MIND MELD: Fantasy Novels Besides ‘A Game of Thrones’ That Would Make an Excellent Weekly Series
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
Oh, oh, great question with far too many answers!
- Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth!!!! Do this one first because there are far too many people who don’t even know this fantastic book exists!!!
- Lord Valentine’s Castle and the other Marjipoor books by Robert Silverberg!!!
- All the Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne Jones! And the ones that start with So You Want to Be A Wizard!
- Tamora Pierce’s Trickster books!
- Steve Brust’s Vlad series!
(I think I broke my exclamation point button.)
Do I win? You’re going to make all these and put them on my television for me, right?
I think The Worm Ouroboros would make a super fantasy series, with its terrific landscapes and heroic values. You’d need to find a cinematographer who could devise a style as radical as Eddison’s and work up some of the characters so they aren’t quite as cardboard but it would be a spectacular feat of derring-do, all around.
I think this is a case where we’re spoiled for choice. There are so many fantasy novels that would make a great TV series, it’s hard to name just a few. But here are four older favorites and one new one:
Witch World by Andre Norton. These novels have an otherworld setting and sword and sorcery action, but Estcarp, ruled by matriarchal witches, would be an interesting change of pace for TV. I’m not sure how adaptable the plots of the books would be, but a series following the adventures of main characters Simon Tregarth (magically transported to Estcarp from Earth) and Jaelithe, the witch he falls in love with, could be great. One of the main issues in the book is the people of Estcarp’s belief that only women can use magic, and sex takes away their power. Over the course of the first book, Simon and Jaelithe find out that that isn’t quite true, and that it could change Estcarp forever.
The Bridge of Birds trilogy by Barry Hughart. Master Li and Number Ten Ox in ancient China solving magical mysteries. There’s Sherlock Holmes-style deduction, CSI-like investigation, plus Chinese mythology, humor, magic, and sex. The dialogue is witty and funny, the characters are engaging, and the books are already somewhat episodic, and could be adapted into a mini-series.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. This is a young adult epic fantasy series loosely based on the Mabinogion, with likable characters, a coming of age theme, and lots of magic and adventure.
So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane. (The Young Wizards series.) The adventures of Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez as they explore their new magical abilities would probably capture the same audience as Harry Potter. Unlike Harry Potter, Nita and Kit’s magic relies heavily on a knowledge of real science to work. They also travel to other planets and other dimensions, meet alien wizards, and fight the ultimate evil, and there is endless room for stories.
Midnight Riot (Rivers of London) by Ben Aaronovitch. Another fantasy mystery series, this is the one I think is most likely to end up on TV. It’s set in modern-day London, where Peter Grant is a young police constable who ends up apprenticed to the last British wizard, who also happens to be a detective chief inspector. There’s magical mysteries to solve, humor, and adventure, and I’d love to see a TV version to compliment the books.
There are two Big! Fantasy! Series! that I would love to see GoT-ized: Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, and Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic series, which is headed into volume III as I meld with the group mind.
Both are big, complex, with unusual settings and memorable characters. Any adaptation would necessarily have to edit and cut for plot and characters and content, but at this point in cable-television history, considering Dexter and The Sopranos and GoT itself, I don’t know what either one would have to be bowdlerized excessively. (Imagine the Dexter/Severian mashup. Or not. Depending.)
What I like about books with this much scope and complexity is that on a weekly basis, with the potential to go on for years, there’s more than enough there to fill a series. And, with the Elliott, we’d get strong and independent female characters, of which, in my not so humble opinion, there are never enough.
Now you’ve got me wanting to do some shadow casting.
Fans of the Hotlist are acutely aware that I don’t have a very high opinion of most SFF productions out there. Sure, I can be demanding, but too often Hollywood and production companies take speculative fiction fans for idiots. I can’t say I blame them, as SFF fans appear to need very little encouragement to either fork out hard-earned money to go see utter crap on the big screen, or to tune in to crappy TV shows week in and week out.
