The past few years have seen an explosion in high-concept, high-budget adaptations for premium TV and streaming services, like The Expanse and Game of Thrones. Following in the footsteps of antecedents going back to the miniseries based on Roots, they’ve tackled material that’s too intricate and too sprawling to possibly squeeze into a movie-length work. At their best, these adaptations have done justice to the most challenging material.
All of which has left the Ars staff wanting more. If producers and networks are willing to put that much love into works we either weren’t familiar with or weren’t in love with, what might they manage with some really good material?
What started as a watercooler chitchat morphed into an article and has now blossomed into a series of short pleas/pitches—Hollywood, we’re all easy to reach. And we’re giving you, the reader, the chance to tell us how wrong we are or to come up with some suggestions of your own.
The Chronicles of Prydain (1964-1968) by Lloyd Alexander
This series, a loose retelling of stories from Welsh mythology, was absolutely formative for me and for countless other children in generations both preceding and following mine. Given how big fantasy has gotten since the turn of (this) century—and how many tween- and teen-friendly books have hit the big screen—I’m frankly shocked that nobody in the modern “prestige TV” era has taken a run at this childhood classic yet.
A young man, bored out of his head as an assistant pig-keeper, dreams of glory—despite all his elders’ warnings that “glory” really isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. One day, the pig in his care—who turns out to have a distinctly unusual skill set for a swine—escapes, and he chases her directly into the adventure of a lifetime.
Our hero, Taran, is immediately surrounded by a cast of characters who are both archetype and individual all in one. First he meets an old veteran prince, Gwydion, followed in short order by Gurgi, a woodland denizen who defies categorization. Later, he and we meet with Fflewddur Fflam, a bard who means well but has some trouble with the truth; Eilonwy, a self-rescuing princess who drags Taran along for her liberation; and Doli, a dwarf and member of the fair folk, among others.
The books follow Taran not only as he moves through events in the world, fighting a Manichean battle against the god of Death and his lieutenants, but also as he moves through the path to adulthood, learning that the world itself is in fact not so black-and-white as he once imagined. He finds in the end that the seeking must count more than the finding and the striving more than the gain; that you cannot judge the secret heart of another, where good and evil mix, but must instead judge someone by their deeds.
It is, in short, a powerful coming-of-age tale that also has some absolutely killer action sequences lurking in it along the way, teaching all the moral lessons of a Game of Thrones with a tiny fraction of the violence and 10 times as much compassion. The series is tied together by a genuinely bittersweet ending that earns its triumphs without being cloying and its losses without leaning in to nihilism.
From a business end, it also has five full books’ worth of stories, told episodically, with room for more spinning of stories around the edge—the perfect competition to all those young-adult trilogies that get adapted into films, or Warner Media’s unending and seemingly unkillable Harry Potter juggernaut.
Variety reported in 2016 that Disney had snapped up the rights to make a film-series adaptation—a decidedly mixed blessing, considering Disney was also behind the fairly execrable and utterly forgettable 1983 animated adaptation. But in five years, that project appears to have gone exactly nowhere. Why not hand it over to someone else—even the Disney+ streaming service, which has churned out phenomenal original TV—to take another try?
—Kate Cox, Tech Policy Reporter
Ancillary Justice (2013-2015) by Ann Leckie
I would love to see Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series done for television—and done right. In Ancillary Justice, an incredibly powerful AI named Breq—designed to control a massive starship, along with an entire army of mind-wiped human bodies called Ancillaries—has become greatly diminished. With its ship destroyed, the AI has only a single human Ancillary body available for use—and only the processing power of that single human brain to think with.
Although reduced, Breq is still a force to be reckoned with—the Ancillary body, which once belonged to a human, was rebuilt from the ground up to serve as a superhumanly strong and fast high-tech soldier. But its enemy is Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of an entire civilization—and, Mianaai is not limited to a single body, having created hundreds of clones that have been melded into a disturbed hive mind.
The quest to get revenge on Mianaai necessarily leads Breq through a rich pageantry of “barbarian” civilizations and aliens, as well as Breq’s and Mianaai’s own Radchaai Empire—the cultural differences between the Radch and the “barbarians” made the original novels one of the most initially frustrating but ultimately rewarding reads I’ve ever experienced. The “barbarians” are basically what most readers would consider normal cultures, while the Radchaai are technologically and culturally transcendent enough to come across as alien to most.
In particular, the Radchaai find gender nearly irrelevant in any context outside reproduction. Their bodies are generally heavily modified both cosmetically and functionally for strength, speed, and long life. They use gender-neutral pronouns, and their fashions do not discriminate between male and female—so it’s not obvious what gender an individual Radch is in the first place. This outlook colors their encounters with foreign cultures, leaving them puzzled by the boorish and irrelevant (to them) focus that barbarians have on gendering everything.
A typical reader of the books will be massively frustrated by this at first, flipping pages back and forth trying to catch some hint as to whether each character is male or female, despite the Radchaai (and nonhuman) narrator’s obliviousness. Eventually, the worldview clicks and the reader, like the narrator, simply stops caring. While a television show wouldn’t be able to recreate the Radchaai’s indifference towards the gender of “barbarians,” it should be able to cast thoroughly androgynous actors for the Radchaai themselves.
