Producers of serialized dramas hate spoilers and famously put cast and crew on lockdown to keep juicy plot points under wraps. But how do you avoid spoilers when your hit show — like Pretty Little Liars, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries, Dexter, True Blood and The Secret Circle, all known for shocking twists — is based on a series of books? Your options: either mislead viewers, change up the story just a bit or take a 180-degree turn.
"Spoilers are a fact of life," says Robert Kirkman, executive producer of AMC's zombie smash The Walking Dead, which is based on his comic books. Decisions to veer from the comic "are never about stopping or avoiding spoilers," he adds. "We're mindful that we have to keep certain things to keep the fans happy, but one of the [elements] I feel brings the comic book its massive appeal is that... anyone can die at any moment." So the body count on TV remains high, but the deaths have been switched up. For example, Sophia is still alive in the comics, and Shane's demise — a brutal shock to TV viewers unfamiliar with the source material — occurred early in the comic books and under different circumstances.
"And it still has the same kind of impact," says Kirkman. "All of the changes serve to make the TV show something you can enjoy alongside the comic without spoiling one or the other, which is really cool."
And it's working. The Walking Dead has shattered ratings records all season. The finale on March 18 drew 9 million viewers, a network high.
The eagerly awaited season finale of ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars — which stuck to some of the book series' plot and added a big surprise — was also huge, pulling in 3.7 million viewers, the series' second highest-rated episode. After two seasons of anxious guessing, Mona was revealed as the devious "A," just like in the book. The twist: Unlike her print counterpart, Mona lives to see another season. The finale also included one genuine surprise — the death of Emily's girlfriend Maya, who doesn't perish in the books.
Liars executive producer Marlene King says she decided "early on to veer from the books." Along with CW shows The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle and Gossip Girl, Liars is based on young-adult novels published by Alloy Entertainment. All the producers use the books as a jumping-off point, borrowing major characters and concepts and then going their own way.
"We've had a lot of freedom, because The Vampire Diaries series is not in the zeitgeist at the moment... where the fans would annihilate us for taking liberties," says executive producer Julie Plec. The hit drama has taken major turns from the book; by the third installment, still-mortal Elena is dead and a spirit. But Plec does keep the readers in mind. "It's fun to dig in now and then to find a good Easter egg that will make them happy."
One of those eggs was this season's appearance of Dr. Meredith Fell; her omission from the TV show annoyed a number of book fans. Plec managed to keep the character's name
secret until her first episode aired and turned what was a love story between Meredith and Alaric into something more ominous. "What's fun," says Plec, "is that our fans are so used to the story lines not reflecting the books that every time we dive back into them, it's a wonderful surprise, even when it doesn't turn out to be what they thought it would be."
Andrew Miller, executive producer of The Secret Circle, says he's found success "taking specific scenes and story lines from the books and then putting them into the show in a new way." His first big change occurred in the drama's fifth episode when he killed Nick, one of the show's main witches and an important figure in the books. He added a new character, Nick's brother Jake, and gave him some of Nick's traits. "We killed Nick to instill in the audience a sense of danger," Miller says. While "the decision was met with shock, frustration and anger, my hope is that people ultimately said, 'OK, I now know I can never be comfortable.'"
Despite faithfully following its source material, HBO's Game of Thrones managed to keep last season's shocking execution of the heroic Ned Stark a secret for fans of the TV show. That won't be as easy going forward, now that millions of viewers have started reading the George R.R. Martin fantasy series. However, producer D.B. Weiss has said he told Martin that he would juggle events from the books for creative reasons, a decision that should keep fans guessing. Even if book readers know what will happen, they won't know when. Or how. And that's not a spoiler.
With reporting by Damian Holbrook and Michael Logan
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