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The Bestselling Books Behind TV Shows

Thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, binge-watching television shows has become a favorite pastime for many. What you may not have realized, however, is that many popular TV series sprung from the pages of best-selling novels. If you want to understand the full story behind the show, you may want to curl up with these bestsellers before you hit "play" on that remote.

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"Game Of Thrones" (Season 7) TV Series - 2017 HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

Game of Thrones

Die-hard fans of HBO’s blockbuster TV show Game of Thrones know that the series is based on George R.R. Martin’s best-selling series “A Song of Ice and Fire.” While the first season closely mirrored the action in the first novel, A Game of Thrones, which was published in 1996, the show’s writers have made substantial plot changes in later seasons, including whether characters live or die, how they’re portrayed, and with whom they’re romantically involved. Martin had contributed one script per season in the past; he is now focusing on finishing the last novel in the series. He does, however, remain a producer on the show. Check out these other fantasy epics every Game of Thrones fan should read.

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House Of Cards - 2013Netflix/Kobal/Shutterstock

House of Cards

Many fans know that the Netflix show House of Cards spun out from the 1990 BBC series of the same name. What binge watchers may not realize is that the entire series is based upon the “House of Cards” trilogy by Michael Dobbs, which was first published in 1989 and recants the dark side of British Parliament. While the British series shares many similarities with the novels, the U.S. version recants the tale from the perspective of an American politician, set in Washington, D.C. instead of Westminster. The show has not been without real-life controversy, however; lead actor Kevin Spacey was fired from the show in 2017 following allegations of sexual assault.

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"The Handmaid's Tale" TV series - 2017MGM TV/Kobal/Shutterstock

The Handmaid’s Tale

Based upon Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale TV series has achieved critical acclaim for its dark portrayal of totalitarianism in New England, following a fictional Second Civil War. The series, which runs on the streaming service Hulu, stars Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men fame) as the protagonist and narrator Offred. While the series follows the novel’s plot quite closely, changes were made to make Offred more rebellious and scenes were expanded to flesh them out in more detail. Atwood is not involved with the production of the series, but the show’s lead writer, Bruce Miller, has said he consulted with the author when making changes to the plot and characters. You’ll also want to read these 10 novels with fierce female leads.

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"13 Reasons Why" TV series - 2017Beth Dubber/Netflix/Kobal/Shutterstock

13 Reasons Why

This Netflix series, which is popular with a younger audience, tackles the controversial and sensitive topic of teen suicide. The series is based on the 2007 young adult novel of the same name, written by Jay Asher. While the TV series, which focuses on a series of cassette tapes explaining the reasons 17-year-old Hannah Baker commits suicide, stays mostly true to the novel, writers expanded upon the relationships between the main characters, extended the timeline, and also incorporated the use of modern technology like smartphones, which heightens the level of bullying and gossip among Hannah’s tormentors. Check out this advice on how parents should talk to their kids about the show.

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Orange Is The New Black - 2013Lionsgate TV/Netflix/Kobal/Shutterstock

Orange Is the New Black

Now in its sixth season, Netflix’s wildly popular series Orange Is the New Black is based upon the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. The book and show follow the lives of Piper and her fellow inmates through a deeply flawed fictional federal prison system, Litchfield Penitentiary. While they share the same name, the TV series is only loosely based upon the book—everything from the backstory of other characters to Piper’s own escapades are pure fiction. Though the way we watch TV has been updated, this original element of the television is making a comeback. 

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"Big Little Lies" TV series - 2017 HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

Big Little Lies

Based upon Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel of the same name, this popular HBO series features A-list cast members, including Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, weaving a tale of murder, mystery, and mischief. Originally billed as a short miniseries, the series was so popular with viewers that HBO renewed it for a second season, which is set to debut in 2019.

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Friday Night Lights - 2006Bill Records/NBC-TV/Kobal/Shutterstock

Friday Night Lights

The TV show Friday Night Lights spun out of a 2004 movie with the same title, which, in turn, was based on the 1990 nonfiction book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger. The book follows the true story of a 1988 high school football team from Odessa, Texas, as they make a run for the state championship. While the movie closely follows the book, the TV show, which ran for five seasons on NBC, is only loosely based on the real-life players and coaches; their lives and backstories are fictionalized for dramatic effect. You should also check out the most iconic novel set in every state.