Besides, I’d like to see a competitor in distant-future, altered-clone, body-independent weirdness to Netflix’s outstanding Altered Carbon.
—Jim Salter, Technology Reporter
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977-2013) by Stephen Donaldson
Would you watch a series about a divorced, self-loathing leper who is transported to a magical land and instantly becomes a powerful being in a fight against monumental evil, all because of the wedding band he never removed? That’s the basis of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a fantasy series that first appeared as a trilogy in the late 1970s but has now grown to 10 installments.
Our protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is about as perfect an antihero as there can be. Summoned to the Land after being knocked unconscious, Covenant is harangued by Lord Foul the Despiser, who tells him to carry a prophecy of destruction to the Council of Lords. The series unfolds from there, as Covenant reluctantly joins with the Lords to battle the host of evil that threatens the Land.
The twist is that Covenant believes he’s actually unconscious and the Land is just a fever dream. When his health is restored by Earthpower and his impotence is cured, he commits an unspeakable crime against one of the Land’s inhabitants. Despite this, he is accepted by the council and joins them on a quest to reclaim the Staff of Law and cleanse the Land of its existential threat. And that’s just book one.
Whoever produces this will definitely need a hefty effects budget for the giants, cavewights, ranyhyn, and other creatures of the Land. But the first trilogy (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever) is excellent source material, as author Stephen Donaldson is masterful at creating a richly detailed and imperiled land of beauty and innocence, along with the perfect antihero to save it. And if the ratings are good, there’s a second trilogy and an ensuing tetralogy to draw on.
—Eric Bangeman, Managing Editor
Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco
The following plot outline will probably sound familiar. A protagonist is in hiding, awaiting what he fears will be his death, and flashes back to recall how he ended up in his situation. We get to follow along as his work slowly gets him enmeshed in conspiracies built on conspiracies, some of his own invention. By the time of his impending death, it has become difficult for him—or any of the other characters—to distinguish what’s real.
Done poorly, and it’s one of dozens of instantly forgettable paperbacks. Done well, and it’s Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.
Eco’s book manages to build a steadily growing sense of sinister tension, yet draw on a dizzying array of literary and historical references, connecting everything to everything else in a dizzying, multifaceted conspiracy that even those driving it struggle to grasp. Somehow, 16th-century mystical cults end up related to Rick Blaine of the movie Casablanca, and it doesn’t feel strained. And none of this chaos seems to get in the way of developing some compelling main characters.
Trying to squeeze this into a movie-length work would be an impossibility. But an extended television series might just manage to find ways of making all the digressions—from the Italian publishing business to Afro-Brazilian religion—into a set of cohesive episodes. And adaptation to the screen could ease viewers past the biggest complaint I’ve heard about the book: the fact that it dumps you right in the middle of events that only start to make sense dozens of chapters later.
On its own merits, a case could be made for an adaptation of the book. But right now, with the US in the grips of conspiracies that tie together nonsense about elections, vaccines, and 5G cellular networks? It’s hard to imagine anything more topical. Eco’s writing has always had a certain fondness for obscure medieval heretical movements (more on that below). But Foucault’s Pendulum ties those to present-day conspiratorial thinking, reminding us that there’s really nothing new here: people have always seemingly been willing to sign up and even die for the feeling that they had obtained secret knowledge that everyone around them lacks. Eco paints a painfully believable picture of how conspiracies grow beyond even their creators’ ability to control and why they hold such an intense appeal to so many people.
Maybe a series, unlike the book, could give us some hints about what to do about that before people end up being killed.
—John Timmer, Senior Science Editor
The Connie Willis time-travel series (1982-2010 )
Frankly, I find it astonishing that nobody has tried to adapt the works of Connie Willis (11 Hugo Awards, seven Nebula Awards, SFWA Grand Master, and member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame) for TV yet. Is it because she’s considered “soft” sci-fi? I have no idea, but I do know that Willis’ style lends itself naturally to TV adaptation. Her books boast terrific, well-drawn characters, meticulous plotting, a mix of drama and humor, and are very dialogue heavy. Willis has an affinity for natural-sounding conversation—ideal for adapting to a script.
Her 2001 novel, Passage, which explores the science of near-death experiences (including a powerful, unsettling depiction of the dying mind toward the end) is perhaps my favorite, because of the way it wrestles so openly and honestly with grief. (Willis lost her mother at a young age and has no patience for empty platitudes.) But I suspect it would be more suitable for a film adaptation.
For television, her time-travel series of novels provide plenty of excellent fodder for adaptation, either by adapting the novels’ plots or simply viewing these works as providing a full-blown fictional universe in which to create one’s own stories—time-traveling Oxford historian detectives, if you will. Willis’ rules for time travel are clear and concise, and they gradually evolve in her later books to reveal a few useful loopholes.