In order to be good and do justice to the literary work they are based on, adaptations require an appropriate budget and a willingness to at least attempt to follow the author’s vision. Sadly, seldom are these two ingredients part of the recipe. Although it wasn’t perfect, Lord of the Rings turned out to be great because Peter Jackson tried to capture Tolkien’s vision as perfectly as humanly possible. And thus far, the same thing can be said of HBO’s Game of Thrones. For the same reason, it goes without saying. God knows I’m not a fan of Terry Goodkind, but I’m pretty sure the author is livid at the thought of what a travesty Legend of the Seeker turned out to be. That’s what happens when producers pay you a great amount of money to option your books, but give you zero creative control over what the final product will be like. I believe it’s Raymond E. Feist who claimed that the best an author can hope for is to be paid good money to see their books optioned, all the while hoping that those projects will never come through.
Prior to HBO’s Game of Thrones, I would have told you that it’s well nigh impossible to come up with a quality television adaptation for a fantasy series. Time will tell, but it appears that I was dead wrong. Yet, until proven wrong, I still opine that novels are probably the way to go. Can’t wait to see the adaptation for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Stand-alone works would make perfect weekly series, in my opinion. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Under Heaven could be killer TV series. If done with the same care and budget as Game of Thrones, of course. For something with a more contemporary vibe, I feel that Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora could be great. In the urban fantasy genre, I feel that an adaptation of Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty novels could be a huge hit.
In science fiction, I know I would be glued to my TV screen if ever there was a quality adaptation of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon or Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City.
But my gut tells me that quality SFF TV series and films will continue to be exceptions, not the norm. Hence, for every Firefly or Battlestar Galactica, there will always be derivative crap like Legend of the Seeker or lackluster superhero movies with big budgets but no stories. . .
As you can see, I’m a “the glass is half empty” kind of guy. . .
There are several series I’d love to see done as a mini-series, including the entire Amber series by Roger Zelazny and a proper version of LeGuin’s Earthsea books. But the one I would rearrange my life around would be Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master of Hed series.
This series has so much to recommend it. McKillip’s beautiful writing and vivid, complete world building would be a gold mine for the production company, and the CGI potential would be limitless. Every riddle, every scene with magic could be a climax to an episode or a series – each of the books could easily take a year or more to tell. The word for this world is variety.
Although it is a coming of age (COA) story, it has the bonus of being COA for both a male and a female protagonist. It also is a love story, and has many excellent supporting characters, ranging in age from teens to adults hundreds of years old. The heroes and villains are many-layered, the ending both fantastic and subtle – give me the world of the Riddle-Master!
I would love to see Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road) turned into a TV series. This is an alternate world fantasy, but it begins in our world with five graduate students being transported from Toronto to the alternate world. Thus, viewers, particularly those in the target 20-something demographic, would be able to relate to the lead characters. There is suspense, violence, sex, intrigue, magic — all the elements a good TV show needs. And I actually believe that producers wouldn’t have to change much to adapt the story to the small screen. Most important, it is a beautiful story, featuring compelling characters, in a richly textured, believable world. It’s always been one of my favorite works, and I think it would be visually stunning.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga was the first thing that came bounding to mind. I know, I know… This isn’t fantasy but science fiction (wild, wonderful, adrenalin-pumping, space opera stuff, with plot and characters enough to last many seasons: warrior women, romance, sex, needle grenades, mercenaries, politics, clones, wormholes — everything!), so I will leave Miles Vorkosigan for now and focus on the actual question.
The ghost of my teenaged self would give a limb (hers or someone else’s) to see Robin McKinley’s magnificent Damar fantasies brought to life, in a twinned set of mini-series based on Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword respectively. I mean, fricking amazing lady leads? Dragons? Flaming swords? War? Feverish visions? Family drama? Now, these books are marketed toward a young adult audience, so for a TV adaptation and wider appeal, I’d think the gut-spillage and saliva-swapperies would have to be upped considerably.
Likewise, my teenaged ghost reminds me, there are unplumbed riches to found in Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddlemaster Trilogy, with its perilous lyricism, its treachery, sorcery and vast, elemental magics. Who would play Morgan of Hed? Deth the Harpist? Raederle of An? Lots of opportunities for some trippy CGI, too!
