16 TV Shows You Probably Didn’t Know Were Adapted from Books

It’s a well-known fact that some of the best TV shows were inspired by or adapted from books. We would never have gotten eight action-packed seasons of Game of Thrones without George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Nor would we have gotten six seasons of drama and lies on Gossip Girl without the Cecily von Ziegesar books of the same name.

While it can often be the popularity of a text that leads to its reimagining on TV—or the television series can spark a renewed excitement in the book—there are many cases where the literary sources get forgotten or overshadowed by their on-screen incarnations.

So, if you’re looking for the perfect beach read this summer and you want to revisit some of your favorite shows (without watching them for the tenth time), here is a list of 16 TV series you may not have known were adapted from books.

1. Sweet Magnolias

Not to be confused with the movie Steel Magnolias (which was adapted from a 1987 play), Sweet Magnolias is one of Netflix’s hit series, following three women in South Carolina who are navigating their careers and love lives.

2. Virgin River

Meet Melinda “Mel” Monroe (Alexandra Breckenridge), a nurse practitioner who moves to the small town of Virgin River for a fresh start. It doesn’t take long for her past to resurface, but luckily, she meets a handsome bar owner to serve as a distraction. The series is based on the best-selling book series by Robyn Carr, which includes 21 novels in total.

3. Dexter

Dexter aired during an era of American television when viewers were obsessed with anti-heroes (we’re looking at you, Breaking Bad). The Showtime series was so popular that it ran for eight seasons, and it’s even received a ten-episode reboot. But what you might not know is that Michael C. Hall’s killer character first appeared in a 2004 novel by Jeff Lindsay titled Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Lindsay ended up releasing eight novels within the Dexter universe, while the TV series strayed from the plot of the books in later seasons.

4. Firefly Lane

Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke found major success with their new Netflix series Firefly Lane, which follows best friends Tully and Kate from their childhood in the 1970s all the way to their adulthood in the early aughts. While more than 40 million people found comfort in the television show, many might not know that it’s based off a 2008 novel of the same name by Kristin Hannah (author of The Nightingale), who based the book off her own experience of growing up in Seattle.

5. Gentleman Jack

HBO’s Gentleman Jack differs from other titles in this list in that it is not adapted directly from a book, but rather diary entries. The series is based on the collected accounts of Anne Lister, a wealthy English landowner who recorded her daily activities (including her many affairs with women) in a complex, self-designed code. While the filming of the second season of Gentleman Jack was delayed due to the coronavirus, the diaries of Lister have been compiled in a book by Helena Whitbread, that can be purchased here.

6. The Haunting Anthology Series

Fans of chilling ghost stories found something to love in The Haunting anthology series, which has offered two delightfully creepy seasons. However, if you’re waiting to find out if there will be a third addition to the Netflix hit, you should check out the books that inspired the Mike Flanagan creation. The first season, The Haunting of Hill House, was based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, while the second season, The Haunting of Bly Manor, was loosely inspired by The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

7. House of Lies

The Showtime comedy series starring Kristen Bell and Don Cheadle offered plenty of laughs throughout its five-season run. However, if you’re like us and you’re missing your favorite group of conniving management consultants, check out its source material House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time by former Booz Allen Hamilton consultant Martin Kihn.

8. Killing Eve

Before Sandra Oh entered our screens as iconic investigator Eve Polastri, Killing Eve started out as four novellas compiled into the book Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings. Since the start of the hit BBC series, Jennings has published two sequels to the original story: Killing Eve: No Tomorrow and Killing Eve: Die for Me.

9. The Leftovers

This supernatural mystery from the same man who gave us Lost and Watchmen may have only lasted for three seasons, but it is often considered to be one of the greatest TV shows of all time (just ask Vox or The Guardian). But what some might not know about this HBO drama series is that it’s based off a 2011 novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta (whose has had other works adapted into critically acclaimed movies, like Election and Little Children).

10. Masters of Sex

Showtime’s period drama Masters of Sex follows the lives of Masters and Johnson as they conduct their soon-to-be famous research on human sexuality during the early ‘50s and ‘60s. While the series (and its stars, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan) provided plenty of buzz, the juicy details were inspired by Thomas Maier’s biography of the historical pair, titled Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.

11. Mindhunter

Viewers have been getting their minds twisted by psychological thriller Mindhunter since 2017. However, while fans are anxiously awaiting a third season of the Netflix hit, they can get even more of criminal psychology from the 1995 non-fiction book, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. In this book, retired FBI agent John E. Douglas recounts his real-life methods for diving into the minds of killers, with the help of his co-writer, Mark Olshaker.

12. The Queen’s Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy has become one of the world’s biggest actresses after her star turns in the adaptation of Emma, as well as for her hypnotic role as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. While chess might not be everyone’s first choice for the subject matter of a gripping TV show, The Queen’s Gambit is binge-worthy television gold, and it comes from Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name that explores the mind of its main character in even more detail.

13. Rizzoli & Isles

We could never forget about Rizzoli & Isles, the TNT crime drama starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander that ran for a solid seven seasons and earned extremely high ratings. However, what many might not know is that the series was based off a collection of books by Tess Gerritsen, a retired general physician who charted the lives of the detective and medical examiner in her twelve Rizzoli & Isles books.

14. Call the Midwife

When coming up with the idea for the hit BBC drama series Call the Midwife, creator Heidi Thomas turned to the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. This nurse and midwife chronicled her experiences working with the Community of St. John the Divine in East London in her best-selling trilogy of books: Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to The East End. Sadly, Worth would die one year before Call the Midwife premiered, but the first episode was dedicated to the story’s originator.

15. Boardwalk Empire

HBO must have had a lot of confidence in Boardwalk Empire because the company spent nearly $18 million dollars just to film the first episode. Luckily for them, this period drama would last for five seasons, as viewers followed Steve Buscemi in the role of Nucky Thompson, a corrupt politician during the Prohibition era. While the show was a success for the cable network, it was inspired by Nelson Johnson’s non-fiction book, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City about political boss Enoch L. Johnson.

16. Tiny Pretty Things

In 2020, Netflix debuted the dance-centered drama Tiny Pretty Things. The series, produced by Michael MacLennan, was marketed as “Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars” with its themes of drama and deception, mixed with its commentary on the underbelly of professional dancing. However, if you’re like us and you finished the first season within a week and are waiting for more, check out the 2016 book it was based on, written by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton.


Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Joel is the former Associate Editor for News & Entertainment and has been reporting on all things pop culture for over 5 years. Before working at PureWow, he served as a...