The world of film optioning is exciting and depressing at the same time. On one hand, when filmmakers grab the adaptation rights to books and comics, it's great news for the authors, who get more money and a potentially higher profile. It's great news for readers, who get to imagine what a film version of a favorite book might look like onscreen. And whenever producers take risks on a unique new story source, that ups viewers' chances of getting something onscreen they haven't seen before in a thousand forms.
But just because a book gets optioned doesn't mean a film will ever see the light of day. Trade publications tend to cover rights news as though the film version is just a month or two away: "Paramount is making a movie out of X!" headlines usually just mean one producer has put down some money to temporarily reserve those rights. Most film options are never exercised, and even if they are, filmmaking is such a protracted, expensive, uncertain process that plenty of planned movies never see the light of day. Just look at this Den Of Geek rundown of Stephen King adaptations in production as of late 2015: five of the titles on that list were reportedly trying for a 2015 release, and none of them made it.
With any luck, we'll see these stories on the screen soon
All of which means it's too soon to get wildly optimistic about any of the optioned properties on this list. In the current franchise-driven environment, it's risky to launch fresh new content that steps away from familiar characters, even those with built-in fanbases. But with all that acknowledged, 2015 was a terrific year for creative, unusual storytelling getting serious consideration from producers and studios with cash in hand. Here are some of the most exciting titles to get optioned in the last year — with any luck, we'll see some of them on the big screen soon.
Kazu Kibuishi's ongoing graphic novel series about magical devices, found families, and complicated loyalties is beautifully colored and drawn. But it's more compelling for the iconic but rich cast of mostly non-human characters.
Why it's exciting: Kibuishi's series has a sense of visual depth that seems inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, but with bolder colors and softer lines. He's created a gigantic world full of tense adventure that's accessible to younger readers, but dark and complicated enough to hook their parents. It's a powerfully emotional series, but it also feels personal and small-scale because the characters are so well developed.
How it might work: According to Deadline, the rights went to Temple Hill Entertainment, the production company behind film adaptations like The Fault In Our Stars, Paper Towns, and the Maze Runner and Twilight movies. Amulet is episodic and sprawling enough to suggest years' worth of a TV series, but Temple Hill and 20th Century Fox are looking at it as a possible film franchise. It'd work best in animation — all those junky robots, anthropomorphic animals, and mystical airborne and underground worlds will need a lot of CGI anyway. Mostly, it'd be terrific to see Amulet films that preserve some of Kibuishi's idiosyncratic art, with some of Miyazaki's sense of wonder and adventure.
Neal Shusterman's National Book Award winner follows two parallel plotlines: the day-to-day life of a mentally ill teenager, and the hallucinations that provide a metaphor for his illness.
Why it's exciting: As lyrical as Shusterman's book is on the page, its vivid images of deep-sea exploration seem designed for the screen, and its transitions back and forth between reality and fantasy seem tailor-made for cinematic editing. With the right director — someone like Danny Boyle, using the kind of dreamy, evocative fantasy imagery that made Trainspotting so striking — this could have the emotional power of films like The Fault In Our Stars, and the visual power of films like Life Of Pi.
How it might work: Chernin Entertainment bought the rights, and the story doesn't much fit the company's usual comedy / thriller mode, with films including The Heat, Spy, and the Planet Of The Apes revival. But Schusterman himself is scripting and co-producing, so expect a fairly faithful translation. It's a personal story, based on his experiences with his son's mental illness, so he's unlikely to radically rewrite it to fit a more conventional, generic, easily packagable vision.
Descender and Essex County
Why it's exciting: Descender is a giant-sized story that combines a little A.I. (innocent child robot in a hostile future environment) and a little Saga (war-torn, complicated galaxy full of colorful characters) into a big, screen-friendly universe. Essex County is a deep dive into the life of a rural Canadian community. Both are focused on character development and a queasy sense of melancholy, Lemire's personal specialty.
How it might work: The Descender rights went to Sony, which suggests a big-budget studio film or franchise; with The Force Awakens dominating the box office, this is an excellent time for other studios to be developing fast-paced adventures set in their own similarly large, complicated science-fiction worlds. Essex County, on the other hand, is harder to picture onscreen. Lemire told three separate stories in different graphic novels that have been collected into one giant omnibus, and they're much smaller and more personal than Descender, more the province of Jeff Nichols than George Lucas. Toronto's First Generation Films picked up the rights and is developing the story with Canada's CBC network, which suggests an unfolding TV miniseries about the series' extended family, possibly something dark and expansive like Netflix's Bloodline.
Ursula Vernon's beautifully strange novel about a 12-year-old girl trying to take over a run-down castle full of fantasy creatures is exactly the shot in the arm Disney needs.
Why it's exciting: Vernon's quirky, slyly off-color children's fantasy novels come from a place of deep kindness and good humor. But they're also incontrovertibly, enjoyably weird. With Disney currently doubling down on remaking all its animated classics in live-action form, there's a sense that the studio is eating its own tail, with increasingly limited and unsatisfying returns. The studio could use something this colorful and strange, with a strong personal touch and a dark sense of humor.