In the end, I have to say that if someone gave me a Magical Mini-Series Wand and said: “Cooney! Do what thou wilt!” (like Schmendrick in The Last Unicorn) I would point it at James Enge’s Morlock the Maker books and say, “Gimme. Now.” Blood of Ambrose and The Wolf Age have material enough for several full-length feature films, and the collected short(ish) fiction of This Crooked Way has at least a season’s worth of television episodes. Better still — there’s more of it on the way. And I want it all.
The first thing you should know is that while I am life long fan of science fiction, until recently, I was generally not a fan of fantasy and specifically epic fantasy. I was under that stereotyped impression that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was so masterful, that everything that came afterward was imitation; that there were no new stories to tell. But note that I said “until recently.” Thanks to HBO and George R. R. Martin, my position has changed, and I’ve recently written about how George R.R. Martin made me a fan of epic fantasy. So I come to this question of what other fantasy novels would make a good TV series as someone who had read very little fantasy, but who is thinking about reading more.
Now, I wasn’t completely surprised that I enjoyed the HBO series because with a few minor exceptions, I’ve always enjoyed their shows. To me they are generally a cut above what the broadcast networks can do. It was watching that first episode of Game of Thrones that made me buy the book. By the time I hit the 4th episode I’d passed where the HBO series was and by the time the fifth episode had come around, I’d finished the book and started A Clash of Kings. And I loved the book even more than the HBO series.
While I have at least one thought on another fantasy series that might be good on television, I decided to think about why Game of Thrones worked so well on television and I attempted to come up with a set of criteria that people more well-read in fantasy than I am (meaning just about everyone) might use as a framework. Why, I asked myself, was Game of Thrones so good?
- It contained a set of characters that audiences could relate to on a real level, whether or not they loved or hated them. Unlike Lord of the Rings, these characters are not in any way idyllic. They are each of them flawed and those flaws make them seem more human to us, make them easier to identify with even if the world they live in is vastly different from our own. And the HBO series was cast brilliantly, with Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister leading the pack. Having already made my way into Clash of Kings, I’m very excited to see his character in season 2 of the HBO series.
- It hints at larger things but keeps them always just out of sight. This is very similar to what happened in Smallville, where from the beginning, you always knew that Clark would become Superman and that he would fly, but that was held back until the last 5 minutes of a 10 season run with great effect. In Game of Thrones, there is a greater story that is alluded to, but it is on the periphery. We know it is lurking there and it drags up into the events that are unfolding. This is a powerful effect, in my opinion.
- It is a gritty story. To some extent, this relates to #1 above, but I call it out on its own because it adds to the believability of the world. There is nobility and chivalry in the world but only in the same concentrations that we find it in our world, and even the noble are apt to bend the rules or come to grief. The universe doesn’t care one way or another. Buy such is life and I’m not sure this story could be told in this fashion outside of a network like HBO.
Given these criteria, I started thinking about fantasy that I’ve read that might fit these items more or less. Again, I haven’t read much fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, but I’ve read some and at least one fantasy series came to mind when I had these criteria roughly fleshed out. It seems to me that James Morrow’s Godhead Trilogy would make for fine episodic television. For those not familiar with these books, the first of which is Towing Jehovah, the premise is that the physical body of God has fallen into the ocean and a down-on-his-luck oil-tanker captain is charged by the angel Gabriel to tow the body up the north pole.
The overarching story lasts for three books, giving it the kind of major arc that episodic television needs these day. The characters in the book are all flawed, real people that you would recognize if you saw them. The narrative hints at larger things (and is aided by the fact that it is hysterically funny in places). And it is a dark, gritty story, particularly the third book, The Eternal Footman, which is brilliant but brutal. And I think that HBO would be the ideal network for such a fantasy series since they have already successfully pulled off a number of series that have looked at religion in different ways (Carnivale, Big Love).
Of course, the criteria that I listed above depend on taste, but they represent why I think Game of Thrones worked so well and why I think a series like Morrow’s Godhead Trilogy (or for that matter, his novel Only Begotten Daughter) would work equally well. But these are more contemporary fantasies. I eagerly await to see what the other participants have suggested, if for no other reason than to have a list of additional epic fantasy to devour.
