Unscripted: Amazon Prime adaptation does justice to ‘Homecoming’ [column]

When a great story is translated from one medium to another, the results can satisfy or disappoint.

Plenty of beloved books, for example, have been turned into lousy movies or lackluster TV shows.

Not every writer’s work is going to wind up an epic like “Gone With the Wind” or “Game of Thrones.” Sometimes, it’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Crowd-pleasing movies have been turned into stage musicals, and vice versa. One might be an Oscar winner like “Chicago,” and the next a big-budget debacle like Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

This month, I faced the transformation of a great example of one my favorite forms of entertainment, the podcast, into a new version in another medium.

The gripping two seasons of “Homecoming,” one of a new crop of fictional narrative podcasts, has been turned into an Amazon Prime streaming TV series, starring Julia Roberts.

I love the original podcast with its psychological thriller of a plot and the stellar actors cast in the major voice roles. Catherine Keener is affecting as Heidi Bergman, a counselor in a private-contractor veterans program who reappears years later as a sad-sack server at a dockside restaurant — without any memory of her previous job.

David Schwimmer is perfect as the voice of Colin Belfast, Heidi’s boss, who seems to have misplaced his moral compass amid his ambition. He’s both hiding and supporting a sinister side of the Homecoming veterans program that’s gradually revealed.

And the voice of Oscar Isaac beautifully brings to life Walter Cruz, a sensitive, recently returned war veteran being counseled by Homecoming’s Heidi as a transition to civilian life.

The dialogues, tape recordings, phone conversations and creepy sound effects that make up the podcast allow me to use my imagination to create the physical world around these great performances. It’s a world I hestitated to surrender as the podcast yielded to the first season of “Homecoming” on streaming TV with a different cast of actors.

I hoped Amazon would do justice to this interesting story about memory and the military-industrial complex.

I needn’t have worried.

The physical world in the TV version of “Homecoming” is partially supplied by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail — an expert at making an innocuous environment seem potentially malevolent. The camera lingering improbably on inanimate objects, windows and various items of lighted decor somehow manages to telegraph the disquieting side of the Homecoming facility even before the storyline hints at it.


Julia Roberts plays a counselor in a veterans’ program in the Amazon Prime streaming series “Homecoming,” the first season of which was released earlier this month.

Appropriately chilling music completes the Hitchcockian atmosphere of the piece.

As much as I loved the podcast actors, I’ve thoroughly embraced Julia Roberts as the increasingly confused, agitated Heidi and a slick, unctuous Bobby Cannavale as Colin.

Lesser-known actors Stephan James as Cruz and Shea Whigham as a dogged defense department investigator hit their performances out of the park, as well.

I’m looking forward to seeing where Amazon takes the story — already completed in the podcast — in the second season of its series.

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Thinking about how impeccably sound became image with “Homecoming” reminded me of why I come by my love for podcasts honestly.

I have long been a fan of old-time radio, a passion inherited from my Depression-era parents. A junior-high project I did on 1930s and ’40s radio permanently deepened my interest in the genre.

I love listening to “The Big Broadcast,” a Sunday evening radio show produced by WAMU public radio in Washington, D.C. Through it, I’ve become a fan of “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar,” a cheesy-but-fun old radio drama about an insurance investigator — “the man with the action-packed expense account.”

Today’s fictional podcasts, such as “Homecoming” and 2017’s lovelorn musical, “36 Questions,” starring Lancaster County’s own Jonathan Groff, are basically sophisticated, modern versions of those vintage radio programs I love.

And many of those vintage radio programs, such as “Gunsmoke” and “Dragnet,” also were turned seamlessly into long-running TV shows in the 1950s , ’60s and ’70s.

Amazon’s “Homecoming” is getting great reviews. So I predict future growth in both fictional podcasts and their TV adaptations.

And I’ll have my ears, and eyes, open in anticipation.

“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers. 

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