MIND MELD: SF/F Books That Would Make A Great TV Series
SF/F fans love to talk about their favorite books being adapted for film. But what about television? Are there books better suited for a television series? We asked this week’s panelists (inspired by a suggestion from James Wallace Harris)…
Here’s what they said…
My choice for a TV miniseries would be More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Since the book is already divided into three distinct sections, it could be presented as three two-hour episodes. It focuses on character rather than on special effects, which is good for the small screen. Finally — it’s a wonderful story.
I don’t have cable, but I have iTunes season passes to two shows: Lost and Leverage. And they couldn’t be more different. Lost is successful because it gives us something to obsess over at the water cooler other than the current economic and political climate. There are a number of other things that it does very well, but for the current conversation, let’s stick with obsessive minutia-dwelling community that it engenders. Lost doesn’t pander to its audience; it expects (and, in some ways, demands) that its audience will not be satisfied with the first layer of storytelling, and that we’ll go digging to understand the symbols and inferences. It’s almost an ARG in that aspect. But you have to have the infrastructure and the patience of your overlords to pull it off, and Lost almost didn’t.
Which makes things like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles or Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen tough sells. Done right, I think they’d redefine television (especially the 3-D ending of TLOEG‘s Black Dossier), but they demand a level of attention to detail that I don’t think TV executives could sustain. Sadly. Plus they’re both finite, and need to be that way. That doesn’t mean people won’t rewatch them, but there’s no real revenue stream there for TV people to get excited about.
Leverage is pulp, and make no bones about being exactly that. The episodes are whimsical yet tightly paced, the writing is sharp, and it is written by people who are just as into this sort of thing as they expect their audience to be. It’s good, solid entertainment, and every week it makes me fall in love with the idea of writing ensemble scripts all over again. But I wish it had a little whiff of that Lost supernatural element. Which makes it over into either Doc Savage or The Shadow. The Shadow, re-envisioned with the visual style that Bill Sienkiewicz brought to it in 1987, would be fantastic. But I think Chris Roberson and I are the only ones who’d be watching it on a regular basis.
All of which is a roundabout way to say I think Charlie Stross’ Bob Howard books would adapt really well to the long-serial TV format. It’s The IT Crowd meets Creature Feature. There’s the pitch. You can see it already, can’t you?
I’ve always loved the idea of seeing Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood adapted for the small screen. It’s one of the most important pieces of fantasy literature – a meditation on fantasy itself. My knowledge of television production is very limited, but the story of a son’s exploration of his father’s journal, of Ryhope Wood, and encountering the “mythagos” is in itself an episodic journey of investigation and retreat, so this would suit being broken up into three or four programmes. It would not require much in the way of CGI/special effects, either, being set in a post-war English woodland. The story creates mythological images, and so I’d love to see some of the treatment similar to Pan’s Labyrinth, or at least have those aesthetics recreated for the inner-woodland scenes. Some of the cinematography for the recent BBC adaptation of the Wallander novels have been intensely beautiful, almost capturing the soul of a fading summer, and I can imagine that effect being suitable for scenes set outside of Ryhope Wood. But Mythago Wood is also a very, very British story, so there would have to be great sensitivity to that fact, or it would no longer retain the essence of the book.
CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series. Action, intrigue, betrayal, exotic settings, alien assassins, woo! You’d have to take a Battlestar Galactica approach, with the emphasis on the ongoing story arc rather than episodes. Or maybe I mean a West Wing approach? Just go ahead and dig in to the politicking and intrigue, as if (gasp) actual grownups watch SF TV! The big trick would be in doing an effective job on the alien characters, who are humanoid, yes, but I for one got awfully sick of the Star Trek aliens who look just like humans only with latex face masks. I think it’s time for television to get serious about CGI.
Ah, how about the one where me and Aragorn…Oh, wait, you mean a REAL book. Wow, hard question to answer. Not because I can’t think of one but because about a thousand started screaming “Pick me! Pick me!”
After a lot of soul searching, I’d have to say The Host, by Stephanie Meyer. It has everything that would make a good TV series; aliens, rebel forces, bad guys, good guys, danger, and a love triangle like none you’ve ever seen before. Plus, it’s one of the few sci-fi books that had me grabbing a box of tissue while loud sobs wracked my body as I neared the end.