There’s a lot of cool choices, but for me, I’d love to see John Carter of Mars adapted. I know it’d be a tough thing to do. Just looking at the cast. Aside from the relatively normal red Martians, there’s the green Martians, who are giants with four arms. And the strange beasties and weird cities. And Mars itself would be difficult to film. Especially since it’s supposed to be a dying desert planet. There’s also some stuff that hasn’t aged well, a few unfortunate implications here and there. Putting all that aside, there are other problems. John Carter is a bit of a bland guy. He’s nice, and he kicks ass. And really, that’s most of his character right there. Mars itself is the star of the stories, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone being able to do it justice on a regular basis. Still, if every episode had at least one cool sword fight with a giant green martian, I’d watch it.
When it comes to fantasy I’ve a thing for smart heist stories, politics, and things that blow up, particularly these days. Which is why my first suggestion is The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. While a great deal of the novel takes place in the mind of the main character, it’d be a blast to watch the Gentlemen Bastards work their way through the deep pockets of Camorr’s elite on the small screen. The nice thing is, it could work as either an HBO-style close adaptation mini-series or as a regular weekly TV spot where the scams are more the focus. Lynch did a great job of world-building and the politics alone could spin off weekly script-plots.
Then there’s The Atrocity Archives and/or The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross. Who doesn’t enjoy a Lovecraftian spy thriller? Can you imagine a weekly adventure with Bob Howard as he takes care of The Laundry’s…well…dirty laundry? I can. And hey, you know me — actually, you don’t, but if you did, you’d know I’m behind any opportunity to watch giant squidly things from outer space attempt to eat people’s faces, and you know… fail. Plus, dry British humor, and did I mention that Bob’s girlfriend, Mo, not only kicks ass but totes a powerful violin capable of blasting big bad demon-y types into tiny gooey globs landing in several different dimensions at once? Evil squiddy bits going squish in Technicolor! (Oh, yeah.)
For my next set of suggestions keep in mind that I worked in YA lit for six years. I think Holly Black’s The White Cat (grifters and gangsters and magic, oh my!) or even Tithe would make great source material for a series. Actually, you could toss in any of the Bordertown-associated works by Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and the rest — runaways, teen angst, fairies, fairy politics, and rock and roll and not a single simpering vampire in sight. Lastly, I have to throw down with The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. In Stroud’s United Kingdom, magic powers government instead of money. Thus, magicians hold all the seats of power, and therefore, are more equal than others. Children with magical talent are taken from their parents at an early age and trained. Cue in young Nathaniel, a rebellious and precocious magician’s apprentice and his thousands of years old, snark-tastic, djinn, Bartimaeus. Watching Bartimaeus act as Nathaniel’s wise-cracking conscience as he navigates a landscape filled with tricky politics, potential wars, and back-stabbing adults — not to mention the occasional fire-breathing demon, would be great fun. (The Harry Potter crowd would eat it up.) Having worked in a bookstore for six years, I could go on and on, but I should probably stop now.
Imagining my favourite books on the big or small screen has long been a favourite daydream of mine. The main problem is that there are so many. The first to spring to mind is Peter Morwood’s Aldric Talvalin series (The Horse Lord, 1983; The Demon Lord, 1984; The Dragon Lord 1986; and The Warlord’s Domain 1989). Back when I first read this, the only way to translate it adequately would have been through animation which might have lost some of the details of characterisation and the spectacular set-piece action scenes. Modern CGI, however, has the range to convey Morwood’s rich tapestry of dark magics and demons, unbreakable fate and dragons, morally equivocal wizards and tormented, complicated swordsmen. This series is both a glorious adventure of vengeance and betrayal, binding vows, danger, cursed blades and magical treasures and a Shakespearian exploration of themes of revenge and redemption, responsibility and restlessness, set against a morally dubious world of forests and snowy wastes, dark citadels, and warring states, with a cast of memorable and intriguing characters. On television, it would appeal as much to fans of The Wire as to fans of Lord of the Rings.
