5 Books With Strong Female Leads that Have Been Adapted for TV

A collage of book covers including: "The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister", "Sharp Objects", "Big Little Lies", "Killing Eve", "The Queen's Gambit", and "The Handmaid's Tale".

So many books, so little time. My to-read list is overflowing with promising novels, and so I know the feeling of not knowing which story to pick up next. However, for those of you who love both books and television, and stories with a female protagonist, I may be able to save you some deliberation time.

Whether your vision of a “strong female lead” is a troubled journalist trying to make a better life for herself, an assassin with a soft spot for a British Intelligence agent, or a lesbian who fearlessly defied the role of womanhood in 19th century England, this list is bound to have something for you.

Check out these 5 books with female protagonists — both real and fictional — that have also been adapted for TV!


1. ‘Sharp Objects’, by Gillian Flynn

Published in 2006, Sharp Objects is Gillian Flynn’s debut novel. This psychological thriller follows Camille Preaker, a newspaper journalist who returns to her hometown to report on a series of brutal murders. 

Plagued by memories of her disturbed family, history of abuse, and self-harm, Camille struggles to keep it together as life in Wind Gap, Missouri begins to unravel around her.

Transformed into an eight-part television miniseries in 2018, the Sharp Objects adaption stars Amy Adams as Camille, supported by Patricia Clarkson and Eliza Scanlen. If you love mysteries, thrillers, and complex female characters this book and its adaption are undoubtedly for you.


2. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, by Margaret Atwood

One of the oldest books on the list, first published in 1985, is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in the near-future in the patriarchal, totalitarian state of The Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel that toys with themes of power, the subjugation of women, and gender roles. A sequel, The Testaments, was published more recently in 2019.

The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted for television in 2017 and currently boasts 4 seasons, each received as well as the last. With a great ensemble cast, and powerful performances from the female leads, the TV series is as horrifying, gripping, and heart-wrenching as Atwood’s novel.


3. ‘The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister’, by Anne Lister, Helena Whitbread (Editor)

Decrypted and curated by Helena Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister details the life, identity, and affairs of Anne Lister, the “first modern lesbian”. 

Over the course of her life, Anne wrote five million words about herself and her sexuality, beginning in 1806, encrypted in a code she devised herself. The diaries have since shaped, and continue to shape, the study of gender and women’s history in the UK.

Anne’s diaries have been transformed into both a biographical historical drama film in 2010 and a television series in 2019. Whether you’d rather begin with the book, the film, or the series, Anne Lister’s diaries are a must-read for every queer, history fan.


4. ‘Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison’, by Piper Kerman

Orange Is the New Black, the 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman, details the story of Kerman’s drug trafficking and money laundering conviction, and the year she spent in a women’s prison as a result. From her first strip search to her release day, Kerman shares the details of her time spent inside the Connecticut prison, the women she met, and the relationships she formed.

In 2013 Kerman’s memoir was adapted into the well-known Netflix comedy-drama series, Orange Is the New Black. Widely acclaimed throughout its run, the Netflix series transformed a good book into a great original television production and did so with an ensemble cast of hugely talented female leads. This memoir is a must-read for fans of the series.


5. ‘Big Little Lies’, by Liane Moriarty

First published in 2014, Big Little Lies is a contemporary mystery novel about the lies we tell ourselves to survive. On the surface, this story appears to be about parenting, friendships, and a silly schoolyard scandal. However, under the surface, Moriarty tackles weighted themes of deceit, manipulation, and domestic violence.

In 2017 Big Little Lies was transformed into a mini-series of the same name. With an incredibly talented, female-driven cast (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz star), the series was well-received by critics, much like the novel.


Special Mentions

‘Codename Villanelle’, by Luke Jennings

Codename Villanelle is a thriller novel by Luke Jennings. Highly skilled assassin Villanelle specialises in killing the world’s most rich and powerful, but when she draws the attention of former MI6 operative Eve Polastri the chase is on.

Adapted for television in 2018, Codename Villanelle is the basis for the BBC America series Killing Eve starring Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, and Fiona Shaw.

‘The Queen’s Gambit’, by Walter Nevis

Published in 1938, Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit follows orphaned chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, as she struggles with drug and alcohol dependency, all whilst battling her way to the top of the chess world.

The Queen’s Gambit was transformed into a critically acclaimed Netflix miniseries of the same name in 2020 starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

If you’re looking for a book with a tenacious female lead, why not give one of these titles a go? Who knows, you may discover a new favourite television series whilst you’re at it.


Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so we can support and work with more writers from underrepresented backgrounds, who cannot afford to write for free. Thank you for reading!

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