The Novelists That Made TV's 'The Wire' a Classic

Posted by Cybil on February 9, 2018
Jonathan Abrams is an award-winning journalist who has covered the NBA for ESPN's Grantland, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. His new book, All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire, is the definitive history of HBO's acclaimed crime drama The Wire, as told by the actors, writers, directors, and others involved in its creation. Here Abrams talks about how the show brought together the best crime novelists.

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"We were the type of show that when you said you watched The Wire, it made you a different person. It made you a highly intellectual motherf*cker who cares, not just about the art, not to recognize the good story telling, but cares about what's happening. You must read a lot of books. You must have compassion about community." —Actor Andre Royo

You've probably read The Sweet Forever, Clockers, and Mystic River if you're a consumer of crime fiction. You've likely noticed the similar themes and threads throughout the books if you've watched HBO's critically acclaimed The Wire. The show carried a constant literary thread with good reason. David Simon authored Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets before combining with Ed Burns, his co-creator on The Wire, for The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. They eventually surrounded themselves with a writers' room of acclaimed novelists: George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane among them. Plus, Laura Lippman, the renowned novelist and Simon's wife, could arguably write them all under the table.

Plenty of television shows today are sourced from novels: Big Little Lies, The Handmaid's Tale, and Game of Thrones. The Wire broke ground in using actual novelists to pen its episodes.

"Dave had this idea that he wanted to hire novelists for his writers' room because he thought most TV writers had probably picked up bad habits working on bad shows for network TV," Lehane told me.

The product reflected the aspiration. I spent much of the last couple of years compiling and piecing together an oral history of The Wire. The show has been off the air for years, yet remains presciently relevant in showing all signs of human nature. The above quote is from a conversation with Royo, the actor who superbly depicted the humanity in drug addiction through his character of Bubbles. The Wire explained how complicated bureaucracies function, or more often, how institutions—from the police to politics to the media—often fail and only occasionally help those who they aim to serve.

The show was fictional, but sprang from reality. Simon, Burns and their team of novelists and many, many others sourced The Wire from real-life figures. They pored over every fine-grained detail to produce moments and sequences that could hold up to scrutiny and time. They produced the show for those who could read between the lines and appreciate the details.

They created it for readers.

Many of the initial reviewers dismissed the show as slow and unfocused. Before this age of prestige television, Simon pioneered the concept of approaching episodes as chapters in a book. One could not reliably appreciate a single chapter without consuming the entire book.

Price recalled to me when he realized The Wire's increasing popularity. His teenage daughter came home excited. Her classmates held her in higher esteem because of Price's association with the show. By then, he had already crafted several well-received novels.

"For everybody who reads a book, 100 people go to the movies, for every 100 people that go to the movies, 10,000 watch a TV show," Price said. "It's a numbers game."

I, for one, am happy to be among the smaller numbers. I never feel as educated, enlightened or entertained as when I'm inching through a good book. You are here, so I would place a bet that you feel the same way too and are one of the people whom Royo was talking about. You care.

Jonathan Abrams's All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire will be published on February 13th. Be sure to add it to your Want to Read shelf.

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Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Very interesting article.
I thought "The Wire" was a fantastic series.Really looking forward to reading the book.

message 2: by Nancy (new)

Nancy I just finished watching Omar's scenes the ending was sad
didn't expect that, he was one of the characters that
made the show great.

message 3: by Aurora (new)

Aurora M Huh? The X-Files used novelists like William Gibson and Stephen King to pen episodes long before The Wire did. I'd be surprised if they weren't the first either.

message 4: by Tom (new)

Tom Then there were William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler (who wrote movies back in 1940s, the heyday of noir). Chandler co-wrote the script for James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and Faulkner co-wrote the script for Chandler's The Big Sleep, among others. Yes, it wasn't original source material, but Chandler did write original screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, his second nomination after Double Indemnity. He also worked on the script for the adaption of Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train.

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