I’ve loved the novels of Tanith Lee since I was a teenager. But choosing amongst them for this question is all but impossible. Her Flat Earth series (Night’s Master, 1978; Death’s Master, 1978; Delusion’s Master, 1981; Delirium’s Mistress, 1986; Night’s Sorceries, 1987) has the clear note of myth to it, but it’s hard to imagine a director or a network taking a chance on its shifting cast of gods and demons, mad sorcerers and treacherous maidens and its complex structure of short tales and long themes, circular narratives and rebirths. Studio Ghibli could make a wonderful feature out of one section of it, but a television version would probably have to make too many short cuts, impose too many innovations and simplifications and warp the framework too far to do the series justice. So I’ll opt instead for her Blood Opera series — dark urban fantasy of a hidden family written long before the current urban fantasy boom (Dark Dance, 1992; Personal Darkness, 1993; Darkness 1, 1994). Are the Scarabae immortals? Vampires? Gods? Drifting through their mysterious home, The House, Rachaela has no answers to her questions and no certainty which of her kin she dare trust. Great female characters, a twisting, shifting plot and an atmosphere drenched in decadence and danger, this series would translate brilliantly to television – and might perhaps lead to the publication of the long-rumoured final volume.
And finally? Back in 1985, Disney released The Black Cauldron, based on Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (The Book of Three, 1964; The Black Cauldron, 1965; The Castle of Llyr, 1966; Taran Wanderer, 1967; The High King, 1968). It was great fun, but it didn’t tell the whole of Alexander’s story. Wit, fun, charm and excitement: this would be a show for children from 6 to 96. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
In the other half of my working life, I’m a screenwriter for BBC Drama with many hours of produced work so this question is regularly at the front of my mind. Like most people in the TV industry, I’m always looking for potential adaptations to take to the development executives. I haven’t found many from the speculative genres. Neither have other producers and writers, which is why there’s been such a dearth of fantasy on TV over the years. (And it’s not because of some prejudice against the genre – let’s get that one out of the way. A hit series is a hit series and TV executives will take their wins wherever they can get them.)
Despite what a lot of people seem to think, TV isn’t about finding a good book and then setting up the cameras to film what is on the page. There are many subtle considerations – technical, psychological, sociological, even the way we consume visual media compared to the printed page – which are rarely appreciated.
TV, for example, is a voracious consumer of plot or action (in terms of doing things). You need a lot of it to get through an hour. Some books have a great deal of running around but not really enough going on, despite their seeming length in page count. Game of Thrones is suitably plot-dense with multiple strands unfolding.
TV also needs to be heavily predicated on human drama and interaction if it is to be fulfilling. This is simply the nature of the medium and how we absorb it. Spectacle on TV always seems empty, in a way that it often does not on the big screen, and constant action becomes wearying and boring. What appears magic in books becomes mundane in that box in the corner of the room. Or, in sum, people are fired by the prospect of imagining the weird and fantastic, but they are bored to see it laid out by someone else in front of their eyes. The TV eye more readily focuses on people and in turn magnifies their personal dramas. Game of Thrones works because it is a powerful, character-driven study of human beings exhibiting emotions and conflicts that we all recognize. The fantasy is almost irrelevant. It has a complexity of human relationships that a lot of other fantasy or SF doesn’t exhibit, being, as they are, more concerned with ideas or themes, and it tells human stories which resonate with the lives of viewers.
Simple stories with complex characters work best on TV, and in this there is very little difference among Game of Thrones, Mad Men and House. There is a reason that most Game of Thrones scenes feature people talking in rooms, just like those other two shows. The epic-ness that fantasy readers love about their books doesn’t matter because TV is all about people. (See: Battlestar Galactica – another story of human beings in rooms and another series that is among the best of modern TV.)
So, Steven Erikson’s majestic Malazan books probably wouldn’t work – simply too big and sprawling. Straight adaptations of Moorcock’s sixties fantasies – not enough character-work to sustain the demands of a returning TV series. China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, or any of the New Weird writers, are less-concerned with human relationships and emotions than they are with reflecting on other areas of perception and experience.
If I had to choose one fantasy work that might make good, returning TV, I’d suggest Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora. There’s not a lot of it at the moment so any TV executive would want to know how characters would develop in coming seasons, but for now we have complexity of character and relationships, histories and world that are ripe for development, and the potential to tackle timeless themes in the style of Dickens which would resonate with a wide audience. In fact, I might even check out who’s holding the option…
Filed under: Mind Meld
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