EXCLUSIVE: Gormenghast, the sprawling epic created by British author Mervyn Peake, is finally set to get the adaptation it deserves as it’s now possible to put the “impossible on screen”, according to Neil Gaiman, Toby Whithouse and Akiva Goldsman.
In an exclusive interview with Deadline, the trio talk about how they first fell in love with the books, which were first published in 1946, explain why Warner Bros’ big-screen remake didn’t happen and discuss their plans to turn Peake’s world into a big-budget premium television series.
This comes after American Gods’ Gaiman, A Beautiful Mind’s Goldsman and Being Human creator and Doctor Who writer Whithouse teamed up with The Deer Hunter producer Barry Spikings and Howards End producer David A. Stern on the project with Fremantle. The books follow the inhabitants of Castle Gormenghast, a sprawling, decaying, gothic-like structure with a raft of characters including Titus, the heir to the throne of the House of Groan, scheming kitchen boy Steerpike and twin sisters Cora and Clarice.
When did you first read Gormenghast?
Neil Gaiman: I fell love with Gormenghast at school, where they had the big hard back books with the Mervyn Peake illustrations. I would have been about 13 and I had heard about Mervyn Peake from Michael Moorcock so knew that he was somebody to go and investigate but I had no idea when I read it, what this was, which was part of what I loved about it. It wasn’t fantasy, but it pressed all of the buttons that fantasy and science fiction pushed, but there was no magic. The joy as a teenager was getting to go to Gormenghast and coming out changed in the same way that when I first read Tolkien and went to Middle Earth, came back changed.
Toby Whithouse: I came at it from a slightly different angle, when I was between 11 and 17, my plan was to be a book illustrator and went to art college and I discovered Peake initially through his illustrations and rather vainly and egotistical, I thought it was similar to my style that I was trying to develop and that was what lead me to the books, so it was a more circuitous route. When you discover the books and this world, it lingers. It’s impossible to shake it off. Suddenly the real world becomes reflected through this prism of this bizarre world. It’s one of those books that really casts a spell, it’s a particularly lurid dream.
Gormenghast is quite a sprawling world, what made you want to take on that challenge?
Gaiman: The joy of trying to describe Gormenghast to people is one where words will fail you and that’s why there have been people who wanted to film Gormenghast ever since Peake wrote the first book. The BBC once tried but they were all making it in times when depicting the impossible on the screen was too difficult. The great thing now is that we can make it and actually show it and take you there. We are now in a world where you can put the impossible on screen and with Gormenghast, you’re not just dealing with a castle the size of a city but dealing with these incredibly glorious and memorable people.
How did you first get involved in the project to adapt it?
Gaiman: For me, it began by being contacted by a wonderful producer called Barry Spikings and he asked me if I would be interested in Gormenghast and I told him how much I loved the books and we pitched it as a movie with Akiva attached. This was about two or three years ago and it actually got picked up by Warner Bros. Then magically it wasn’t because there were contract difficulties that couldn’t make the movie happen. But I had now come in to contact with the Peake family and got to go see them and speak to them about what we wanted to do. After the movie went away, a lot of people started coming to see the Peake family and asking if they could make a television series and the family wanted me to stay involved to help make it and keep it true to Peake’s vision. They picked Akiva, Barry, David Stern and I to make it as a TV series because they trusted our vision and at that point we needed a writer/showrunner, somebody who could carry this through [and that’s Toby].
Akiva Goldsman: Barry Spikings, among other dubious distinctions, is my late wife’s father and Barry and Neil had been scheming for a while already when together they thought that I was not entirely useless and was fun at dinner so invited me to join. I’ve known Neil for north of a decade, closer to two, so for me it was a delightful opportunity to work with people I care about. Gormenghast is in the same breath as Lord of the Rings. It was this extraordinary chance to be part of something I cared about. I am a fan of the books but a novice compared to Barry and especially Neil. We started crafting the idea for a feature and that was, although an enterprise that didn’t lead to a movie, was one of the better creative experiences of my life. It was a lot of Neil and I bouncing story back and forth and there’s nothing more fun than that and he’s a genius but also kind. We tried to do everything imaginable to make it work but it didn’t work and then lay shallow for a little bit and Neil then took it upon himself, in concert with the estate, to bring it back to TV. Then it became very precious, Fremantle jumped into the fray and it became real and then we found Toby, who could drive this and sail this ship with the same kind of story sense and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the source material and a deep understanding of the cultural roots and he’s a delight to talk story with.
Neil, as a big fan, why did you decide that you didn’t want to write this yourself?
Gaiman: I’ve spent the last four and a half years of my life producing Good Omens and it’s not over yet and I need to write novels again and I need to be a retired showrunner and I’m very much looking forward to that and have promised my wife. But I am now an experienced showrunner and can help. I’ve loved Toby’s work ever since the Being Human days, back in the day when you’d buy the DVDs.
Had you and Toby ever worked together before?
Gaiman: The nearest we’d ever come to working together was when we met at a reading of Doctor Who, Toby’s episode had been read that morning and mine in the afternoon. We definitely liked each other and we liked each other’s work. Because I was writing Doctor Who, I had the privilege of reading Toby’s script, which I felt on the whole was rather better than the episode, I got to read the raw script before people who weren’t Toby started messing with them.
Whithouse: We chatted briefly and emails were exchanged but I had an instinct that there would come a time we would hook up officially in some sense and talk properly.
Why do you think this will work as a television series rather than a movie?