Most notably, the physics of time travel in her world prohibits someone traveling to certain key places and times where said time traveler could inadvertently change the historical timeline, thereby avoiding troublesome paradoxes. Either the time machine (dubbed “the Net”) will shut down automatically or there will be “slippage”—the time traveler will arrive at the nearest place and time (the “drop”) necessary to prevent a paradox—usually minor, but sometimes substantial. The time traveler must return to the drop site at a prearranged time in order to return home. The further back in time one goes, the greater the risk of major slippage. And you can’t bring anything (or anyone) from the historical period in question back with you through the Net.
The series technically begins with the short story “Fire Watch” in 1982, but the world wasn’t fully developed until her 1992 novel, Doomsday Book, in which a young medieval historian at Oxford travels back to the Middle Ages and gets trapped in a small village during an outbreak of the Black Death. To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997) plays up the screwball-comedy angle. By this time, time travel has become an almost routine aspect of historical studies, with historians zipping back and forth between time periods, sometimes to track down historical artifacts of interest to wealthy donors. Naturally, complications ensue.
Finally, Willis published a sprawling two-part opus in 2010. In Black Out and All Clear, something may have gone terribly wrong with the Net, resulting in our intrepid Oxford historians getting trapped in London during the Blitz in World War II. Has all that rampant time travel finally succeeded in breaking down the laws of physics? Will the trapped historians ever be rescued?
Seriously, TV production companies, it’s time to hop on the Connie Willis bandwagon…
—Jennifer Ouellette, Senior Writer
West of Eden (1984-1988) by Harry Harrison
During quarantine, I rediscovered an old favorite that I’d not read in something like 25 years: Harry Harrison’s West of Eden trilogy. As a prestige TV miniseries, it would be fantastically epic—but the more I think of it, the less I’m sure it would actually be watchable.
West of Eden and its two sequels tell the tale of an alternate-history Earth where the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event never occurred and prehistoric lizards evolved intelligence and became the planet’s dominant life form. Stone-age humans exist, but they’re little more than hunter-gatherers, existing in isolated nomadic bands.
It is not humankind’s world. Instead, the world belongs to the Yilané.
Yilané aren’t feathered warm-blooded, bird-like dinosaurs but rather cold-blooded lizards evolved from mosasaurs. Their most distinctive feature is their language—a rich mixture of sound, gesture, and color, all required in various parts to create meaning (think of it like having to carry on a conversation verbally and with sign language at the same time, except the sign language involves your entire body—limbs, posture, expression, everything). Harrison enlisted the aid of a linguist in constructing the Yilané language, which is detailed in a lengthy glossary at the back of each book.
The series tells the tale of Kerrick, a young human boy who is kidnapped by the Yilané and taught to speak in their manner and raised as one of them. Saying more would spoil a lot, since much of the first book is spent seeing Yilané civilization through Kerrick’s eyes. The Yilané are satisfyingly alien, while also exhibiting some of the same traits that make people interesting—some are good, some are bad, some are murderous, and some are kindhearted. They are a fascinating people.
But the thing that gives me pause about seeing this on-screen is just how weird it would look. To properly show a pair of Yilané speaking, in a way that would be true to the book’s descriptions, you’d get a shot of two human-sized lizards screeching and flailing their limbs and tails. Simplifying the Yilané language to make it a little less, well, silly looking would mean a major change to the book, since so much of the story is about the complexity of the language and how it shapes Yilané society.
Although maybe it’d work as an animated series. It’d be neat to see someone try.
—Lee Hutchinson, Senior Technology Editor
The Prague Cemetery (2010) by Umberto Eco
Since someone else already picked Foucault’s Pendulum by the antifascist semiotician Umberto Eco, I’mma go with The Prague Cemetery, also by Eco. The book follows a fictional, possibly insane forger who is connected to nearly every historical event in 19th-century Europe. He’s like a malevolent Forrest Gump… who eventually pens The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. So not a nice dude.
I’m old enough to remember when the only history worth teaching pre-1776 was European history, but we learned precisely diddly about Europe in the 19th century. Why? Because God forbid the kids learn how metal it was to be a musket-swinging Italian radical. “Eat lead and piss blood, you monarchist swine!” they’d yell. So I love that The Prague Cemetery pumped all the history of revolutionary Europe I’d been missing directly into my brainholes. All the vaguely occult conspiracy theories that Eco throws in—starring the Illuminati, Templars, and Jesuits—is gravy.
I can picture how TPC would look as a prestige TV series: bland computer-generated landscapes and armies, a monotonous yet addictive pace, and reams of dialogue. And, of course, the ending would be changed jussssssst enough so that a second season, not written by Eco, could be excreted. I wouldn’t even bother watching it.
Instead, I think the show should be animated, with a different studio or style for each era, location, or paranoid diatribe. Italy would look like The Simpsons, France would be terrifying stop-motion, a flashback would be flash-style animation (because puns), The Minute Hour should get a segment, and some maniac’s anti-Semitic vision of how he thinks the world works should be rotoscoped. And the whole thing would be paced like a ’90s-era Oliver Stone movie, so that you always feel like you are missing 10 to 20 percent of what’s happening and are exhausted at the end of every 30-minute episode.
That’s how I’d do it.
—Peter Opaskar, Line Editor