Coming off the news that HBO has officially greenlit the series based on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novel A Game of Thrones, EW.com just received word that the Ian McShane-starring miniseries adaptation of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth (produced by Tony and Ridley Scott) has been picked up by Starz.
I smell a trend! Can the sexy-violence Showtime production of Le Morte d’Arthur, the psycho-minimalist AMC adaptation of The Tale of Genji, and the terrible Syfy version of The Wheel of Time be far behind? (Answer: yes, yes, and hopefully yes.)
Let’s really appreciate the gravity of the situation, here. If you’re a TV executive, it makes no sense at all to greenlight an ancient-epic TV series. You’ll never make back the astronomical production cost, even with all the tax breaks you get for filming in some remote corner of Eastern Europe. If you sacrifice historical accuracy in favor of movie-style drama, you’ll wind up with a terrible series like Empire that nobody wants to watch. If you flip the equation, sacrificing easy melodrama in favor of historical accuracy, you’ll wind up with an awesome series like Rome…that nobody wants to watch.
The only reason to bankroll a TV ancient-epic –- a genre inextricably linked to the cinema, from Intolerance to Ben-Hur to The Lord of the Rings –- is pride. Specifically, the pride that comes from beating movie people at their own game and from demonstrating how ancient epics can be about more than big battle scenes and British accents. (The next time you watch Gladiator, ask yourself: Is it really possible that everyone in the Roman Empire just stopped what they were doing to go watch the gladiators for a couple months?)
Starz is clearly looking to build on the buzz of Spartacus: Blood and Sand with its acquisition of Pillars. I haven’t read the book, and I’m skeptical of any miniseries that’s not about Steven Spielberg’s version of World War II, but as everyone knows, Ian McShane can make the phone book sound awesomely apocalyptic. Meanwhile, I am a complete George R. R. Martin freak-fan, and as if the cast weren’t perfect enough (Sean Bean! Peter Dinklage!), the behind-the-scenes talent includes the brilliant director Tom McCarthy and David Benioff, who wrote two of the best novels of the 2000s: The 25th Hour and City of Thieves. (Of course, he also wrote Troy, which is an often overlooked contender for the prize of “Most Resoundingly Mediocre Film Ever.”)
Ever since Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings tore up the screen, it seems like every summer has brought a new budget-breaking epic that hits theaters. And personally, I’m starting to feel like I prefer the particular pleasures of Ancient-Epic TV to the loud assault of Ancient-Epic cinema. On TV, you get fascinatingly devious backroom plotting instead of lame speechifying. You get great moments in historically accurate absurdity, like when the newsreader on Rome hawked products in between his announcements. And, of course, you also get all the violence and nudity that’s fit for premium cable.
What do you think of all the Epic news, PopWatchers? Do you think that books like Pillars of the Earth belong on the big screen with a $200 million budget? Or do you prefer shows like Rome or The Tudors, which give you time to really explore the ancient world? And most importantly of all: Will you watch these TV shows?