During a recent talk show chat, "Game of Thrones" actress Maisie Williams revealed she had listened to fans' online opinions when crafting her scrappy Arya Stark character, originally written as a left-handed swordswoman in George R.R. Martin's book series. "The fans are so die-hard; they're like, 'I wonder if Maisie's going to [make Arya left-handed],' and 'She's only 12, so she probably won't,'" recalled Williams, who is now 17. "I was like, 'Challenge accepted.'"
And so, Arya is now a left-handed swordswoman in the books and on TV. But when it comes to adapting a beloved property into a televised series, show runners can't always be so accommodating. Fans of the source material can be picky, quirky and downright dogmatic about seeing their favorite words and characters come to life — and aren't shy about critiquing changes. But show runners must face the practical realities of TV storytelling.
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"You're addressing two audiences doing an adaptation like this," says "Outlander" show runner Ronald Moore, who based the Starz show on Diana Gabaldon's books. "There's the preexisting readership who loves the characters backwards and forwards and are looking for all of these scenes and nuggets, but there's also the audience that's tuning in for the first time. It has to play for both."
Having a set group of fans already in your corner prior to adapting the work is a plus, but as Colin Callender, producer of Masterpiece's "Wolf Hall" (a six-hour miniseries fashioned from the approximately 1,000 pages of Hilary Mantel's historical novels) notes, there's a downside: "One is very aware of the devoted following to the books, and one wants to do right by that fan base while at the same time obviously taking advantage of the built-in constituency for the story."
Genre properties dominate TV's most popular adaptations, and genre audiences — typically science-fiction, fantasy and horror fans — are typically the most vocally devoted to their sources. Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer for AMC's "The Walking Dead," is a veteran of genre fans' reactions, having produced films such as "Aliens" and "Terminator." But as she points out, readers of the original "Walking Dead" comics are now vastly outnumbered by fans of the show.
"The show has expanded the readership of the comics, so it's now a feedback loop," Hurd says. "And just because the comic book readers might not number in the millions doesn't mean they're not important."
But for "Dead," responding to fan desires or irritations isn't possible; three-fourths of each season is shot before the first episode even airs. "The entire arc of the new season has already been conceived and written by then," she says. "It's in the can."
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"Gotham" show runner Bruno Heller has no such issue, which may have to do with his series being on Fox and having a much tighter turnaround time between individual episodes. "We change from feedback all the time," he says of his series, a "Batman" universe prequel, noting that the positive response to the odd relationship between the characters Fish and Penguin led to expanded scenes of them together.
"That's the joy of doing network TV: You're on the air while you're making a show, so you can naturally respond to stuff that's popping," Heller adds. "It's like having a long run of a play: Whatever grabs the audience, that's what you turn the show toward."
For good or ill, giving the fans what they want has filtered into the creation process. Carlton Cuse is currently involved with three adaptations on TV (A&E's "Bates Motel" and "The Returned," and FX's "The Strain") and says, "I always try to imagine how the audience is going to react to every story I'm going to tell. I break story from the place of what fan reaction is going to be."
Meanwhile, Damon Lindelof is show-running HBO's adaptation of Tom Perrotta's "The Leftovers" and puts a slightly different spin on figuring out how to keep the original's fans happy. "You have to surround yourself with collaborators who become proxies for the audience, and you say if we think this is cool, maybe the audience will."
Yet shows like "Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones" are going strong after multiple seasons despite having diverged from the source material early on without too much fuss — which underscores that, while ground-level fans are important when a show premieres, after it flies on its own there's a bigger picture to consider.
Says Hurd, it's important to know when to put the brakes on unhappy fan opinions. "If you start to second-guess what the narrative is going to be, just because a vocal minority is petitioning, you're going to jump the shark. It's important to take the temperature of the audience — but you can't let it destroy your life, or your show."