Fantasy used to be a genre that seemed to be either ignored or even maligned by Hollywood. Movies in the genre were comparatively rare, partly because of the difficulty with their heavy reliance on special effects, and partly because the reception of the films usually led to them being cult classics at best. Adaptations of fantasy novels (and especially series), therefore, were scarcer still, as Hollywood was reluctant to license a work that might not sell well enough to justify the cost of acquiring the rights.
However, that has changed in recent decades. With the massive successes of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, Hollywood now seems to be eager to adapt fantasy to films. So, being reasonably well-read in the genre, I have compiled a list of what I feel are the top fantasy series that have yet to be brought to the big screen.
There are, of course, a few caveats and rules in play. First, although my preferences have a heavy influence, it isn’t the only factor; popularity of the series, and its chances of actually happening are also considered. For example, though I love the Vlad Taltos novels by Steven Brust, the anachronic order could be a significant deterrent to Hollywood, at least while the novels are still ongoing; the episodic nature would make any individual book easy to adapt, but adapting the series would require either sorting them out (tricky while it’s unfinished) or having an actor whose age can reverse between films (thus greatly increasing the need for special effects). Secondly, I’m only looking at series, not individual novels (though of course, Hollywood may not want to adapt every book in a series). Third, when considering whether a series is “unfilmed”, I’m only looking at whether it has a theatrical release or not. Direct-to-video and TV movies do not count. Animated films count if and only if they’ve been released theatrically. Of course, TV adaptations do factor into the prognosis; A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly unfilmed by this definition, but it’s questionable whether the fans would really be clamoring for a film given the success of Game of Thrones as a TV series. And fourth, I had to have at least some familiarity with the series. While I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels, there’s always going to be something I haven’t read. If I’ve left off one of your favorites, it may simply be I haven’t gotten to it yet. Of course, some of the entries are ones I’ve only read a few novels in.
Those were the rules for the list; now, the list itself.
#10: The Belgariad
Author: David Eddings
Synopsis: In a world with several gods, one of them went mad long ago and was sealed away to protect the world. Now the mad god is breaking free, and a boy learns that prophecies state that he will be the one to slay the mad god. Guided by his ancestors, two of the most powerful sorcerers to ever live, he goes on a quest to acquire a mystic orb that is supposed to aid him in his quest.
Thoughts: The story, it has to be said, is not one of the more inventive ones in fantasy. But the series has had an enduring popularity due to a few factors. First, it’s written at the young adult level; neither too simplistic for teenagers nor excessively complex or difficult to read. Given that Hollywood enjoys targeting people in their late teens and early twenties with this genre, it’s not hard to see the appeal to them there. Secondly, while the story isn’t very original, the characters themselves are highly entertaining. Belgarath the sorcerer and Silk the assassin would be very popular among theatre audiences. I could see this happening, although if Hollywood has sense, they’ll avoid the largely-repetitive sequel series.
Authors: Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Synopsis: A diverse group of adventuring heroes reunites to regale each other with stories of their quests. However, one of their number is missing, sending only a mysterious note. The group reforms to seek her out as different nations and religious factions start to make war. Their quest quickly takes on global significance as they find themselves seeking an object of great magical significance.
Thoughts: I apologize if my synopsis is a bit vague or incorrect; it’s been close to 25 years since I’ve read the trilogy. What brings it to mind is that Hasbro and Warner Brothers have been feuding lately over the idea of a relaunch of Dungeons and Dragons as a film franchise. The previous D&D films were poorly written and didn’t have a lot of complexity to them — nor much resemblance to the sprawling stories that dedicated D&D players can create with their roleplaying. However, Dragonlance is a series created as a setting for D&D. They essentially have a story they could adapt easily for their purposes, so it’s somewhat surprising they haven’t done so (although there was a direct-to-video animated version of the first novel; still, as noted above, that doesn’t count for this list, especially as it was by no means as well-publicized as a theatrical film). Perhaps of particular note is that with a playful halfling, noble and heroic human and half-elf warriors, a cynical mage, and more in the party, there’s a character for everyone in the audience to latch onto. If one studio or another is going to do a Dungeons and Dragons film franchise, this is the direction they should look.
#8: The Wheel of Time
Author: Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson)
Synopsis: A young man learns that he is the reincarnation of the man who locked the Dark One away but devastated the world in the process, and that he is destined to face the same fate. He must come to terms with his magical powers, the politics of the world, and his own impending insanity. Meanwhile, his friends and allies have their own deeds to accomplish before the Last Battle comes.
