Brow Beat

How One TV Series Succeeded at Moving Past Its Source Material When Many Others Failed

A scene from Sweetbitter
A scene from Sweetbitter.
Starz

Sweetbitter, the Starz series about a woman who arrives in New York and lands a job at a storied restaurant, had a problem as it geared up for its second season. The novel on which it’s based ends with a series of revelations—about how main character Tess leaves the restaurant where she works, about general manager Howard’s true nature, about co-workers Jake and Simone’s secret past—that the book had been building toward for more than 300 pages. But much of this plays out in Season 1 of its television adaptation, or had to be discarded. (The main character can’t leave, for one thing.) So what would Season 2 be?

We’ve seen Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Game of Thrones, among others, grapple with this dilemma in recent years, pressing ahead with stories that take place after the events of their source material. As far as critics are concerned, they’ve frequently fumbled the process, suggesting that TV has perhaps been unwise to circumvent book publishing’s slower, more conservative pace in its race for content. Sweetbitter may lack the high profiles of those shows, but it too was based on a bestselling novel and therefore had a limited amount of plot to work from. But this time, the result was better.

Stephanie Danler, the author of the book who went on to create the TV show, and showrunner Stuart Zicherman spoke to Slate about the pitfalls of turning a stand-alone novel into a series that could, they hope, go on indefinitely. This interview has been edited and condensed from two separate conversations.

Slate: What is it about books that suddenly made them such hot fodder for TV shows? And why do you think they aren’t ending, like a miniseries might have in the past?

Stephanie Danler: I think that what appeals to television from books is that the world is built and so complete and the characters have psychological depth. You’re not starting from scratch. You already have a world that has a lot of authenticity because authors have to dig so deep to create a world out of nothing; they don’t have visual shortcuts. And what happens, I think, with television is that the world itself becomes so appealing. Definitely with Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale and Game of Thrones, you want to live in that world a while longer.

I think that in a highly competitive landscape, anything that has a built-in audience or name-brand recognition has a leg up on the competition. That really summarizes a lot of why people are in a race to adapt and why people are in a race to option. If you have a book that’s been on the bestseller list and has 100,000 readers, you are 100,000 people ahead of the show that’s starting from scratch. You also have a guidebook to work off of, which some people think is easier; it could be harder, I don’t know either way, but it’s there regardless. And things are happening so much more quickly. Instead of something taking 20 years to get through the system in Hollywood, you can have something in two years on the air, while the book’s audience is still hungry for more of the world.

When you started to create Sweetbitter from Stephanie’s novel, were you afraid of running out of material from the book?

Stuart Zicherman: It’s quite the opposite. That’s why this book makes a great TV show. Anyone could walk into a restaurant; anyone can go to work at a restaurant; any person can come in for dinner; in Season 5, Tess can leave this restaurant and go open up her own restaurant in Paris. The show can go anywhere, you can introduce new characters—it’s hugely expansive, in my opinion.

The novel wasn’t super plotty. It was sort of observational and thoughtful, and there was a lot about characters and moments and sensory moments. I think, in Season 2, Stephanie really wanted to push away from the book and push out of the book and grow out of the book. [But] there were definitely some things that we still hadn’t done from Season 1 that we really wanted to do—like the Jake-Tess scene from the diner was a scene that people loved from the book. We were like, we have to do that this season.

Does it feel scary to diverge too far from the material that brought on the show in the first place?

Zicherman: I think that you just have to intuit what the fans really loved about the piece in the first place. You have to feel that in your bones: What did people love about the book? And then if you can pinpoint that, as you’re in the writers’ room, as that’s top of mind, then every piece of story you break will come from that place.

Danler: I never felt any fidelity to the book. We were never moving linearly through the book. I wanted to take key scenes and moments, but I definitely could not have tension between Tess and Simone in the first season because that gives no room to their love story, which is the backbone of the book.

Zicherman: I feel like I was 10 percent less precious than I would be had it come from my brain—in a way that was better, because I could be a little bit more objective. I could say to her, “I know you love that, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what we want to do,” and she would say, “I hear you,” or sometimes, she would say, “You know what, I hear you, but I really want to do it.”

What was it like to introduce new elements to the show that weren’t in the book at all?

Danler: That’s the fun as a writer, that I get to be in the world that I know so well—that I have a lot of authority in—and I get to also be making something new with it. In the book, the chef is established, but on the show, we had never established the chef—we just had the sous chef. That’s someone’s pitch that Stu and I loved. That’s the beauty of working in a writers room. Someone says, “What if Chef walked in?” and you’re like, “Chef! Oh my God, that’s a great idea!” And Stu’s like, “I’ve been wondering where Chef is,” and that whole experience kind of sums up why television is so much fun. And then magically you get Sandra Bernhard to do it and all of your dreams come true.

Zicherman: I love that we turned the timeline back on the Howard story. In the book, Howard is kind of a sexual predator, and we thought, because of the times we’re living in, the #MeToo world, all the stories that have come out about chefs and people in the restaurant business who have taken advantage of people, we wanted to be careful about that—we wanted to tell that in a way that was a bit more present.

As an author of books, does it bother you that Hollywood’s need to pump out content seems to be outpacing authors, or doesn’t it seem like those interests will inevitably clash in some way?

Danler: It only has to be a clash if you’re thinking that the adaptation is a literal translation of the book. If you think of adaptation as adapted loosely from the world of or based on the world of, then there really is no clash.

There’s a need for more that a book can’t satisfy, because it’s a discrete object: It has a beginning and it has an end. I think that is why fans of these books get so excited about television adaptations, because of that “more.”