Television execs are betting big on fantasy IP, but I still haven't heard any confirmations of what is obviously the best choice.
In the coming several years, TV viewers are going to be inundated with shows based on popular fantasy books, as television and streaming execs scramble to recreate the phenomenon (and profits) that is Game of Thrones.
To name but a few of the shows coming our way:
Amazon is producing a Lord of the Rings/ Middle Earth based show (because nine hours of The Hobbit wasn't enough!) which may or may not follow the adventures of a younger Aragorn.
Amazon is producing a Wheel of Time show based on the beloved (but in my opinion, extraordinarily bloated) series of books by the late Robert Jordan.
HBO will be milking as much as they can out of George RR Martin and creating a slate of spinoff shows based on the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Netflix is creating a Witcher series (based on the books and subsequent video games) featuring Henry Cavill (aka bland Superman)
A Chronicles of Narnia show (also by Netflix) is rumored to be in the works.
Some of these may very well turn out to be compelling television. Yet if they do, it will be because of what the TV writers do to adapt the existing material (or in the case of HBO, create material from scratch) into something suitable for television. In all these cases, the source material doesn't easily make for good TV. That's not because the source material is bad. It's just that TV and books are very different mediums--and what makes for a good book doesn't always make for a good TV show (and vice versa).
Years before Game of Thrones graced our screens for the first time, I read the first several books and the thought crossed my mind:
This shit is like fantasy Deadwood. This would make a great HBO show.
To be clear, I'm not trying to "take credit" for Game of Thrones--and if I told you I knew that it would be as huge a sensation as it's turned out to be I'd be lying. All I'm saying is that there was something very particular about ASOIAF that made it particularly amenable to successful, modern, adult television.
And that particular something is the characters.
Many people mistakenly think that books are a character-driven medium. They aren't. Take a look at the Modern Library list of greatest novels of the twentieth century (written in English).
For those of you too lazy to click on the link, here are the top ten:
Then ask yourself: how many of the characters that inhabit these novels are truly unforgettable. The answer is: not many. I've read most of these books (and think positively about all that I've read) and I could name and tell you about maybe a handful: Tom Joad, Yossarian Yossarian, Humbert Humbert, Gatsby, Benjy Compson.
Now think of whatever makes up your list of greatest television shows. For each show, you can undoubtedly describe multiple characters in incredible detail. This isn't surprising. Television is a visual medium populated by actors who play characters. Walter White. Tony Soprano. Don Draper. These characters (and the dozens of supporting ones) are the heart and soul of prestige television.
Going back to Game of Thrones, the reason why this show is so beloved is because of the nuanced, complex characters who have rich arcs and change over time. When we first saw Jaime Lannister he was a pompous, incestuous d-bag who was throwing cute kids out tower windows. Fast forward a few seasons and he's a reluctant hero and viewer favorite. Arya was a mischievous brat; now she's a shape-shifting assassin. The list goes on and on.
Now look at the characters from Lord of the Rings or Narnia or The Wheel of Time. With rare exception characters are mostly black and white, good or evil, uncomplicated. Yes, they may have occasional internal struggles, but we don't have the rich full character arcs that George RR Martin gave us.
So, if not any of the above, what is this obvious next Game of Thrones I speak of?
The next great fantasy television series should obviously be adapted from...
Joe Abercrombie's First Law books.
While the First Law books likely don't have the kind of popular awareness that many of the aforementioned fantasy series enjoy, fans of the genre are well aware of Abercrombie's work. Set in a richly imagined, gritty, medieval fantasy world (not completely unlike Martin's), the First Law books are actually made up of a trilogy as well as three standalone volumes, which cast minor characters from the main trilogy while introducing us to a host of memorable new characters to boot.
The original trilogy, made up of The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings, begins with all the typical fantasy tropes. There's a barbarian warrior a la Conan, an ancient wizard in the mold of Gandalf, and a pompous, handsome swordsman, among others from central casting, fantasy edition. However, by the end of the trilogy all the tropes are completely subverted and you realize that everything you thought about the various characters is being completely turned upside down. The first standalone novel (my favorite among all six books), Best Served Cold, can probably best be described as Ocean's 11 meets Kill Bill. And as the case with the trilogy, characters change and have full, rich character arcs, everyone gets what they deserve (in unexpected ways) and twists abound.
It's totally possible that some savvy television executive is already secretly working on adapting these books, but if not, they should run, not walk, to snatch up these amazingly adaptable pieces of fantasy IP.
And feel free to share a portion of the proceeds.