Goldsman: Big-budget long form narrative didn’t really exist [a few years ago], we take it for granted but it’s come on really fast. It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened for storytellers. There are still things that are better movies than television with stories that must end, where the ending defines the object. A lot of sprawling narratives need to be longer than two hours. Taking a 500 page novel and turning it into two hours is an act of creativity by omission so this chance to do longer storytelling with the same kind of production value is definitely where you reflexively go. Two years ago it wasn’t.
Where are you at now with the adaptation?
Whithouse: It’s at an incredibly early stage. There have been several conversations and there are going to be dozens more but at the moment we’re sliding into a bath, tentatively submerging ourselves into the world and figuring out how we’re going to tackle it. It’s such a colossal undertaking and so exciting and thrilling and we’re perfecting our approach at the moment. There’s huge questions in terms of how this can be translated into several hours of television so it needs a lot of thought and a lot of planning and a lot of big ideas. We’re at that thrilling stage where anything is possible and we have a thousand questions to ask each other and to interrogate the books.
Are you going to take it book by book?
Whithouse: That’s certainly one of the options we’re playing with, that you’d tackle it in a book by book, season by season basis. I’ve been in that situation in the past with adaptations but the way that television just absolutely devours narrative means that it could be that we get [the first two] books into season one or much like American Gods, where season one ends halfway through the book. We’ve got no concrete plans at the moment, which is the joy of this part of the process. We can be led by what we think is best so if that means taking ten hours to cover the first three chapters of the book because we’re going off on wild, crazy tangents, then that’s what we’ll do. Everything is on the table at the moment.
In addition to Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, you’ve also optioned Boy In Darkness, which was a novella, as well as Titus Awakes, which was started by Peake but finished by his widow Maeve Gilmore much later on. How will they fit in?
Gaiman: It was always important to me that we had Boy In Darkness because I felt so much goes on in that story that’s world building and with Titus Awakes, I don’t know if we would ever tell that story, that’s Maeve Gilmore’s way of talking about Mervyn Peake and taking bits and then ideas he had, but all of that stuff informs the stories that we tell. What’s nice is that is a long way away.
Similarly, Titus Alone, which was the third book was a little different to the first two and is the first time that Titus journeys outside of the world of Gormenghast Castle.
Gaiman: [Titus Alone] is not as well written, Peake was dying when he wrote it and it was assembled and finished from his notes. But with that, there are some amazing ideas that feel more powerful and relevant now than they did when I first read it. It has definitely aged well and definitely feels much more strange and contemporary.
Whithouse: I’m re-reading Titus Alone at the moment and it really reminds me of Ray Bradbury. I keep thinking of Fahrenheit 451, just the notion of strange inventions and this familiar yet unfamiliar world. Neil and I have talked recently about how there’s a lot in there that we can mine. It’s a very peculiar book and there are some riches in there that we can utilize.
In addition to the main characters, there’s lot of characters in the outer reaches of this world that seem like they would be fun to explore.
Whithouse: We don’t know how many episodes it will be, but let’s say it’s ten, that’s a lot of time to fill so we are going to have to expand the ensemble and explore these strange districts and castles, the Bright Carvers and kitchen [folk] and all of the places that are explored glancingly in the books but I’m fairly certain our narrative will take us into those places. This is what is so wonderful about the world, the sheer size of it, from a dramatist’s point of view that is fantastic because there is so much stuff we can tap into. It’s quite endless. We’re not going to be short of narrative.
You’ve got quite a cadre of writers involved, how will you and Neil work with Toby in practice?
Goldsman: I believe that Toby is more than up for it but we’re all equally intimidated by the source material. It’s not like Toby is adapting a book Neil wrote or a movie I wrote into a television show, which would have been really tough for him having these people breathing over him telling him how they did it last time. Neil and I have been around TV enough to know what our role is; to guide and not to commandeer because for all of us who grew up in features and who might have kicked and screamed sometimes when we would run in to directors who might have, in the old days, only had a commensurate understanding of the material they were making, TV is in the hands of the writers and Toby is chief amongst us. He’s a real grown up, which this requires.
How are you splitting up the exec producer duties?
Goldsman: Barry [Spikings] is the originator of it and has the historical and moral high ground of the elder statesman, David [Stern] kept it on track at times when it seemed like it would absolutely not survive, Neil is without question keeper of the flame, if one of us would be the source material personified, it’s Neil and he has been most in touch with the Peake family. I am not bad with a story so Neil and I did a bit of lifting but from now on Toby is going to do all of the heavy lifting. I’ve had zero conversations with lawyers and attorneys but Barry and David have probably had a hundred. Also, everybody likes each other, which is rare, and I’m sure as it moves forward everyone’s roles will change again.
Have you pitched the project to broadcasters or streaming services yet?
Whithouse: No. That will be at some point in the future.
Neil, you recently struck an overall deal with Amazon Studios, but this comes under your previous deal with Fremantle, how will that work going forward?
Gaiman: It doesn’t come under my Amazon deal but obviously I’m very much hoping that Amazon might well be a home for it, but that’s very much down the line, and that’s just because I’ve liked working with Amazon so much on Good Omens. It’s part of my Fremantle deal and we can take it to wherever will be the best home for it.
Good Omens is launching on Amazon next year, where are you at with it now? I hear that you’ve still yet to announce who will be voicing Death alongside Frances McDormand’s God, is that right?
Gaiman: Post-production continues on Good Omens; it’s like rolling an enormous boulder up a hill. We meant to announce Death at New York Comic-Con and we forgot. Having forgotten, I then apologized to Amazon and now we’re enjoying the fact that there’s one secret left and maybe we’ll wait for day when there’s some really sad political news.