How TV Shows Are Breathing New Life Into Previous Events

Courtesy of FX
Showing Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Darden (Sterling K. Brown) behind closed doors on 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' gave audiences a new look at a familiar story. Right: Darden in court in January 1995.

Producers of shows including 'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story' and 'Confirmation' reveal how they freshened up their shows, including one who took hers "out of the white boys club."

From the first moment executive producers Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson put their FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story in motion, they had to answer a tough question. Because the Simpson trial had been so public, who would watch a show about it since we already knew how the story played out?

Their solution to the problem was surprisingly simple.

"We realized there was an advantage in everyone thinking they knew everything about the trial. But the thing is, they didn't," says Brad Simpson. "We all saw every minute of it on TV, but we didn't know what was going on behind the scenes, like Marcia Clark's custody battle or the fact that Christopher Darden once looked up to Johnnie Cochran. There was a lot of built-in human drama that none of us had access to at the time."

Adds Jacobson, "Just giving these people their humanity was something that allowed us to go for depth. This was such a polarizing case that was so sensationalized. We thought we knew these people when we really didn't know them at all. So the fact that the story was known became almost liberating because there was familiarity with but not a real understanding of the characters involved."

Their predicament isn't unique. This past TV season showcased several critically acclaimed limited series and movies that sprung from sources that viewers already knew, whether they were hit novels (Hulu's 11/22/63, AMC's The Night Manager), real-life events (HBO's Confirmation and All the Way) or previous versions of the show itself (A&E's Roots, ABC's American Crime, FX's American Horror Story and Fargo). Producers had to walk a tricky line between reinventing the source material for a new audience and serving up stories familiar enough for those who already knew the original.

For Susannah Grant, executive producer of Confirmation, that meant linking the issues raised in the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings to more current topics. Her inspiration came after a conversation with a friend about the historic confrontation between Thomas and college professor Anita Hill.

"This person said, 'Oh yeah, she lost, right?' " recalls Grant. "That's what this has been reduced to. But real human beings were involved in this, and we've lost their humanity. This was an important moment in our cultural history."

To demonstrate that importance, she framed the story as a precursor to "a huge awakening about sexual assaults on campus, about whether or not people believe women have been sexually mistreated and harassed, and about black men in politics. The situation with Anita Hill was a wake-up call for everyone, the moment that the culture at large said, 'Oh! Wait! We're going to talk about this!' "

Grant became her own best test audience for the project, spending months poring over books and articles about the Thomas hearings and "getting more curious with each thing I'd read," she says. "And that's a good sign when things keep opening up like that."

Jay Roach also had plenty of source material to draw from when he directed All the Way. Not only was this a look at the well-documented life of a famous president — Lyndon B. Johnson — but it also already had been dramatized as a Tony-winning play starring Bryan Cranston, who reprised the role on the small screen. Considering the volume of information out there about LBJ, Roach decided his best approach was to make sure the story was as focused as possible.

Christopher Darden

"You could tell stories about LBJ that ate up weeks of your life, but I like the challenge of using a limited time frame to catch up with historical stories," explains Roach. "And there was this window in Johnson's life, right before Kennedy's assassination and through the 1964 election, where he chose to take on passing the Civil Rights Act. So we contained and condensed our story down to this very essential issue."

As was the case with Grant and Confirmation, Roach wanted to move things forward by going backward in time. The '60s setting was perfect "because people are familiar with that time period, but many didn't live in it. I think people are a little more open-minded now so they are less guarded about drawing conclusions from our story."

Finding contemporary meaning in past events isn't particularly effective, though, unless shows and movies connect their stories to the real world — which allows viewers to forge a deeper connection with the material. That's certainly the mission for American Crime. Executive producer Michael McDonald considers it "our responsibility to be reflective of the truth of what it means to be an American in this day and age. We want people walking away from our show with more depth and understanding."

After a first-season storyline examining "race relations and lack of faith in the criminal justice system," McDonald and fellow executive producer John Ridley started digging through books, websites and magazine articles until they noticed that "the issue of teenage sexual assault in schools was definitely bubbling up," he says. "Most families think these issues we deal with will never touch them, but we want them to watch and realize, 'I have friends or co-workers who have walked through these things.' It's phenomenal how many people have things in their families that are a little darker."

