This year's biggest book adaptations – and which ones are worth reading first

From Margaret Atwood to Stephen King, a host of great authors will see work adapted for film and TV this year. Here’s our guide to which to read before you watch

Thanks to Hollywood’s baffling inability to produce anything that wasn’t first a book, a question that gets asked more and more these days is: “Should I read the original?” There is no default answer. Sometimes, the book is so far removed that reading it lends nothing new to the cinematic experience; sometimes “the book” is actually eight chunky volumes in an epic fantasy series, and an intimidating experience for the casual reader. Sometimes – unthinkably – the adaptation is better than the book. There is a rich list of fiction being adapted this year, so here is a guide to which books are worth experiencing on their own, before seeing the version overseen by producers panicking because there is not enough stabbing and too much bonking. And indeed, on that note …

Film: Fifty Shades Darker

What’s it about? Twentysomething Ana continues to enjoy more sexual shenanigans with emotionless billionaire Christian Grey in this sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Will it stay faithful to the book? Maybe. There is more “kinky fuckery” in this sequel, as Christian puts it, but Hollywood was very uncomfortable with the racier parts of the first book, so it will be a surprise if you get to see such delights as ice-cream foreplay, pool-table spanking and handjobs at sea make it to the screen.

Should I read the book? No. The plot veers into preposterous, afternoon-TV soap territory, and in between all the crazed stalkers and helicopter sabotage, EL James’s writing is as stilted and ridiculous as ever. Tipping the Velvet, Delta of Venus, or even the Argos catalogue all offer better erotic writing.

How long do I have to read it? Until 10 February.

Film: T2 Trainspotting

T2: Trainspotting - full trailer for the sequel to the 1996 hit

What’s it about? Everyone’s favourite smackheads are back, and this time they’re making porn. Years after Renton ran off with everyone’s drug money, Sick Boy turns up at Renton’s club in Amsterdam with a proposition: make an adult film and share the financial reward. Hijinks ensue.

Will it stay faithful to the book? It has changed the title from Porno, but even if it does deviate further, T2 is in the safe hands of Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, who knows his way around a film – and a Welsh novel.

Should I read it? As Ali Smith wrote in her review for the Guardian, Porno was a sign that Irvine Welsh does still have good books in him. If you liked Trainspotting, another turn with Renton and the gang is a sick joy. Welsh’s dedication to authenticity in his dialogue makes for a unique, if not always pleasant experience for first-timers (read Begbie’s Scottish-English passages out loud for maximum impact), so it might not be for everyone. But as Boyle proved with the first film, Welsh books and Welsh adaptations can be exclusively celebrated as their own successes.

How long do I have to read it? Until 3 March.

Film: Wilson

What’s it about? Lonely, middle-aged misanthrope Wilson lives an aimless life until he discovers he has a teenage daughter who was put up for adoption. He reunites with his ex-wife to track down said offspring and build a new, messy family unit.

Will it stay faithful to the book? No. It might stay true to Daniel Clowes’s comic in tone, but as that was made up of 70-odd strips with days and years in between each vignette, Wilson is not exactly a plot-driven affair.

Should I read it? Yes. Clowes has a way of capturing suburban American misery like no other comic writer, and his illustrations are beautiful. Woody Harrelson’s Wilson looks a tad more wacky than Clowes’s dowdy, deluded loner.

How long do I have to read it? Until 24 March.

Film: Ghost in the Shell

What’s it about? In a cyberpunk near-future Japan, cyborg Motoko Kusanagi works for an elite counter-cyberterrorism team. Expect existential musings about humanity interspersed with giant-robot smackdowns.

Will it stay faithful to the book? The film has already been accused of whitewashing by casting a caucasian American as a Japanese robot, so it remains to be seen how Hollywood will handle the Asian-ness of the source material. There are many manga books, anime films and TV shows of Ghost in the Shell, and this film is using bits of all of them.

Should I read it? Maybe. The manga is stylish, philosophical and visually striking. But it is also long – about 20 books in all – and occasionally gets lost in its own cleverness. If you can’t face reading all the manga but still want to get up to speed, the 1995 anime film is very good.