How it might work: No word yet on whether Disney is eyeing Castle Hangnail for animation or live-action, though the involvement of producers Ellen DeGeneres and Disney's live-action executive vice president Sam Dickerman strongly suggest the latter. Which is no problem: Castle Hangnail's stranger characters, like the minotaur cook who hates the letter Q and the good-humored bat queen, would probably be better handled in CGI, but the 12-year-old protagonist is the kind of plucky, good-hearted Disney heroine who'll work just as well in either medium.
The Wicked & The Divine
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's ongoing comics series about gods reincarnated as short-lived pop stars taps into modern ideas about celebrity and fandom, but also offers the potential for some tremendous visuals.
Why it's exciting: Gillen's premise in the book is fairly irresistible: Every 90 years, a group of recurring immortals are reincarnated into human bodies and become inspirations to their generation. In the modern era, that means becoming pop divas and superstars, with all the cultish adoration, critical analysis, and social media backlash that implies. The script suggests something as visually lively and dynamic as Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, but with a less manic and silly tone; there are some serious and thought-through issues here about how modern fandoms develop, and how some people would give up anything for fame.
How it might work: With the series still in progress, it's hard to see what a series might ultimately look like, but the pickup by Universal Television — home of Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, and Grimm — isn't entirely promising. The company's previous genre outings suggest a potentially dour version of The Wicked & The Divine instead of the lighter, wryer version on the page.
Scott McCloud's magnum opus about a dying artist with the power to manipulate any substance has its flaws, but plenty of visual and narrative ambition.
Why it's exciting: The writer-artist of Understanding Comics put five years into developing and drawing this intense story about David, a young wannabe sculptor who makes a deal with Death, exchanging his future for the ability to quickly, directly create anything he can envision. It's openly a young man's story about passion and ambition at the expense of the long term, and about the impatience for fame and impact in the short term. Which makes it a propulsive, captivating experience, as David struggles for relevance and independence, as his remaining time rapidly runs out. In a way, it's a story about a superpower, which makes it screen-friendly, visually engaging, and comfortably within the current cultural zeitgeist. But it uses its superpower story to get at deeper ideas about creation, creativity, and art.
How it might work: The rights went to Sony, which has the budget to handle the necessary effects for David's powers, but the question is what film producer Scott Rudin sees in the material, and what he want to preserve. He's been involved with a lot of idiosyncratic, attention-grabbing films (most recently, Steve Jobs, Ex Machina, Moonrise Kingdom, and Captain Phillips), so he certainly isn't about hammering the personal touch out of projects. Hopefully he and any eventual filmmaking team will hammer out some of the problems with the ending of this otherwise tremendous book.
Beneath The Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, And The Truth Beyond Blackfish
John Hargrove's SeaWorld tell-all serves as a more personal companion volume to the documentary exposé Blackfish, about the damaging effects of captivity on killer whales, and the human deaths that have resulted.
Why it's exciting: Hargrove's New York Times bestseller follows up on the questions he raised when he appeared in 2013's Blackfish, but adds a much more personal angle. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary film comes from a journalistic and scientific angle, but Hargrove's book is a passionate and specific call to action, based on first-person observation over years as an orca trainer.
How it might work: This is a hedgy one: Crash Films, which bought the rights, only has a handful of shorts under its belt, and is apparently just working with Hargrove on a screenplay to sell to investors. It's unclear what they want to do with the book — make another documentary centered on Hargrove's advocacy? Turn him into a fictional character in a Free Willy-style nature story? — so any eventual film could take a number of forms. But given Hargrove's experience, something close to the truth is likely to have more power than a heavily fictionalized story.
The Girl in the Spider's Web
The fourth book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium series — written posthumously by David Lagercrantz, whose hiring to continue the series has been controversial and ugly — was apparently part of Sony's blanket rights purchase of Larsson's work. But the book's 2015 publication opens up new possible directions for the studio that produced the American version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Why it's exciting: While Larsson's books have been worldwide bestsellers, and the Swedish film adaptations (starring Noomi Rapace as super-hacker Lisbeth Salander) have done well, the second and third books in the series were never particularly suited for the screen, given their lack of direct action and the way they largely seem to exist to set up future developments in the books. Say what you will about Lagercrantz taking over, but his book is denser, more thoughtful, and more action-packed, with a distinct attempt to give audiences what they want: more of the first book's unraveling mysteries, and more of Salander making significant choices instead of sitting passively in a courtroom or a hospital bed.
How it might work: Sony sources say the major players from its Dragon Tattoo — director David Fincher, Oscar-nominated star Rooney Mara, and co-star Daniel Craig — won't be back, and the studio is using this as a chance to reboot the series. Seems appropriate, since the novels have been rebooted as well, following Larsson's death. So the (almost certainly inevitable) film version may not have Fincher's distinctive chilly design and harsh tone, but they're likely to focus similarly on action and on Salander's uniquely distanced but distinctly super-heroic take on protecting victimized women from violent men.