The 1996 poster for the Oscar-winning film.

For the second season of the FX series 'Fargo,' Littlefield says the producers decided to “expand our universe and not duplicate ourselves.”

There's not just a familiarity with the stories and characters. American Crime also creates a community with its viewers by using the same basic cast year to year, including Timothy Hutton, Regina King and Felicity Huffman. "Audiences don't want to let go of our actors because they've learned to love and hate them as characters," says McDonald. "It's nice to have that consistency. It's like a band or singer. … You love the new songs, but you don't want them to change with every new album."

That would make FX's American Horror Story the Madonna of limited series — the styles shift year to year, but the personnel never does. Whether it's set in a haunted house or a creepy hotel — like the most recent season — the series provides a through line with familiar faces (Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Jessica Lange) and characters.

"The show has started to quote itself a bit," says executive producer Tim Minear. "For instance, we had the character of Pepper (Naomi Grossman) in season two and then brought her back in season five," he says. "I think audiences find it rewarding when we revisit previous seasons. It's an advantage of having been around for several years now. We can be both different and the same."

AHS is willing to shake things up from year to year based on the "dreams and nightmares [series creator] Ryan Murphy brings into the writers room." Still, Minear believes the stories continue to connect with viewers more because "we try to crack larger ideas, like female empowerment or creating families that aren't blood — or being an outsider."

Fargo also tried to maintain some degree of consistency during its second season. However, because the time period and location were completely different (season one was set in Minnesota in 2006, and season two was set in North Dakota and Minnesota in 1979), the link initially was one of style more than substance.

Burton says the 'Roots' producers were excited to bring Haley’s best-selling 1976 book “to a new generation using new history.”

Cranston’s portrayal of LBJ in 'All the Way' — on Broadway and on HBO — focused on the 36th president’s passing of the Civil Rights Act.

'Show Me a Hero' director Haggis says there was “pressure to just tell the truth … and not exaggerate” the story, adapted from Belkin’s 1999 book.

"Our goal was to keep the same tone, knowing that all these other factors may be different but we're still in the frozen tundra presenting characters who are physically and emotionally bundled up," explains executive producer Warren Littlefield. "At the same time, for season two, we said, 'Let's expand our universe and not duplicate ourselves — bring in all new characters and a new story while playing in the wonderful sensibility that people associate with Fargo.' "

The show always opens with a claim that it's based on real events, but Fargo isn't wedded to facts the way The People v. O.J. Simpson or Confirmation are, so there are no limitations on the types of stories it can tell. This gives the creators the freedom to "leap off a cliff into the great unknown, which can be wildly exciting for audiences," notes Littlefield.

But what do you do if you're a fictional series or film based on a novel? Those who loved the book can't help but compare the screen version to the original source. But at the same time, if the filmed product is a simple re-creation of the book, it won't be relevant to those unfamiliar with the original.

Susanne Bier first read and loved John le Carre's The Night Manager when it came out during the early '90s, which is why she leapt at the chance to help create AMC's limited series based on the book.

"I clearly remember the cat-and-mouse game between the Pine and Roper characters," recalls the director. "When something stays with you like that, it can have a real, profound effect. We absolutely didn't want to let John le Carre down, but to achieve that, it meant making some radical choices. The novel came out two decades ago, so we had to make it contemporary."

Her primary goal was to "take the show out of the white boys' club a bit. We wanted to maintain the heart of the novel but also needed to have the spy office be more diverse. And the most important thing to do was change the character of Burr to a woman. She's the moral center of the book, creating a balance as a woman between good and evil."

Making The Night Manager into a miniseries rather than a movie helped because Bier had six episodes to work with, allowing minor characters to develop the way they would over the course of a long novel. And her updating of the story was authentic enough to win the endorsement of le Carre and many of his fans.

"He wrote a letter to The Guardian, saying he felt this adaptation was one of the ones that stayed closest to the original material," explains Bier. "And after we edited the first version, we had a screening of the six episodes for a group of young le Carre devotees. I was most frightened of them, actually. Intellectual kids can be cruel, so you don't want to mess with them. But they really liked it and gave us some very observant notes. They were my test group. I figured if they are pleased, we'll be OK."