Thoughts: I read and reviewed all the books in the series on this blog, so regular readers already know a lot of my thoughts on the series. An overview is here for those who want it. Because it’s such a major series, it essentially demands to be mentioned on any such list… but I have to say the chances for it actually getting a film adaptation as a series are pretty slim. Not counting the prequel, there are 14 books in the series, and it’s an ongoing story, not a discrete set of episodes. It’s simply too much, especially given that the books are each the size of novels that Hollywood has taken to splitting into films (such as the final Harry Potter volume). 14 films would be highly questionable; 28 is inconceivable.
However, a series adaptation isn’t totally impossible. It’s just that fans would have to be willing to accept the abridged version. If all the fat is trimmed out, it might be possible to get it down to seven films. It would mean some subplots would have to be lost and others simplified, but there’s an ample amount of storylines would don’t do much to serve the overall story anyway, or which simply go on too long. On any other series, this amount of trimming would be a hatchet job — but this series could probably survive it, and quite possibly could even come off better for it. If nothing else, skipping the entirety of Crossroads of Twilight would be a mercy.
Author: Terry Brooks
Synopsis: When the Warlock Lord resurfaces, the Druid Allanon seeks out the last descendant of Jerle Shannara, the only person who can find and wield the fabled Sword of Shannara — the one weapon which is known to be able to defeat the Warlock Lord.
Thoughts: The Shannara series, particularly The Sword of Shannara, is (rightly) criticized a lot for closely paralleling The Lord of the Rings. But that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining, and it’s certainly popular — just doing a bit of research here, it was the first fantasy paperback to appear on the New York Times bestseller list. The series has only grown more and more sprawling as time goes on. Since the resemblance to its inspiration is merely close, not exact — and Hollywood is not overly concerned with originality anyway — there’s certainly room for it in Hollywood’s pantheon of fantasy films. And in this case, it’s looking like a definite possibility. IMDB lists The Sword of Shannara as currently in development — though this may be a TV series rather than a film. Although IMDB isn’t listing it such, Terry Brooks’ website mentions it being picked up as a series. Of course, that news is several months old, and things can change.
The website also mentions (and IMDb similarly lists) that the first novel in Brooks’ Landover series is being adapted to film — reportedly with Steve Carell to star. In the first novel, Magic Kingdom for Sale, a man from our world buys a fairy-tale kingdom through a classified ad and has to adjust to his new home and responsibilities as king. Personally, I always enjoyed Landover more than Shannara, and felt it was more inventive, but there’s no question which of the two is more popular overall.
Author: Terry Pratchett
Synopsis: Set on a flat world where common sense need not apply, Discworld is a comedic fantasy series with numerous different characters and storylines. There’s Rincewind the Wizzard whose inability to spell is exceeded only by his inability to cast spells, Granny Weatherwax the most fearsome and pragmatic witch in the mountains, Commander Vimes of the City Watch and, of course, Death… who has taken a confused liking to humanity.
Thoughts: Normally, a series being as long as Discworld would lower it’s chances, but the episodic nature of the books means that people who want to film adaptations are really spoiled for choice here. It’s possible to cherry-pick the more adaptable ones, and the others won’t affect things by their absence. And since the books generally don’t require that the reader be familiar with previous novels, the films could have the same trait. There have been several TV adaptations of the series in its native United Kingdom, but so far attempts for a theatrical release have fallen flat. This is at least partly due to executives simply not getting it, such as one incident Pratchett has related where it was suggested that Mort (about a boy who becomes Death’s apprentice) would make a great film “if it lost the death angle”. Still, if a producer with a brain makes the right approach, it’s conceivable the comic fantasy series could be seen on the big screen.
#5: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
Author: Tad Williams
Synopsis: A generation ago, King Prester John united his continent into a single nation. But with his passing, his sons fall into feuding and a civil war breaks out. With the Sithi King Ineluki seeking to reenter the world, one of the sons makes an alliance with the supernatural being to seal his rule. An orphan kitchen boy, seeking merely to survive, flees the castle and finds himself getting drawn into a quest to defeat Ineluki.
Thoughts: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn would probably adapt very well to film. It has a plot that looks simple at first glance, but becomes more complex as it goes on, with twists and curves that will surprise an audience. And it maintains a sense of epic grandeur while not putting a great strain on a special effects budget. Plus, the series has a format that’s practically tailor-made for how Hollywood seems to like adapting series nowadays: it was released as a trilogy, but the third book was long enough that it was split into two for paperbacks. It is easy to picture Hollywood putting out films of The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower Parts 1 & 2.
#4: Elric of Melniboné
Author: Michael Moorcock
Synopsis: Elric is the King of Melniboné. He is also frail, sickly, and an albino. Filled with loathing of the traditions of his people — which he feels has led to their stagnation — he is unpopular and his rule is threatened by his cousin, the heir to the throne. In order to preserve his rule and his people he resorts to extreme measures, including sorcery and pacts with dangerous beings. None of them are more dangerous than the very sword he wields, a sentient black blade called Stormbringer, which drinks men’s souls and wants nothing more than to bring about the destruction of all Elric holds dear.
