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Why TV studios should stop playing it safe when it comes to fantasy

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Enough of Martin and Tolkien — there are other great books to adapt

Graphic by James Bareham / The Verge

Earlier this week, Amazon Studios announced that it had secured the rights to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as a television show for multiple seasons. It’s a huge get for the studio, which was charged by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to find the “next Game of Thrones,” in its drive to entice a global audience to its Prime service.

While I’m personally intrigued by what a TV version of Lord of the Rings might look like, the announcement poses a very reasonable question: we already have Peter Jackson’s trilogy, so do we really need another take on Tolkien’s epic? I’m going to withhold judgment on the show until it actually materializes, but Tolkien’s Middle-earth is vast, with a rich history and backstory to plumb for season after season, and I suspect that there’s a good TV show in there somewhere. But going back to the well to revisit Tolkien feels like a missed opportunity, because there are a ton of other works that are equally deserving of the wider audience that television can bring.

HBO is developing an excessive five spinoffs to its wildly popular Game of Thrones series to replace it when it goes off the air next season and studios are actively turning to fantasy novels for source material. Fortunately for them, the fantasy genre is uniquely suited for this boom of good television, and there are many excellent fantasy novels in contention for the Next Big Thing.

Big worlds

If there’s one thing going for shows like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, it’s that they’re enormous sandboxes for epic stories. Their creators have imagined millennia of in-universe history; fantastic, immersive geography; and plenty of societal issues to create any number of stories to keep the characters busy.

That’s what makes Brian Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy (The Emperor’s Blades, The Providence of Fire, and The Last Mortal Bond) ideal material for an epic show. Set in a massive fantasy world, the series chronicles the troubles facing the Annurian Empire following the death of its Emperor, and the efforts of his three children, Kaden, Valyn, and Adare, to sort out the mess. Like Game of Thrones, Staveley’s world is rich in geography and history — he’s even writing his own standalone novels that expand the world — that gives the story a ton of places to go as it plays out.

Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series also provides its readers with the enormous, epic world of Dara. The series examines an enormous, epic conflict of revolution and rivalry between two soldiers looking to overthrow a decaying Empire in a story that spans decades across a fantastic archipelago.

Another compelling series is Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, set in a fantasy world where magic operates like a legal system in the aftermath of a massive war that pitted people against gods. Gladstone imagines magic in new ways, through topics like zoning reform and international banking, while its characters resurrect dead gods and flush demons out of a city’s water supply.

Epic quests

Having a huge, immersive world is one key thing, but you also need a compelling story to keep your characters engaged. V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy (made up of A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, and A Conjuring of Light) is set in not one but four parallel fantasy worlds, where the balance between each has begun to fails. Its lead character Kell is a rare Antari — someone born with the power to travel between worlds, who finds his loyalties tested as the tensions between worlds rises.

TNT announced earlier this year that it has optioned N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant Broken Earth trilogy, a story set on disaster-stricken Earth in the distant future where humans can tap into magical powers. The first novel introduces us to characters who seek to survive a coming apocalypse, survive their magical training, and find their lost daughter after an unimaginable tragedy. Jemisin weaves these stories together in an unexpected way to form a stunning narrative that gives the characters a compelling personal arc, but one that has vast consequences for this broken world.

Great characters

Shows like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings rely heavily on a cast of appealing characters to carry their stories, and there’s no shortage of those in the fantasy genre. I recently reviewed Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a fantasy mystery featuring the female creations of some of the genre’s classic monsters: Frankenstein’s wife Justine, Mary Jekyll, Catherine “Cat” Moreau, and Beatrice Rappaccini, who set about discovering who’s behind a series of gruesome murders in London. There have been other attempts to create this sort of mashup universe (Universal Pictures seems to be abandoning its attempt), but Goss’ book holds together on the strength of its characters, and an ongoing adaptation could easily tap into this strength with the right casting.

The gears are working to turn another major novel series into a film and accompanying TV show. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is developing an adaptation of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear, and The Doors of Stone — the latter of which hasn’t been released), which follows an adventurer named Kvothe. Over the course of the two published novels, he recounts his life story. That life story might hold clues for an encroaching darkness that threatens the world.

Established authors like George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien will always warrant more attention from studios because they’re highly recognizable to the general public, and thus are good candidates for adapting. (It’s easier to sell a familiar premise to an audience.) Spinoffs aren’t inherently bad for audiences, but as competition for the next big prestige show, it’s easy for a studio to go overboard by trying to keep a franchise on life support.

This is where scanning a bookshelf and looking at other big fantasy worlds comes in handy: the above list is just a small fraction of what’s out there. These books do more than just introduce us to new characters and worlds. They also bring badly needed new perspectives to the literary canon. Looking beyond just the worlds of the Tolkiens and Martins of the world brings these new and different voices to a broader audience, and has the added side effect of ensuring that the public’s perception of fantasy goes beyond what we already have.