What’s up with book to podcast adaptations?

We’re all aware, possibly painfully so, of that podcast-to-TV adaptation pipeline and the possibility of podcasts being made solely so that they can be picked up by a movie and TV studio for development. We absolutely have to be wary of podcasting becoming an IP testing ground, especially in audio fiction. But I think there’s another area where we need to tread carefully: the book-to-podcast adaptation line.

Just as how visual mediums have co-opted written works for adaptation, ripe for movie-going and streaming audiences, podcasts have been identified, if still in a comparatively low-key fashion, as a possible medium adaptation for written works. Unlike with the visual medium, it’s a lot cheaper and it doesn’t need to go through studio development deal and contract hell before being greenlit. And podcasting provides a useful tool for authors to disseminate their work in multiple accessible ways, and in an engaging fashion for people who might be more pulled in by audio works than written.

I love adaptations of written works to audio, and I think the process of doing so successfully is difficult and time-consuming, but worthwhile. Almost Tangible’s Macbeth has done a great job, and so have The Phenomenon and The Enoch Saga, to name a few. They’ve all edited the work to fit the audio medium, to be easier listening, to have a soundscape to bring what was previously written down to life, and to be voiced by a full cast of actors. In The Phenomenon, they’ve edited out a narrator entirely, and The Enoch Saga has kept some of the prose narration where it’s important to focus on the action or the protagonist’s inner thoughts. It’s also important to note audio like LeVar Burton Reads, with one single narrator and lush sound design and scoring (something that I think is underutilized in narrated audio fiction).

But tread carefully; podcasting is also not an audience hunting ground for written works. Like any other time I talk about adaptations and working in podcasting, it’s necessary to treat the medium with respect. Adapt conscientiously; you’re transmitting information with only sound and, if you decide to cut the narrator and use sound design, that’s going to take some judicious editing and examining of what’s important, and what isn’t. Not everything that works on the page works for the ear, and long passages of text, and it’s possible that you’ll have to cut something otherwise dear to your heart.

Which written work adaptations to podcasts do you love? Which podcasts surprised you when you found out they were adapted from a book? Many podcasters I’ve spoken to have told me about how their podcast was originally a novel, which they then spliced and edited and modified to become a podcast instead, another form of adaptation even if the original work didn’t see publication previously. What’s the hardest part about adapting a work for you?

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #20, November 19, 2018.