This week, a special Comic-Con editon of the Hero Nation column…
Watching the Game of Thrones contingent take their final (and somewhat complicated) bow this weekend at Comic-Con International I found myself wondering: Will we ever see the likes of the HBO hit series again? Fans will continue to debate the creative choices made in the finale season but the overall accomplishment of David Benioff & D.B. Weiss and their writing staff was truly staggering. They not only delivered the most stirring fantasy epic since Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings they did it on a weekly basis and with nuances that made the sword-and-sorcery show a must-see favorite even among non-fantasy fans.
That now-activated audience is more than ready to get back on the dragon for another ride, too, if a worthy television or film steps forward with a comparable epic. No surprise, there are a slew of would-be heirs to the crown lining up, not least among them the Westeros prequel HBO series that began filming last month in Northern Ireland. After leaving the Game of Thrones panel in Hall H, I started thinking about the other rival brands now jockeying for position and I compiled the list below judging their strengths and weaknesses. They range from medieval fantasy to futuristic sci-fi projects and they draw on varied source material (novels, comic books, video games, folklore). Their common link: They all just can’t wait to be king.
FANTASY SHELF CLASSICS
Chronicles of Narnia (Netflix) The beloved books of C.S. Lewis are a signature work on the classic fantasy bookshelf and have sold more than 100 million copies. Unlike the George R.R. Martin novels that gave birth to Game of Thrones, the Lewis books are family fare with a Christianity subtext that may appeal to Middle America. But Disney adapted the Narnia books as a high-profile feature film series (2005-2010) and only made it through three of the planned seven installments. Clearly, the White Witch is not as interesting as White Walkers.
Conan the Barbarian (Amazon) Robert E. Howard introduced the brawny warrior in 1932 in Weird Tales magazine so he doesn’t have quite the same bookshelf pedigree as Narnia or Tolkien’s Rings. But Conan is far, far closer to Game of Thrones in its gritty violence, coarse characters, and cynical tonalities. The character also enjoys a lot of name recognition (thanks to the long-running Marvel Comics series and the Arnold Schwarzenegger films of the 1980s) but hasn’t been mined in a big way since the 1980s. Yes, Jason Momoa did star in a 2011 version, but it was forgettable at best. Casting will be key and, while it might sound counter-intuitive, Amazon would be wise to cast Momoa again. He’s a far bigger star now and it’s hard to imagine a better way to draft off of the Game of Thrones success than casting Khal Drago as the glowering Cimmerian.
The Lord of the Rings (Amazon) Amazon paid a reported $250 million to return to Middle-earth and, given the commercial success of The Hobbit, the fan appetite for J.R.R. Tolkien’s world remains robust. But that hunger may be diminished when fans realize that the Amazon revisitation is set more than 3,000 years before the events depicted in The Fellowship of the Rings and won’t include many familiar characters. And after Jackson’s cinematic spectacles, won’t the small-screen take seem a bit flimsy? My skepticism is softened, though, by the Amazon-assembled writers room, which includes Breaking Bad alumna Gennifer Hutchison and Game of Thrones veteran Bryan Cogman. (The series just announced its first cast member.)
Cursed (Netflix) Arthurian legend will be reframed in this series (filming is underway) and the tie-in illustrated novel (Oct. 1 release) from Tom Wheeler (Puss in Boots) and comics legend Frank Miller (300, Sin City). Katherine Langford of 13 Reasons Why will star as Nimue, who is destined to become the Lady of the Lake but is shown here as a 16-year-old orphan on a mission to reunite a magic sword with a legendary wizard. The prequel has the flip-the-script energy of Maleficent or Wicked but with a body count. This is one to watch.
Book of Joan (Animal Pictures) Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2017 book reinvents and relocates the legend of Joan of Arc in this dystopian sci-fi novel set in a future where Earth is ravaged by war and divided by class. The story introduces a young warrior with mysterious powers within her and follows the rebellion she galvanizes before her martyrdom. The surreal horrors and gender politics of the book made it extremely divisive among sci-fi readers but there’s not much in the muddled story that demands to be on screen. Stone Village Productions had the property until recently, now it’s with Maya Rudolph & Natasha Lyonne nf their production company, Animal Pictures, which has a first-look pact with Amazon.
The Sandman (Netflix) One of the greatest comic book runs in the medium’s history is widely described as “un-filmable” and with good reason. Published by DC Comics’ esteemed Vertigo imprint and written by Neil Gaiman (Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens, American Gods) the series centers on Morpheus, the god of dreams, who returns to reclaim his realm after years of imprisonment. The surreal dreamscapes will be a nightmare to recreate on screen and the peripatetic narrative defies episodic television, as does the lack of any villain or traditional story arc. Netflix is dreaming big with this one. I will believe it when I see it.
The Untamed (HBO) Published by the tiny independent Stranger Comics, The Untamed is one entry in the sprawling Asunda epic, which remains well off the radar of even fervent comics fans. One reason HBO loves it: Add multi-cultural influences to Middle-earth and you get the world of Asunda, which feels as if it lies halfway between Westeros and ancient Wakanda. The premise: In Asunda, a world ruled by sorcery and swords, a young girl named Niobe has a powerful destiny. Her journey begins in Oasis when she encounters a stranger who has come to the town to kill six people in six days. This epic is the closest thing to the Game of Thrones on this list if judged by setting, tone, medieval trappings, and magical elements. If you’re looking for an underdog property that can go the distance, this is the one. (The series just added a noted executive producer.)