Noelle Stevenson's webcomic-turned-graphic-novel about a self-proclaimed villain and his shape-changing sidekick starts out as a lively fantasy / steampunk satire, then morphs into something much darker and more powerful.
Why it's exciting: Stevenson has been one of the breakout comics heroes of the past few years, with her work on the Eisner-glomming Lumberjanes, Disney's TV series Wander Over Yonder, and Marvel's Runaways and Thor. But she started by building a fervent fandom with Nimona, a completed series that started as an art school project and developed into a heady, hefty story about grudges, emotional and physical violence, and the limits of control. There are plenty of easy action thrills in Nimona, given the title character's frequent transformations and the way she uses them to kickstart surprising amounts of chaos and death. But what's ultimately memorable about the story is the way Stevenson plays with familiar fantasy tropes and takes the story through surprising turns.
How it might work: It's honestly hard to imagine Nimona in live action, given the playfulness of Stephenson's art, and how much it contributes to the characters, especially the chunky, punky title character and her "boss," the lean, one-armed Ballister Blackheart. Fortunately, it was picked up by Vertigo Entertainment, which worked with DreamWorks on How To Train Your Dragon and Warner on The Lego Movie, and is producing the Lego sequels. And it's reportedly being worked on at Fox Animation, under the director of the Oscar-winning doggy animated short "Feast." So there's some hope for an animated version that would capture the feel of Stevenson's work as well as the content.
The Golem And The Jinni
Helene Wecker's tremendous debut novel is partly a grounded, turn-of-the-century immigrant story about two foreigners finding their way in New York City in 1899. And it's partly a lyrical fantasy about supernatural creatures with very different backgrounds.
Why it's exciting: Wecker's novel is the rare fantasy story that doesn't have a lot of interest in big physical confrontations and magical throwdowns. It uses its protagonists' natures to explore humanity: One is a golem, created to serve people, but left without a master and a purpose. The other is a jinni, or genie, an immortal forced into human service. They come from different cultures and different folk mythology, and enter different cultural enclaves in the city, slowly exploring how America works and how its people are adapting to a changing age. It isn't explosive, but it's smart, creative, and insightful.
How it might work: For some reason, this particular option didn't make the trades; Wecker slipped the news into a Reddit AMA in 2015, and all she said is that NBC Universal picked it up for possible series development. So it has the same potential grit-and-grimness problem as The Wicked & The Divine above, except that The Golem And The Jinni, as a much more grounded and somber work with an overriding sense of melancholy and thoughtfulness, would lend itself much more to the studio's serious take on content. The book's greatest assets are its well-considered conversations, which would really need a slow-paced series to properly unravel. But done right, this could be a beautiful drama, like no other fantasy on television.
It's no wonder Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky have gotten so much attention for their strange, funny, sad series Sex Criminals: it's literally about people who can briefly stop time with an orgasm, and who start using that power to rob banks.
Why it's exciting: Because sex. And sexual superpowers. And because Fraction takes this premise in unpredictable directions, more involving relationships and ramifications than in sexy supervillainy.
How it might work: This is one more for Universal TV, which apparently had its hands (and its checkbook) everywhere in genre books in 2015. But it's unique in that it's part of a deal husband-and-wife team Fraction and writer Kelly Sue DeConnick signed with Universal to develop a number of comics projects. (It's unclear whether DeConnick's comic Bitch Planet is also on the table for adaptation, though it'd make a pretty stellar miniseries as well.) At any rate, Sex Criminals on the screen seems likely to heighten the series' sex, crimes, and sex crimes, while downplaying some of its angst, anomie, and frustration. But either way, it'd make a terrifically blunt, graphic Jessica Jones-like series about conflicting agendas and radical wish fulfillment.
Jeff Smith's follow-up to Bone gets cosmic by the end, but it starts off with a hard-boiled story about an art thief who steals famous works from other dimensions, and the romantic and scientific past that comes back to haunt him.
Why it's exciting: To be fair, it's not 100 percent clear that the rights deal went through; Deadline said back in June that Parkes+MacDonald was "closing the deal" on the series, and subsequent articles in other publications that present it as a done deal either link back to Deadline, or neglect to provide a source. Assuming that Smith did sign, though, RASL would make for a tremendous potential series with some of Fringe's weirdness and some of the MCU's lone-wolf superhero adventures, all with a touch of big Darren Aronofsky-friendly ineffability.
How it might work: Strangely enough, an accurate live-action screen adaptation of RASL might be what fans of the first season of True Detective thought they were getting, before the final episode of the show dropped all the mythology in favor of something smaller and pettier. There's nothing petty about RASL, which starts off with comparatively small crimes and gradually expands to a strange story about the nature of energy and the universe. But along the way, it spends a lot of time in the bleached deserts of the American Southwest, looking like a noir murder mystery or a pulp crime novel. The comic was optioned for feature film adaptation years ago, but the TV version would leave a lot more time for the kind of grounded scene-setting and gradual unfolding the complete story needs.