After reading Tales of the City last month, a colleague lent me his copy of the 4 episode mini-series made in the 90s. I've been watching it over the last couple of weeks.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first episode more or less is the start of the book. Obviously being television there is less inner monologue, so the thoughts of the characters aren't as obvious. However the actors very quickly came to inhabit the blurry-faced spaces that Armistead Maupin's characters occupy in my mind. I soon got over my 'Look it's Laura Linney' or 'Oh, it's that guy from Dharma and Greg' reactions.
There were large sections of dialogue and whole scenes that came straight from the book, making it a very faithful adaptation. I had expected that certain parts of the plot would get streamlined or certain scenes might be pruned, but there was only a little of that. The beginning of the book is mostly made up of encounters between both major and minor characters, which means that the plot doesn't seem to get going right away. It would have been easy to drop some of these scenes, but clearly the makers appreciated their importance in introducing the cast to the viewers.
Subsequent episodes changed a few things, though the bulk of the scenes were familiar, and much of the dialogue was the same. There were times when I couldn't quite remember what order certain scenes were in, and whether that bit actually had been in the book. After all I read the novel about a month ago, and it's not like I memorised it.
The most useful thing about seeing the TV version was that it helped me get more of a feel for the setting. As I said here after reading the book, I don't know much about 1970s San Francisco. The novel was very contemporary and contained a lot of references to things that I'm not familiar with. While I could generally infer the tone being used, I found that it was the main niggle I had about the story. On television I could see what the bars, clubs and houses looked like, and I could hear the disco music and the street noise. I could see the clip-on ties, the lacoste shirts with the tiny alligators (or are they crocodiles?), and the sideburns. It all helped me understand the time and setting, without me feeling distanced from it.
The events in the book and series are the same, however due to the difference in medium I think there were times when the character motivations were less obvious. The viewer doesn't have the same intimate relationship with characters as the reader does. However I don't think there are any barriers for viewers who haven't read the book. There isn't much direct exposition in the novel, and with the programme so close to the original there are no real gaps to fill in.
I'm told that the same cannot be said for a certain boy-wizard film franchise.
The series does give away something that isn't revealed in the book -that scene was definitely added in. Of course it would have been unfair on audiences to finish a TV show without giving away what a whole part of the plot was about. Actually it wasn't that fair on readers either, but at least I know I can get the next book. In fact now I think I have to.