Comparing the “Pretty Little Liars” Books and TV Series

As anyone who has been following my discussions of the “Pretty Little Liars” universe will know, the “Pretty Little Liars” TV series — which I watched first — was adapted from the book series by the same name by Sara Shepard. I picked up all the books after watching the series and read them, and there’s a unique aspect to that adaptation: while it is definitely recognizable as an adaptation of the books, the books and the series are in fact radically different. Usually you only get changes that are necessary to move between media, or else you get a completely unfaithful adaptation like we saw with the “Wing Commander” movie. So it’s either slight changes or else something more akin to “a work in the universe” because it’s so different (movie adaptations are terrible for this). But the series uses a lot of the same characters with the same personalities, but for the most part redoes the plot. So this invites comparison: what works better, what works worse and also raises the question of which is better. So I’m going to look at these things in this post.

Let me start with what I hinted at last time, which is that the relationships in the TV series are far more developed and important than they were in the books. Caleb, Ezra and Toby are very important characters in the TV series as the main love interests of three of the protagonists, and Emily and Allison get a relationship that settles the potential issues between them and perhaps starts a redemption arc for Allison (that, as I noted before, I don’t think works). In the books, none of these characters are at all important or even an important part of the lives of the girls. Caleb doesn’t exist. Allison is an unrepentant antagonist. Ezra is a minor complication in Aria’s life, and disappears for most of the books. Toby is killed off early without having any romantic relationship with Spencer at all. So what, then, did they replace them with? Aria gets together with Noel Kahn, who is … pretty much as annoying as he was in the show. Hanna gets Aria’s brother Mike, who loses the broodiness in favour of being another Noel, which doesn’t do him any favours (even at her wedding he is immature enough to ask for Hooters waitresses, which Hanna for some reason agrees to). Spencer ends up with Wren from the first books coming into her life for no other reason than to pair her up with somebody, as he wasn’t even as present in the books as he was in the TV series. And Emily gets no one.

It would be okay if the books had used relationships merely as plot devices and so made them unimportant. But Spencer has lots of them and the books hint at her having a character trait that makes her lonely and vulnerable to that being exploited (which we all know would not make at least one person happy). Emily has a lot as well and seemingly gets and loses a true love. And, again, Aria and Hanna get relationships and Hanna, at least, gets married as a major component of the last arc. Relationships in the books were perfunctory compared to the series but weren’t perfunctory in their importance to the characters.

Before I give my take on why that difference happened, let me address another big difference that is related to that: characters move in and out and even die off far more in the books than in the series. As noted above, Toby dies in the books while he survived to the end in the series. Mona died in the books. Jenna died relatively early on in the books. Emily’s true love died. And so on and so forth. The TV series, then, wanted to keep established characters around while the books weren’t all that concerned about it. Why?

I think this might be explained by the media itself. In a book, if you want to get rid of a character or bring them back all you have to do is write them into a chapter, but in a TV series you have to either bring the actor back or recast and hope that the audience doesn’t remember the previous character (the series did do that at one point with Jason). But if they have a meaty and important role, then you need to bring in a good actor to pull it off. If you want them to do it, you will probably have to promise them more than part of one season to get them. And if they are good, you might fall in love with their performance and want to keep them around (a number of characters in the revamped Battlestar Galactica were given much larger roles because the showrunners liked their performances). So the characters had too important a role to simply cast with an extra or minor character actor, but in the book they didn’t have enough of a role to make it worth the time and effort to cast them. Also, big and constantly changing casts are expensive, so they wanted to limit the cast to a manageable number of primaries and then build the plots around them. And in line with the first point, one way to do that is to give all of the girls dedicated love interests, as this facilitates romance plots and gives characters that can do lots of things that it’s worth casting really good actors for. Thus, they all got love interests, and in general love interests that could have a major impact on the plot and the characterizations, as I’ve noted before.

I think I like what the TV series did better. Spencer gets it worse because her romance at the end seems tacked on, but both Aria and Hanna get love interests that don’t seem particularly romantic, mostly because their character development is rushed. The TV series took more time getting us to know and like them, even when they had flaws. Arguably, the book’s versions are more realistic, but also less sympathetic.

What the books do manage to do better than the TV series is another thing that is endemic to the media, which is that it has an easier time getting us inside their heads and so making the protagonists more sympathetic and more like real people. I think the books fumble with with Hanna as her inner thoughts are more shallow than her characterization in the series, but it works much better for Spencer and even Emily, and would work well for Aria if Aria’s character wasn’t so flaky. Still, for all of them we experience their quirks and what they think about them, which is something that is very hard to do in a TV series. This can help build a stronger connection to them than we could get in a TV series.

The plots, as noted, are also radically different. I think the plots in the books make more sense and are a bit more consistent — Allison ends up as A twice in the books whereas she is never A in the TV series despite looking like it and people like Mona keep flip-flopping — and don’t rely as much on police stupidity — until the very end — as they do in the TV series. But the books being willing to kill off characters allows for plot threads to be definitively snipped, which wasn’t the case in the TV series. Still, both fail badly in their final arcs, making it a good thing that they ended when they did.

So, then, which of the two is better? I actually personally can’t say. I’m probably more likely to rewatch the series than re-read the books, but I’m certainly willing to do either, and might get around to re-reading the books first just because I have more free reading time than free DVD viewing time. They are both good in their own way, but are radically different from each other so it’s a completely different experience, each with their own good and bad points. As noted, in the TV series I liked, among the protagonists, Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily in that order, while in the books it was Spencer, Hanna, Emily and Aria. I can’t even agree on which characters I like the best between them! Ultimately, which one you prefer will probably boil down to which media you prefer. And that’s probably a good thing.

So, that’s it for my examinations of the “Pretty Little Liars” universe. Now I’ll have to move on to … something else.

One Response to “Comparing the “Pretty Little Liars” Books and TV Series”

  1. I’ve got a bad feeling about this … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] who have been following the blog know I’ve watched the TV series and read the books, and even compared the two.  So they were something I enjoyed and so I have a bit of a soft spot for the universe, although I […]

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