Bridget Carpenter was equally eager to impress Stephen King fans when she shepherded the author's 11/22/63 from best-seller to a Hulu limited series starring James Franco. The EP assumed that half her audience probably hadn't read the book, but she insisted on rewarding the half who had by "popping in as many Easter eggs as we could from not only this book but also King's other books. His characters recur, so we decided to have as much fun with that as we could."

For instance, there's a scene in which a shady character drives up in the car from Christine. In another episode, Franco borrows an infamous line from Misery: "I'm his number one fan." If viewers didn't catch on to these in-jokes, though, they still could connect with 11/22/63 because Carpenter viewed the primary plot — a man goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination — "as really a MacGuffin. This was a story about actions and consequences, about being a human being who matters. What you do in this world matters. I'm sure I drove everyone crazy with this, but I talked about it over and over."

Viewers have “learned to love and hate them as characters,” says EP McDonald of 'American Crime’s' recurring cast.

To appease fans of King’s '11/22/63,' EP Carpenter hid Easter eggs in the series, including an appearance of the car from 'Christine.'

“The situation with Anita Hill (played by Kerry Washington) was a wake-up call for everyone,” says Confirmation EP Grant. The real Anita Hill (above) testified Oct. 11, 1991.

'The Night Manager' helmer Bier got a stamp of approval from 'Le Carre' (above: his 1993 book) on the limited series.

When the source material is a nonfiction book, the author already has found a window into a real event, so there's automatically less latitude in the storytelling when transforming it into a TV production. And when the people involved in that story are still alive, it's critical to stay as close to the facts as possible.

That was the situation when Paul Haggis signed on to direct the HBO limited series Show Me a Hero. It was based on reporter Lisa Belkin's chronicle of one New York community's battle in the early '90s over court-ordered desegregation, and several of the people in the book were alive and involved in the production. Haggis also insisted on filming in the Yonkers neighborhood where the story occurred.

"It was great for our actors to meet their real-life counterparts," says Haggis. "However, you also feel great pressure to just tell the truth of the story and not exaggerate. I was very worried about the wife of our main character being on set for some of the painful scenes, including her husband's suicide. She would sit and watch, and [writer and executive producer] David Simon and I would go, 'Okaaay …' But she'd come up and say, 'Yeah, that's what happened.' "

The story of embattled Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasicsko (played by Oscar Isaac) had a very unhappy ending, with that eventual suicide. However, rather than clue viewers in with lots of foreshadowing, Haggis decided to have Wasicsko "go out and see what a beautiful day it was before he died. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, I wanted to see him enjoying the wonders of life one last time."

Haggis was able to get away with this because as well-received as Belkin's book was, its story of racial strife wasn't nearly as well-known as that of the Simpson case or the Thomas hearings. Rather than offer his own interpretation of a much-told story, developing Hero for TV was all about explaining it to most people for the first time.

The exact opposite was true, however, for History's new spin on Roots.

Few TV projects ever have had the impact the original miniseries did. That made it hard for the original Kunta Kinte, LeVar Burton, to justify participating in a new version four decades later. The story already had been told twice, first in Alex Haley's book and then in the blockbuster 1970s miniseries. Burton decided to jump on board, though, once he realized how much new information was available to deepen the story.

"We decided to look for areas we could mine that didn't get covered the first time around, going back to the original source in the book," he explains. "Also, there is so much new history that's been discovered since [Haley] did his research that we wanted to make sure we connected with scholars who had done that work. That got me excited about redoing this. I got to tell the story to a new generation using new history."

Because he was such an integral part of the original miniseries, Burton saw himself as "the keeper of the flame" for the new Roots. Realizing that "the ship was sailing, I decided to jump on board," using his experience to make sure Roots was able to do what every successful series or movie adaptation has to do.

"Our timing couldn't have been better in terms of our current social climate and what's driving conversation," explains Burton. "And if you can also find things about the story that didn't exist its first time around, you can reach a new generation while not alienating those for whom Roots was a very treasured, personal part of their lives."  

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.