Watchmen (HBO)The source material is the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic book epic that is widely considered the masterwork of its medium. In an alternate version of earth, superheroes are outlawed and lead sordid lives — but also face dark conspiracies with epic stakes. HBO is all in on the grand-scale series from Damon Lindleoff (Lost, The Leftovers), which tells a new tale set in the Watchmen universe and features an intriguing cast (Regina King, Don Johnson, Jeremy Irons). Filming wrapped last month. The trailer looks amazing and this is the project on this list I am most eager to see. The project has skeptics, though, who say they won’t invest themselves in it due to historical baggage, namely Zack Snyder’s 2009 film (which boasted great visual effects and a stronger cast but still left fans cold) and the legacy of Lindleoff’s Lost (which failed to payoff in the end).The show may not look like a Game of Thrones successor at first glance but with its lurid world, subversive genre take, and vivid gallery of characters, it’s a kindred undertaking.
Halo (Showtime) I remember talking to Neill Blomkamp about his enthusiasm for bringing Halo to the big screen before the plug was pulled by Fox and Universal. That was more than a decade ago. The glacial pace of this project’s development and the setbacks along the way make me skeptical that it will reach the screen with anything close to its original energy intact. Otto Bathurst will direct this nine-episode adaptation of the mega-selling video game (77 million copies sold) and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) will portray Master Chief in this 26th Century epic. Showtime execs call this their “most ambitious series ever” but at this point just getting it on screen sounds pretty impressive.
The Witcher (Netflix)Yes, technically, the source material for this series is the work of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski but The Witcher is best known as the bestselling video game, which provides both the evocative imagery of the series and a sizable potential audience of curious viewers. Set in a realm called The Continent, the tale follows Witcher Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a tight-lipped monster killer who faces a wide array of otherworldly beasts in a medieval world beset by demons from another dimension. A little too close to Van Helsing? Maybe. Also, showrunner Lauren Hissrich (Daredevil) wasn’t sold on Cavill for the title role but came back to him after auditioning dozens of other options. Not exactly a rising endorsement for the former big-screen Man of Steel.
SCI-FI SHELF CLASSICS
Dune (Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros) The 1965 novel by Frank Herbert was a sprawling interstellar tale that centers on a planet called Arrakis, the only known source of The Spice, the most valuable commodity in the universe because it extends life and accelerates thinking. Due in theaters in November 2020. Director Denis Villeneuve delivered a worthwhile Blade Runner sequel, why can’t he unravel the cinematic solution to this challenging adaptation? His cast is stacked, too: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem. The source material is one of the densest works in sci-fi and David Lynch’s 1984 attempt to adapt Dune yielded a slow, esoteric epic that, ironically, lacks the spice necessary to make it accessible. I think this one, like Game of Thrones, will be the success story that cracks the code in epic way.
His Dark Materials (BBC, HBO) Author Philip Pullman’s YA fantasy trilogy follows the brash and brave Lyra Belacqua as the 12-year-old travels between parallel dimensions and delves into the mysteries of elementary particles called The Dust. I loved the ingenuity, concepts, and pure scale of Pullman’s novels, which sits on the shelf of modern classics in the eyes of fantasy fans. James McAvoy leads a solid cast and a second season has already been commissioned. And the story features armored polar bears that talk and guzzle beer. Who doesn’t want to see that? Despite its title, the 2007 film The Golden Compass lacked direction but, by the looks of it, this revamped attempt will weld the Subtle Knife with far greater success.
The Wheel of Time (Sony Pictures Television/Amazon) Production gets underway this fall on adaptation of Robert Jordan’s sprawling 14-novel series about a world where magic is a part of everyday life — but only for women. The series has sold 80 million copies worldwide (and even has its own dedicated fan convention in Atlanta since 2009) Rosamund Pike stars as Moiraine. Some challenges: Jordan’s death meant his epic was finished by others, the scope of the story is truly daunting, and legal entanglements have created years of setbacks. That said, the material is truly magical and this is one to watch.
The Kingkiller Chronicle (Showtime) Patrick Rothfuss’ fantasy series centers on Kvothe, an adventurer and musician, who recounts his exploits in a futuristic fantasy world. (The flashback structure of the books doesn’t lend itself to dynamic screen adaptation.) The first two books have sold more than 10 million copies but fans have been waiting since 2011 for the third book, which means George R. R. Martin’s protracted pace on the next Westeros book isn’t as slow as it seemed. If Rothfuss isn’t in a rush to get to the end of the story, perhaps audiences will feel the same way.
The Watch (BBC Studios/BBC America) Not a direct adaptation, The Watch is a new adventure that’s inspired by the eccentric fantasy world of Terry Pratchett’s expansive Discworld bookshelf (which has sold 90 million books to date). The Watch is billed as a “punk rock thriller” that follow the misfit lawmen of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch as they tangle with localized threats from the past and the future. The show will feature Captain Sam Vimes and other beloved characters from the late Pratchett’s daft but brilliant Discworld (which is a disc-shaped world balanced on the back of four elephants that stand on the shelled-back of a colossal turtle). Executive Producer Rob Wilkins said the show has taken years to materialize but with good reason: “It’s taken a long time for anything to happen because we guard these characters with our very lives!”
Children of Time (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate) The award-winning 2015 sci-fi novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky alternates between two worlds and juxtaposes the history of their changing inhabitants. One is a stranded group of humans who over the course of generations slide into barbaric conflict; the other is a matriarchal society of flying spiders who evolve with spindly grace. The novel’s messages about society, religion, evolution, gender roles, corruption, and survival make it compelling in unexpected ways. Colby Day (In the Blink Of An Eye) has also shown affinity for sci-fi complexities. The producers of The Hunger Games and The Twilight Saga optioned it with an educated eye and practical optimism, but is the history of flying spiders really a natural crowd-pleaser? To me, it sounds like the toughest sell since Ratatouille recruited rats into the culinary industry.