Just recently, the venerable George R.R. Martin remarked that “I am working in a very different medium than David and Dan” when explaining why the ending he intends to write will differ from the final seasons of Game of Thrones. Now none of us are holding our breath waiting for the next entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, but Martin’s statement begs an interesting question: are authors better off not imagining their works as a televised program? The question may seem trivial but considering how often authors are exhorted to make mental movies of their work, I think it is worth pondering. Personally, I am inclined to say that it’s probably a good mental exercise for authors but it’s very important to remember that what works in television does not always work in literature and vice versa. For proof of this, we need only consider the miniseries Chernobyl.
In literature, recurring characters usually need to have some sort of backstory to hold the reader’s interest. Of course, there are exceptions but if we are going to spend time in a person’s head, we usually like to know what makes that person tick. When it comes to television, we don’t need to know nearly as much about a character because we can see how they feel and that provides an understanding of its own. Pavel, a young man conscripted into containment efforts in Chernobyl, is a great example of this.
His name is used sparingly in the show and even though he appears in multiple scenes, I could not remember his name without looking it up online. That did nothing, however, to prevent me from enjoying his storyline. Despite knowing little about the character in terms of his backstory or his interest, I still felt as if I understood a great deal about his character. After all, I could see how he felt when he was offered a drink by his new bunkmates, when he is informed that he has been ordered to shoot the dogs exposed to radiation, when he has to decide if he has the fortitude to kill a litter of puppies, and that helps a great deal with knowing how he feels.
According to the show runners, key information about Pavel was deliberately withheld from the audience so that he could serve as a symbol of the many individuals conscripted into containment efforts. Such sparse character development can work in television but is much harder to pull off in literature. There are practical reasons related to dialogue attribution and POV jumping but one reason stands out above all the rest: television requires less engagement from consumers. This is not to suggest less creativity or effort goes into the making of television—one need only consult the credits list for a movie to know just how much talent goes into the production of a televised event. But so long as Stranger Things is easy to binge and finishing Moby Dick is hard, I think characters like Pavel will work well on the screen but not so well on the page.
Perhaps I am wrong though. My TBR list grows longer by the day and I might revise my opinion on the matter once I make more progress on that front. For now, I am inclined to agree with George R.R. Martin that television is a very different medium and I would encourage everyone interested in good television to watch the miniseries Chernobyl. If the explosion in visits to the Exclusion Zone and the show’s stellar ratings are any indication, there’s a very good chance the show will be remembered as the best drama of 2018.