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Adapt This: Joe Dever's 'Lone Wolf' series

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Lone Wolf

There’s nothing new under the sun — but somehow, these awesome properties have never been adapted for screens big or small. Psst, Hollywood: Let’s change that.

The fantasy genre has probably never been more popular. The first Hobbit movie made a billion dollars. Game of Thrones is an annual 10-Sunday event. Once Upon a Time has a spinoff, so does The Vampire Diaries. A few different generations of children can proudly state that their youth belonged to Harry Potter and that their teen youth belonged to Twilight. Not all of those things are good. Some of them are terrible. But it speaks to a new widespread acceptance of far-flung fantasy tropes: The immortal lovers, the magic spells, the knights in shining armor, the dwarves fighting dragons.

But, respectfully, popular fantasy is also populist fantasy. It’s Diet Fantasy, mass-market fantasy: The hard-edges of nerd tropes sanded down for multi-demographic appeal. Nothing wrong with that. But let’s say you’re in the mood for something pure, something unapologetic: You’ve got a hankering for Meth Fantasy. You want mystical creatures and magical warfare and far-flung dark dimensions. You want maps filled with global climate zones, allowing for trips to snowy wastelands and tropical jungles and deserts and mountains. You want adventures with titles like The Plague Lords of Ruel, The Jungle of Horrors, and The Captives of Kaag.

What you want, my friend, is Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf, one of the great hidden gems of geekdom. The Lone Wolf book series sold around 9 million copies worldwide and created one of the most elaborate fantasy worlds in literature. If you’re wondering why you never heard of it, it’s probably because the Lone Wolf books were not — properly speaking — literature. Or rather, they weren’t just literature. Properly speaking, the Lone Wolf saga was as series of gamebooks: The genre of play-along literature that for all intents and purposes stopped existing somewhere between the Super Nintendo and the Playstation.

If you’re a typical person, the phrase “gamebook” conjures up memories of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. But Lone Wolf was far more ambitious. Over the course of 20 books, released at a breakneck pace between 1984 and 1993, Dever told one ongoing story of his titular character’s rise. In Book One, Flight from the Dark, he’s a callow young student in a warrior-monk monastery who becomes the last of his kind and is left alone to fight against the dark forces. Over the course of the series, he repels ever greater foes, slowly developing into a Kai master. The series takes Lone Wolf to every corner of his fantasy world, and then goes beyond those corners into higher planes. If “Choose Your Own Adventure” was Law & Order — smart, reliable, easy to devour in one-off chunks — then Lone Wolf was The Wire.

That being said, it’s easy to understand why Lone Wolf never broke through to the mainstream the way like many other bits of geek arcana. Gamebooks always had a niche, hyper-engaged audience… and the genre mostly died off in the face of new forms of interactive entertainment. Like all true Meth Fantasy, Lone Wolf is a ridiculously expensive proposition. It’s also hard to know how to tell the story: Part of what makes Lone Wolf great is the feeling of a whole series of adventures (so a movie, or even a trilogy, seems too reductive), but those adventures can be episodic and lack the direct-serialized quality of, say, Game of Thrones. And the main problem may be Lone Wolf himself. Like most Gamebooks, the Lone Wolf saga was written in the second person: You were Lone Wolf. This means that — on the page at least — there isn’t much to Lone Wolf beyond his broad strokes. He’s an archetype — and, for that matter, he’s an archetype of heroism that seems old-fashioned in our era of psychotherapized superheroes.

But the world of Lone Wolf is incredible. Nerdy confession: I collected all 20 books of the main Lone Wolf saga, and I never actually “played” them. I just loved reading them: Loved the old-fashioned high adventure, loved the crazy imagination on every page. And because the world is so vivid, I think an adaptation would have a few different options. You could transform Lone Wolf into a buddy-fantasy story; throughout the books, the hero often works with the young magician Banedon, who is on a similar neophyte-to-master journey.

You could transform Lone Wolf into a fantasy-genre Sherlock: Two opposing archetypes (dashing-but-callow young hero works with wise-but-fretful magician) on an adventure. The Sherlock model of a “season” of three mini-movies actually makes sense for Lone Wolf, too: Each book-length adventure is just about right for 90 minutes. Each one could be titled after one of the Lone Wolf books. (The Caverns of Kalte! Castle Death! Dawn of the Dragons!)

But this is my fantasy, so let’s get really ambitious. What if Cartoon Network wanted to build off of the success of its series Adventure Time and create a similar show with a radically different tone; a fantasy series which also featured a massive smorgasboard of creatures and locations, but which told a more straightforward and serious narrative? Lone Wolf himself could be a protagonist like Samurai Jack: Rarely ever speaking, existing more as an icon moving through a mysterious and wondrous world. Going the animation route means that Lone Wolf wouldn’t need to scrimp on the books’ massive worldscape.

The Lone Wolf franchise is still alive and kicking in the back alleys of the nerd kingdom. When the books went out of print in the late ’90s, and Dever kindly allowed the website Project Aon to put them all online; seriously, go check them out and lose a day. Reprintings of the books are coming out now. Dever himself is working on a videogame. It might be that Lone Wolf is just a bit too out-there to ever make it as a movie or a TV show — that, like Sword of Shannara or The Wheel of Time, it’ll always live best on bookshelves and in the memories of devoted fans. But there’s a whole world of wild, raucous adventure just waiting to be explored. The Chasm of Doom! The Legacy of Vashna! The Dungeons of Torgar! Hollywood needs Lone Wolf. Our nation’s children need Lone Wolf. We need Lone Wolf.