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Podcast Adaptation: The Search for New Content
The TV and film industries are constantly on the lookout for new sources of original content, especially if that content has an established fan-base behind it. It’s no surprise, therefore, that with the podcast boom in recent years, television executives have started eying up some of the highest-performing podcasts out there. Do some of these podcast adaptations, continuations, and new perspectives fail to live up to the original production or do they surpass it? Let’s take a look.
Serial / The Case Against Adnan Syed
The one that started it all. While podcasts had been going for quite a while, it really wasn’t until Serial debuted in October 2014 that podcasting became cool and the mainstream media sat up and took notice at how powerful this medium of storytelling could be. While Serial has its critics – with many feeling the podcast was trying to prove Adnan Syed’s innocence instead of objectively looking at the case – its success has sparked a worldwide obsession with Syed’s attempt to get his murder conviction overturned. Updates on the case are regularly posted on news sites across the world and the public’s fascination with the case has not wavered in the slightest.
Which is why it’s so surprising that it took until this year for a documentary series on the case to be broadcast. The Case Against Adnan Syed began airing on HBO in March 2019, with the premise being that it would take a closer look at the evidence that ultimately convicted Syed of the murder of Hae Min Lee.
In truth, this new documentary series is just an extension of what Serial attempted to do five years ago. While new DNA evidence has come to light through the production of this TV series, no conviction will be overturned because of this documentary series, and the truth of what happened to Hae Min Lee in early 1999 will likely never be known.
We now move on to the fictionalized adaptation of the story of John Meehan and the impact his lies and manipulation had on Debra Newell and her family. Dirty John was originally released as a podcast in October 2017 and quickly became a worldwide success, due to the frankly absurd nature of John Meehan’s actions. Dirty John is not a pleasant listen, dealing with themes of abuse and manipulation as Debra and her daughters recount their time with John and the stranglehold he put on Debra’s life.
This true story runs exactly like a cheesy American drama, so it was not surprising when it was announced that a dramatic adaptation of the podcast would be produced. The series was produced by Bravo and began airing in November 2018, starring Eric Bana as John Meehan and Connie Britton as Debra Newell. It later became available worldwide on Netflix in February 2019. The series has received praise for bringing the story to a wider audience, but has been criticized for not delving into the themes of abuse and manipulation in a serious fashion and instead trying to be a nightmare soap opera.
One of the first audio dramas to be produced, Gimlet Media’s Homecoming is a psychological thriller which focuses on the transitioning of soldiers to civilian life. The podcast kept listeners on tenterhooks when it first began airing in November 2016, with its focus on the US Department of Justice and the world of espionage quickly hooking listeners. Shortly after the first season aired, it was announced that the podcast would be adapted for the small screen and that Amazon Prime Video had greenlit the series for two seasons. Julia Roberts was cast as main protagonist Heidi Bergman.
The series premiered in November 2018 and was met with critical and commercial acclaim, quickly becoming one of the most viewed shows on Amazon Prime Video. The series has been praised for staying true to the original production and adding more layers of mystery to the story, mostly thanks to the change in medium. With another season likely to premiere later this year (although without Roberts), this may be the most successful podcast adaptation we have seen yet.
Maddie / The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann
Although they are two completely separate entities, both productions began airing only two weeks apart. Therefore, whether they like it or not, both productions have invariably been be linked to one another. Both shows focus on the disappearance of Madeleine McCann from her family’s apartment in the Portuguese seaside town of Praia de Luz in May 2007. The podcast series Maddie, which began airing first, is a deep dive into the investigation. So far, little to no new evidence has come up, but the producers of the podcast have handled the case delicately and have not sensationalized any aspect of the case.
The Netflix-produced The Disappearance of Madeline McCann delves into the sensational side of the case a little more frequently. The show focuses a lot of its time on the media reaction to Madeleine’s disappearance and offers no new evidence as to what happened. Instead, it goes over old theories that played out in the media over a decade ago, in what seems like simply an attempt to cash in on the public’s fascination with true crime and the McCann disappearance.
The Future of Podcast Adaptation
While many people are understandably excited to see their favourite podcast enjoy more success and reach a bigger audience, many podcasts are simply not the best source material for a commercially and critically successful show – Homecoming is one notable exception so far.
In the case of true crime stories, if the podcast has ended without giving a clear answer as to what happened in a particular murder or disappearance, then viewers are rightly going to ask if the adaptation actually has anything new to say. It is safe to assume that podcast adaptation will continue to become a more common occurrence. The best shows will not simply be executives cashing in on the original success of a podcast, but those which do something new and original and which add to the original material.
For more on adaptations, there’s a full review of the Maddie podcast here