So how would I adapt it for the small screen? Um…I’d take out all the description and put in lots of stage directions so I could boss the actors around. Okay, so I never claimed to be a screen writer. Plot wise, I’d do a two hour pilot that starts with Wanderer being put into Melanie’s body and ends just as Wanderer/Melanie finds Jared. Then each following episode would be life with the rebels and fighting against/outsmarting the souls as Wanderer discovers what it means to be human.
I stood looking at my bookshelf for a long time pondering this, and my final selection was Cinnabar by Edward Bryant. Published in 1976, this collection of short stories is vivid, disturbing, and still completely relevant today – a masterpiece. Cinnabar is the story of a future city with a life and mind of its own, straddling multiple strands of time, and inhabited by denizens who are intelligent and human, especially the large blue cat nanny. It wouldn’t be hard to adapt for the small screen, either; each story is self-contained and Mr Bryant has worked on many screenplays in his long and distinguished career. I would love to see all of Ed Bryant’s short stories brought to life this way; they’d bring a depth and intelligence that is often lacking on the small screen.
Actually, I’m going to make a suggestion from my books. Part of the reason for that is because for years, people have been asking which of my fantasy books would make a good movie, and I’ve always had to say “none of them” because I tend to write fantasy on a large canvas, and large canvases don’t translate well into single movies. On the other hand, they can translate well into mini-series. And I’ll bend the “rules” further by suggesting not just one book, but the entire Recluce series, although I would produce the series in “chronological” order [and I didn't write them in that order], beginning with Magi’i of Cyador. With sixteen books to work from, that mini-series could go on for years, and since there are no more than two books about any one set of characters, in essence, the world becomes the main and continuing character. In another way, the books are already “adapted” for the small screen because they’re written from the viewpoint of what each character sees and experiences, so that even in large battle scenes, of which there are a few, the reader only sees what the character does. This would limit greatly the need for special effects and other expensive production requirements.
I am a huge fan of Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land. I think that turning it into a mini-series for television- where you actually have the time to explore all the spiritual underpinnings of the book-would be an interesting way to explore the material in a new way.
Tough question. I’d love to see an ongoing series for many of my favorite worlds and characters, but I’ve put a lot of thought into this question. It’s an easy answer to me. I’d love, love, love to se the Harry Potter books made into an ongoing PBS series along the lines of “All Creatures Great and Small”.
I loved that television series. It was comforting to watch, very homey, and peaceful, yet entertaining. I’m not a big fan of the small screen in general, what with all the intellectual hollow programming out there, but something with some wit and deep emotion would rule the day.
I believe a weekly series with the wizarding world would be a huge success. As much as I love the books, I think for a television series, I’d make Hermione the main character, and include more of the world around the edges of the books main threads.
So much of the world begs to be explored, that I could see episode after episode dealing with the daily lives of wizards and witches, and their interactions with the mundane world. It’s the Urban Fantasy aspect of it that appeals to me so much, I think.
I think the concept short story collection lends itself beautifully to the possibility of being translated into a TV series, each story as a well-thought out episode which ends where the writer intended it to end, not with a contrived cliff-hanger which is forgotten by the following week. I considered a few of these before making my choice.
I love Steven Wright’s Going Native, his collection of connected novellas. I found it horrifying it its searing evisceration of human motive and behaviour. But it’s hugely complex, each novella deserving a movie.
I also love David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, also connected novellas. The SF elements are so well-wrought, and the nature of the connections enticing for television.
Then there’s the witty, visceral Bureau of Lost Souls, by Christopher Fowler. Full of mystery, disturbance, evil, retribution and perfectly wrought dialogue, I think this would work in a Tales of the Unexpected kind of way, with the final episode tying it all together, as does the final story in the book. However, an ever-changing cast of characters, a high level of gore and a lack of surprise about the ending of each story (which is the whole point of the book but may have viewers saying, “I knew it!”) led me to another choice.
Sarah Monette’s The Bone Key is a series of ten stories featuring Kyle Murchison Booth, brilliant, self-serving, flawed, shy, awkward. He works in a museum but has much esoteric knowledge, enabling him to solve problems way beyond the normal realms of human experience. The book has mystery, the supernatural, recurring intelligent characters and enough drama to hold an audience.
How would I do it? Monette says she is inspired by M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft so the atmosphere must be thick, dark and scary. M.R. James loved to tell terrifying ghost stories by moonlight in the comfort of his college rooms (the brilliant Robert Lloyd Parry depicts this beautifully) so I’d try to have that feel, as if we are sitting at the feet of a master story teller. The voice over would be gentle and seductive, drawing us down into the depths as if we were wandering a garden path.
