EXCLUSIVE: Jim Henson’s iconic 80s anthology series The Storyteller is eyeing a comeback. Fremantle has teamed with The Jim Henson Company and author/TV writer-producer Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Good Omens) to develop a reimagined version of The Storyteller for television.
Inspired by his daughter Lisa’s university studies in folklore and mythology, Jim Henson created the original version of The Storyteller in 1987 and directed multiple episodes, with Oscar winner Anthony Minghella writing all the episodes. The Emmy and BAFTA-winning live-action TV series featured creatures by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in a re-telling of various European folk tales, with a mysterious elfin storyteller (played by John Hurt). The world of The Storyteller was inhabited by various mystical and magical characters – heartless giants, enchanted beggars, white lions and human hedgehogs – exploring themes such as fear, desire, death and destiny, and challenging notions about good and evil.
In the new incarnation, written and executive produced by Gaiman, The Storyteller will create a mystical world combining various fairy tales and folklore. It will be updated to work “for the binging kind” of viewer of today, Gaiman said.
“Part of what fascinates me about The Storyteller is the stuff that we don’t know.,” he said. “Who was the Storyteller, why was he telling these stories, was he a goblin, what kind of creature? What I’d love to do is an inside story that’s as long as the outside story. We’re going to find out a lot about who the storyteller is, we’re going to find out things we don’t even know that we don’t know. We’re going to begin in a Northern kingdom where stories are forbidden and where the act of telling a story is liable and can get you imprisoned or executed. If you put a storyteller into that situation, things would need to start getting interactive.”
Gaiman is well-known for his work in popularizing and reinterpreting folklore and mythology, from the mythological basis of his best-selling novel American Gods to the African folklore of Anansi Boys to authentic collections like his recent Norse Mythology book.
“The Storyteller has always been a special project for me, having worked so closely with my dad on the original concept,” said Lisa Henson, CEO of The Jim Henson Company (pictured with her dad, Jim Henson, at her graduation from Harvard University, which she finished as summa cum laude with a degree in ancient Greek and folklore mythology). “Neil Gaiman is an expert in traditional folklore and mythology, in addition to himself being the modern ‘storyteller’ for our times. I feel like if Neil were an actor, he’d have to play (the Storyteller) because he embodies what the storyteller is, a skillful wordsmith who can entertain people with the power of the story itself, and not to mention he also memorizes it all in his head.”
Lisa Henson has known about Gaiman’s love of The Storyteller since their first meeting in 1991 when she worked at Warner Bros. Over the years, the two bonded over their deep knowledge of folklore mythology.
“The original Storyteller was a brilliantly written, directed and told set of stories. It’s a terrifying and inspiring task to reinvent what Jim Henson did for the golden age of television we are in right now, and I’m honored that The Jim Henson Company would entrust me with the task of bringing back the storyteller and his magical stories, and sending him out into the world for a whole new round of tales,” Gaiman said.
Gaiman and Henson would not say which fairytales they are planning to tackle. “We have our eye on lots of them and one of the things that was brilliant (about The Storyteller) was, they would take little known versions of well-known fairytales because every story comes in various different versions, and I think that’s definitely something that I would love to keep going,” Gaiman said.
Added Henson, “it gives the story the feeling of familiarity, but it’s also very different.”
While Minghella and Hurt have passed away, Gaiman and Henson would love to have some creative auspices from the original series back for the revival.
“We would love to have John Hurt as our Storyteller, but alas, he’s no longer with us. But absolutely the actors from the original Storyteller series, bringing them back would be a marvelous thing to do, and we really did have the cream of the crop,” Gaiman said.
Henson indicated that the producers will be using the same out-of-the-box approach to hiring directors that was used on the original series. She noted the stint on the 80s show of Steve Barron whose background had been primarily in music videos. “He was shooting in a very non-linear way like music videos with impactful imagery as opposed to conventional shooting,” she said. “I think that we’re looking to do the same thing here, work with the directors who can do the most innovative work with puppetry technologies to marry it up in that truly innovative modern way with word crafting.”
Fremantle’s collaboration with Gaiman on The Storyteller grew out of the company’s relationship with the writer-producer who is behind Fremantle’s American Gods, now in post-production on Season 2 for Starz, and had a development deal there.
“There is currently nothing like The Storyteller in the television landscape and the themes these stories will explore are even more critically important today,” said Dante Di Loreto, President of Scripted Entertainment, Fremantle, North America. “It’s a real joy to work with Lisa and The Henson company to bring their esteemed property back to television, and to be yet again partnering with Neil on another project that will further showcase his brilliant narrative power.”
As to what kind of networks and platforms Fremantle plans to target, “what we’re interested in doing is making sure it reaches the broadest audience possible, that’s really the key for us,” Di Loreto said.
While The Storyteller is a 30-year-old series, the current younger generation may be familiar with the franchise via The Storyteller graphic novels The Jim Henson Company has been publishing in partnership with Boom Studios over the past couple of years.
The Storyteller will be produced by Fremantle, part of RTL Group, in association with The Jim Henson Company, with Lisa Henson serving as executive producer and Blanca Lista as co-executive producer. Gaiman will also serve as executive producer. He also executive produces Fremantle’s Gormenghast, an episodic series in the works based on the fantasy book series by Mervyn Peake.