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Sex and The City - 1998-2004Hbo/Darren Star Productions/Kobal/Shutterstock

Sex and the City

Often described as “quirky,” the not-without-controversy HBO series Sex and the City, which ran from 1998 to 2004, was based on writer Candace Bushnell’s 1997 essay collection of the same name, which also later generated a 2008 film and 2010 sequel. The series, which launched the career of lead actor Sarah Jessica Parker into the stratosphere, followed the New York City-based escapades of Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw and three of her friends. While the series is only loosely based on Bushnell’s collection of essays, the author has described Carrie Bradshaw as her “alter ego.”

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'Sharp Objects' TV Show Season 1 - 2018HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

Sharp Objects

Writer Gillian Flynn is best known for her best-selling 2012 novel Gone Girl, which was turned into a 2014 movie. It was her novel Sharp Objects, however, that was adapted into the HBO miniseries of the same name. While the TV series has stayed mostly true to Flynn’s novel, subtle character and plot changes were made to dramatize the show’s plot, including the relationships between the main characters and the creation of “Calhoun Day,” a fictional celebration of the Missouri town’s controversial, Civil-War era past. Flynn, a former television critic for Entertainment Weekly, served as a writer and producer for the TV series.

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Leftovers - 2014Warner Bros TV/Kobal/Shutterstock

The Leftovers

This spine-chilling HBO TV series is based on Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel of the same title. Both the novel and the 300+-page book follow a group of people who are left on earth following a “rapture,” in which millions of people suddenly disappear from the planet without explanation. While the concept of the TV series is based upon the novel, the show has transformed the main character Kevin Garvey (played by Justin Theroux) from a mild-mannered businessman into a fiery police chief. The series ran for three seasons, from 2014 to 2017.

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"Outlander" (Season 3) TV Series - 2017David Bloomer/HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

Outlander

The Outlander television series, which premiered on Starz in 2014, is based on Diana Galbadon’s best-selling series of the same name, which launched in 1991. Both the books and series feature a mix of historical fiction, romance, drama, and mystery, intertwined with science fiction. Galbadon serves as a paid consultant for the show, has contributed a script for an episode in the second season, and even had a cameo in episode 104, “The Gathering.” The series has released three seasons thus far and has been renewed into its sixth season. These are our picks for the 10 best romance novels of all time.

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Pretty Little Liars - 2010Eric McCandless/ABC Family/Alloy/Warner Horizon TV/Kobal/Shutterstock

Pretty Little Liars

The American teen drama Pretty Little Liars, which aired on ABC Family between 2010 to 2016, spawned a cult following of millions of young viewers. The show was loosely based on Sara Shephard’s young adult novel series called “Pretty Little Liars,” which follows the lives of four teenage girls whose lives are turned upside down when a stranger threatens to unveil long-buried secrets. While the show shares similarities with the book, everything from the characters’ looks to the appearance (and disappearance) of supporting characters have been altered in the series. The show has led to other spinoffs, including Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, which is set to air on the cable channel Freeform in 2019. Find out the other young adult novels grown-ups secretly love.

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"Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan" TV Show - 2018Jan Thijs/Amazon/Kobal/Shutterstock

Jack Ryan

The new Amazon Video Series Jack Ryan is based upon Tom Clancy’s “Ryanverse” novels, the first of which, The Hunt for Red October, was published in 1984. While numerous Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan novels have been adapted for film, this is the first television series to feature Clancy’s most famous fictional character. Starring John Krasinski as Ryan, the series bears no resemblance to any of the plots in Clancy’s novels; in fact, other than the titular character, the series serves as a completely original story with brand new adventures. Don’t miss our list of the best thriller novels of all time.

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Disclosure: This post is brought to you by Reader’s Digest editors, who aim to highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of revenue from our partners, such as Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. We frequently receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We welcome your feedback. Have something you think we should know about? Email us at [email protected].