In the first story, “Bringing Helena Back” we can establish the mood, structure, character and setting of the series.
It begins in the museum where Booth works. He is only 35, but his hair is completely white. There are many elements of Booth’s past and family history which inform his present so we’d need to see parts of his background in flashback.
He is visited by Augustus Blaine, a friend from college come to him for help. Booth tells us that Blaine was curious, lively and popular whereas Booth was dull, plain and mostly ignored. We need to hear this honest, slightly self-pitying assessment in order for us to understand Booth and to feel empathy for him.
Blaine brings a book in cipher to Booth. Kyle loves puzzles and these should feature in the style of the series. We’ll see puzzles in the opening sequence and between scene changes. Blaine says it is a book which will bring his beloved Helena back to life.
As Blaine talks, Kyle remembers how it was at college when Blaine met Helena, who was “Slender and tall, with ruddy golden hair.” Blaine falls in love with her from the start, Booth hates her and mistrusts her. Blaine and Helena marry; Helena dies in sleazy circumstances. We know a little bit more about Kyle when he says “I was not sorry to hear about her death.”
We should see the present, as Blaine talks about his year of grief. We should see Kyle at work amongst his strange paraphernalia of animal skulls and other items, nodding as his friend weeps.
Kyle is deeply flawed but self-aware, giving scope for a character who sometimes makes poor choices but who remains both fascinating and likable.
Blaine says he wants to bring Helena back to life and Kyle agrees to help him.
The stories of The Bone Key are all self-contained mysteries which creep you out and draw you in at the same time. I’d love to see them on the screen.
I have two answers to this question. One is self-serving, and the other isn’t.
Let me get the self-serving answer out of the way. My Retrieval Artist series, starting with The Disappeared and going through Duplicate Effort, are mysteries set on the moon. They follow mystery conventions, would be easy to film, and would be unusual on television. They could also be what are called “bottle shows,” done within already built sets, because most of the action takes place within a dome on the moon. Some of the rest of the action, as in Extremes, where a runner in the Moon Marathon dies during the race, take place outside the dome. But outside the dome is the Moon itself, desolate, rock-filled, not much to see (except the Earth, lurking beautifully in the background). So the series would have many different stories to tell, following my Retrieval Artist detective, Miles Flint, his friend in the police department, Noelle de Ricci, and several other recurring characters. If there’s money, there are stories that can be filmed on Mars and Jupiter’s moons, but mostly, this would be an inexpensive series to film. (Which is probably why I’m in talks right now with two different Hollywood producers on various aspects of the series–one who wants the Recovery Man character (who is a villain in the RA novels, but a hero in the Analog story, “The Recovery Man’s Bargain”) for a feature-length film, and the other who wants the books for a TV series.)
As for the non self-serving answer, I think it would be fascinating to see Connie Willis’s time travel novels (from Doomsday Book to Blackout) done as a TV series. Of course, the series would focus on Oxford, where the historians and their time machine live. This would be a good British TV series, like Torchwood or Doctor Who. The series would have to focus on the historians and the time travel that they do, but if it were filmed in England, the film costs would again be low. So much still exists there. They could film at Oxford, they could film London during the Blitz (by doing the Underground tunnels and some judicious shots of St. Pauls) and they could follow characters as they learn that time travel may not be as easy as first thought. There’s a lot of room for human stories, continuing stories, and for frightening stories of loss and redemption.
So there you go, Hollywood, ITV, and the BBC. Some things for you to consider….
I’ve been thinking about this question for a solid week now, and still having trouble forming my answer. My first thought was that a live-action television series based on the late, great Kage Baker’s Company novels would be the obvious answer. With time-travel and immortal androids, you could feature storylines set in a variety of historical periods–past, present, and future, and using whatever sets or backlots are available–with the same characters in each. And the mix of science fiction and historical intrigue would make for a potent storytelling engine. Lots of humor, a bit of romance, some mind-bending scientific concepts, and interesting historical trivia. How could it miss?
But then I thought, “Well, wouldn’t they just screw it up?”
By “they,” of course, I mean those mythical Hollywood people. You know, the ones who make everything. The ones who take good ideas and turn them into horrible movies and television shows.