Thoughts: Supposedly directors Chris and Paul Weitz were once planning on bringing this to film, but the news on that was from 2007. We can probably assume it isn’t happening. But as one of the more influential works in the genre, there’s little doubt that there will be another attempt at some point. The story of Elric is an exceptionally dark one, but in this day and age, that isn’t necessarily a deterrent to Hollywood — all it means is that it would stand out some against other fantasy series, which have their dark moments but are ultimately more optimistic.
#3: The Dresden Files
Author: Jim Butcher
Synopsis: If you want to find Harry Dresden, just pick up the Yellow Pages and turn to W, for “Wizard”. The only openly-practicing wizard in modern Chicago, Harry operates as a paranormal private eye, solving strange cases for clients and assisting the police when they have to face the unexplainable. Harry has to deal with both supernatural threats and organized crime, as well as the White Council of Wizards he’s a member of. The Council has laws of its own, and Harry is under constant threat of a death sentence should he ever again break one of the laws…
Thoughts: Not all fantasy has to be medieval. The Dresden Files are urban fantasy, mixing detective story tropes with fairy tales and a large dose of sarcastic humor. It’s a combination that isn’t really seen much in films yet, though TV has dabbled in it a few times. Examples include a one-season series based on The Dresden Files themselves, as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Grimm. But film examples are few and far-between — and generally not well regarded, such as the film version of BtVS or Dylan Dog. A film version of Storm Front and the other novels in the series could be very successful if they’re handled with greater care than those other films. The books are high quality and it’s a film niche that hasn’t been filled yet.
#2: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
Author: Fritz Leiber
Synopsis: Fafhrd is a seven-foot-tall barbarian warrior, prone to idealistic views but with a sense of practicality. The Gray Mouser is a diminutive and cynical thief. Together they seek out adventures for both money and a form of entertainment.
Thoughts: The tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are some of the most influential fantasy stories out there, forming a lot of the classic sword-and-sorcery genre. In fact, to find anything more influential, one has to look to one of its inspirations, the Conan novels — though Leiber stated his purpose was to draw a contrast to Conan with characters who were a bit more grounded. The first stories were written in 1939 and the 1940s, and Leiber continued writing them until the 1980s. As influential as they were, their absence in film remains one of the more glaring omissions in the genre. This is especially true as, although lots of works have been inspired by them, the stories themselves still stand out from the crowd in style and content. The recurring attempts to bring Conan back (with the reboot a little while ago and the upcoming return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the role) show that Hollywood is still interested in the sword-and-sorcery genre. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser could work out very well, and deserves a chance to happen. Of course, the recent Conan reboot shows, much like sci-fi sword-and-sandal epic John Carter, that care must be taken to both make a good film and do a good job of marketing.
#1: The Chronicles of Amber
Author: Roger Zelazny
Synopsis: A man awakens in a hospital with no memory. He’s told he was in a car accident, and that he’ll be healing for weeks before he can walk. But his wounds have already healed. He finds he’s stronger than mortal men, and quickly pieces together that his accident was not so accidental. As he tries to recover his memory, he learns he is a prince of Amber, the one true world of which all others — including Earth — are merely shadows. He sets out on a quest to restore his memory, get his revenge, and claim the throne.
Thoughts: There is no fantasy film news that would leave me as excited or concerned as news that somebody was tackling Nine Princes in Amber and its sequels (though news of an adaptation of Zelazny’s other novel Lord of Light would come close). The novels were some of the first fantasy I read, and still rank as the best series. Constantly exciting, there are twists and turns every step of the way — and as anybody who has done a re-read knows, these twists aren’t just thrown in spur of the moment. There are hints and clues setting things up even several novels in advance. If Hollywood approaches these intelligently, it would be easy to adapt them into a great film series. The novels share an overarching plot, but each has a clear beginning and ending, and each novel is relatively small for a fantasy novel (at least by today’s standards). It wouldn’t be necessary to trim anything significant out. The characters have deviously complex motivations, even the protagonist, and it’s not always possible to tell who is on whose side. I would be inclined to think that Hollywood should probably just focus on the original five novels, and not the sequel series, but it’s possible those could be adapted successfully as well, though they’re not quite up to the same quality. But the original five are absolutely a possibility. I’d be worried about the possibility of the studio screwing it up, but I would still love to see the attempt made.
There you have it. Ten fantasy novel series that Hollywood could adapt into films. Anything you think doesn’t belong there? Or something that was left out which should have been included? Or perhaps you think that Game of Thrones doesn’t preclude a film adaptation of the same material after all. Whatever your thoughts, let me know in the comments.