How long do I have to read it? Until 31 March.

TV: The Handmaid’s Tale

What’s it about? The US has been overtaken by a theocratic military dictatorship and renamed Gilead, where Old Testament-inspired rules are law. As most women are sterile, the fertile ones are kept as breeding tools for powerful men and their barren wives. Margaret Atwood’s classic follows Offred – literally, Of Fred – as she navigates her dangerous new world and develops a twisted relationship with Fred, AKA the Commander (Joseph Fiennes), for whom she is assigned to provide children.

Will it stay faithful to the book? It had better.

Should I read it? Yes. As well as being an intelligent criticism of patriarchy and puritanism, The Handmaid’s Tale is as pacy and compelling as any mass-market thriller. Atwood’s book deserves its status as a dystopian classic alongside Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World.

How long do I have to read it? Until 26 April.

Film: The Circle

What’s it about? Think Black Mirror set in Apple HQ. Mae Holland lands a job at The Circle, a giant tech company that makes SeeChange: a light, portable camera that records everything the wearer does. Initially impressed with her new workplace, Mae begins to lose herself, sacrificing her personal liberties and right to privacy in the name of the company.

Will it stay faithful to the book? Probably.

Should I read it? If you like Dave Eggers, yes. If you haven’t tried him, choose another Eggers book first – What Is the What, perhaps, or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

How long do I have to read it? Until April.

TV: American Gods

What’s it about? A convict is given an early release from prison when his wife suddenly dies. Once out, he is offered a job as a bodyguard for a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr Wednesday, but is actually the Norse god Odin. Wednesday is travelling across the US, gathering up other old and forgotten gods who are also living in plain sight, for a showdown with the new gods America believes in – media, technology and capitalism.

Will it stay faithful to the book? Doubtful – but that’s no bad thing. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has said the episodes will follow individual characters rather than Neil Gaiman’s story. Gaiman himself has also updated and added some new gods to better reflect what today’s Americans put their faith in – guns, for one.

Should I read it? Odin’s beard! Yes. This is a fantasy that is epic but not convoluted, witty but not ridiculous, political but accessible.

How long do I have to read it? Until April. It is also around 600 pages long, so ready, get set, and go.

Film: The Dark Tower

What’s it about? Stephen King’s epic series smashes classic westerns and traditional fantasy together to create a rich world in which time does not flow as it should, cyborg bears roam the land and ancient gas pumps are worshipped as gods. Roland Deschain is a gunslinger – a knightly order formed of the descendants of King Arthur – and he’s on a quest to track down “the man in black” and find the Dark Tower, the nexus of all possible universes.

Will the producers stay faithful to the book? If they know the kinds of fans they’re dealing with here, they will.

Should I read it? Yes – parallel worlds, wormholes and alternate personalities are not for everyone, but Stephen King is a wonderfully readable writer and the end of the series is one of the best ever written. It may look like a daunting series – there are eight books – but the first is surprisingly short if you want to dip your toes in before the film comes out.

How long do I have to read it? Until 28 July.

TV: Alias Grace

What’s it about? This is the year of Atwood adaptations. Her 1996 novel is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a housemaid who was jailed in 1843 for the bloody murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Did she do it? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Will it stay faithful to the book? If Netflix can retain as many unanswered questions and as much moral complexity as the book, this could be the best true-crime show of the year.

Should I read it? The novel’s unique narration makes this murky tale even murkier: there is the unreliable Grace, whose thoughts and speech blend into each other; Dr Jordan, Grace’s physician, who contradicts his own thoughts with correspondence; plus various newspaper reports, letters and poems … all these texts flesh out Grace’s case in a way TV might struggle to replicate. And anyway, it’s Atwood, so yes, read it.

How long do I have to read it? Maybe until tomorrow. Maybe six months. Like modern pop stars, Netflix has a tendency to suddenly drop their creations on an unsuspecting world, so get cracking.


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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