There *are* good TV shows, of course. Even a handful of terrific ones. (LOST, I’m looking at you. Or Venture Bros, if you want to go with the animated side of the street.) But the vast majority of television programming is mediocre at best, and unwatchably horrible at worst.
How many times has a cherished book of yours been turned into a television series or miniseries or special, only to be unwatchably horrible? Earthsea, anyone? Riverworld? Dinotopia?
So yes, if the hypothetical TV show in question could be that one in a million quality show, on par with something like LOST, then I’d go with Kage Baker’s Company novels. If it ends up like virtually every book-to-TV outing we’ve had to date, I’d just as soon pass. TV can stick with dopey reality shows, and I’ll stick with Baker’s novels.
I have often thought that a novel by Tim Powers would make an excellent film- the problem is deciding which one. The wonderful color and whimsy of Anubis Gates, with warring magicians battling in Regency London? Declare with its terrific scenes of a Cold War called into being by sinister djinn? Expiration Date, with its characters snorting up ghosts through straws?
Hollywood, as it happens, has already made its decision, buying On Stranger Tides to adapt into the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. But did they buy the book, or only the title?
And in any case, Powers’ works deserve better than to be turned into sequels to someone else’s work. I nominate Last Call, which features poker, card magic, Las Vegas history, the Fisher King, and Bugsy Siegel. Poker has never been more fashionable than now, and the climactic scene, with its giant villain towering over Hoover Dam, is tailor-made for a Hollywood CGI extravaganza.
I’ve been wanting to see this movie for years.
I believe the twelve part HBO/Showtime television season is the ideal way to present a novel dramatically. The average novel runs ten to twenty hours on audiobook, and film makers prove time and again that the two hour movie is the wrong size to visually translate a novel. Charlaine Harris and Jeff Lindsay’s success teach that hit television can be based on books. True Blood and Dexter on HBO and Showtime illustrates why authors should want their work to appear on the small screen rather than the more glamorous big one. In fact, I think the best way to watch a novel is to buy the Blu-ray box set and enjoy the twelve hours at my leisure.
Now, the sixty-four thousand dollar question: Are there any science fiction stories worthy of this twelve hour treatment? We all have favorite books we’d like to see dramatized, but do we know of any that would achieve the mass success of True Blood, Dexter, The Sopranos, Big Love, Deadwood, The Tutors, or even half-hour comedies like Weeds, Sex in the City and Californication? Romance and mystery genres dwarf the science fiction fan base, so are there any SF stories that could provide their kind of success? We know two hour science fiction movies sell better than any other kind of story, so why hasn’t that appeal translated to television? It could be the same reason why science fiction books don’t sell as well as romance and mystery. Television is character driven, whereas blockbuster sci-fi movies are thrill rides.
What science fiction book series do I think can compete with Dexter and True Blood? Well, strangely enough I’d promote the Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw robot novels by Isaac Asimov. Sure, they’re tame compared to Dexter, but they could be spiced up for modern viewers. Real robots are evolving fast in laboratories, so a TV series about robots would help explore our near future. Artificial intelligence and the singularity are relevant topics. Such a series could be gripping if the producers made the show realistic and philosophical. Set it slightly in the future, placing robots into logical jobs, and make the human form Olivaw look near human but act like a true AI. The producers would have to go well beyond Commander Data, who was essentially comic relief, and even further than Roy Baty, Pris and the other replicants of Blade Runner, who merely showed a will to live. What will be the existential philosophy of artificial minds?
And I’d abandon the off world settings. Intelligent robots might happen this century, but interstellar travel won’t. I’d mine all the Asimov robot stories for ideas for subplots, and maybe even make Dr. Susan Calvin a character. If the series was a success and ran longer than the Asimov material, I’d want current science fiction writers to create new stories set in the same universe. Battlestar Galactica used robots for four seasons and never explored the theme realistically. Caprica ignores their realistic potential too. I’d want the shows to be a lot more like Law & Order than the silly glitz of CSI. The show should have the impact of Darwin in the nineteenth century and convince its viewers what intelligent machines will mean to us.
Tagged with: Amber Benson • Chris Roberson • Gail Carriger • Holly Phillips • J.A. Pitts • James Wallace Harris • Jr. • Kaaron Warren • Katherine Allred • Kristine Kathryn Rusch • Kylie Chan • L.E. Modesitt • Mark Charan Newton • Mark Teppo • Nancy Kress • Walter Jon Williams
Filed under: Mind Meld
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