau theme song) casts George Segal as insurance claims investigator, alcoholic, and general screw-up Daedalus Murphy (the show's version of the novels' Devlin Tracy), who shares a house—and a banter-heavy, will they/won't they relationship—with a fashion model played by Maggie Han. Murphy's Law attempted to land the same blend of detective noir and humor present in Murphy's books (as well as the aforementioned Moonlighting, which was nearing the end of its five-year run on the same network). But critics weren't buying any of it, finding the premise, relationships, and dialogue as phony as Segal's odd semi-Irish accent, and the series was canceled after a dozen episodes.

108. Hidden Hills 29 (NBC, 2002–03)
Based on Surviving Suburbia: The Best of the Guy Chronicles (2003) by Chris Erskine

WHAT THEY SAID THEN:

 

Diane Werts
Newsday

"If this is comedy, who needs it?"

In 2002, NBC still had a Tuesday night hit on its hands in Frasier, but could not come up with a satisfying solution for the problem of what to pair with it. Hidden Hills was the first of three failed attempts that season. This ensemble sitcom (from the man who brought you Nutty Professor II: The Klumps!) was set in a suburban gated community and was based on a published compilation of observational newspaper essays by Chris Erskine of the Los Angeles Times (think of him as a less funny Dave Barry). Observational humor about suburban living didn't seem to be enough to satisfy NBC execs, though, so the show was loaded with a forced rapid-fire pace, slow-motion fantasy sequences, unnecessary voice-over narration, and generally crude and sophomoric humor. The network described the series as "Like your life. Only funnier." But as critic Tom Long wrote, "This series reflects the way wealthy, neurotic, overly busy and sex-obsessed TV executives and producers think America lives, in other words, the way they live. They're wrong. Most of us are not TV executives."

What do you like? And what did we miss?

Though we tried to be comprehensive, we're sure a few shows fell through the cracks. Let us know which book-to-TV adaptations we missed. And let us know which ones are your favorites, and what the critics got right and wrong.

 

Comments (3)

  • GRubi  

    I wish Metacritic would average the seasons of each show when making these lists. It would make it more accurate and great shows that deserve to be ranked higher (like Game of Thrones and Hannibal) wouldn't suffer for getting better as they progressed.

  • FleshWorld  

    I can't endorse #1 on this list strongly enough. Both the book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" (of Baltimore) and "Homicide: Life on the Street", the TV show, are amazing pieces of entertainment that are well-worth devoting some time to. Others that I endorse strongly are Justified, Longmire, Friday Night Lights, Hannibal, The Unit, and Haven. Man, going through this list makes it even clearer that we're in a golden age of TV. Lots of good stuff out there. Sort of puts movies to shame, at least over the last 15 years or so.

  • WillCohen  

    Yet, "The Killing", which currently has an 84 rating on here, is no where to be found on the list.

    Also, if you're going to leave off "Once Upon A Time", you should leave off "OUAT in Wonderland", seeing that it was also a amalgam of different books that just happened to take place in Wonderland. Jafar and the Genie were from "1001 Arabian Nights", not "Alice in Wonderland."

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