Three fantasy novels that would make better TV than Lord of the Rings
With Amazon going back to the Tolkien well, here are some other stories that could light up the small screen
I will always love The Lord of the Rings. Way back in elementary school, it was the first real “big boy” book I read — clocking in at 500-some pages, The Fellowship of the Ring felt like a real accomplishment to my fifth-grade self. Since then, my love for J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories has not faded. I recently fell in love with The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s heady prequel to his more famous stories, and my family now celebrates Christmas with an annual holiday viewing of the extended edition of one of Peter Jackson’s films (usually The Two Towers, since it’s the best one). In other words, if there is a target demographic for Amazon’s planned Lord of the Rings TV series, it’s me.
And I am excited! Although Tolkien’s best stories have already been told on the big screen, there’s enough depth to Middle-earth (and plenty of creative people still energized by that world) that Amazon should be able to spin some worthwhile stories out of it. Hopefully, this new series will take the opportunity to diversify the mostly white and male roster of Middle-earth heroes. On top of that, spending some narrative time with the Orcs, and perhaps finding an actual culture and worldview animating the foot soldiers of Sauron’s army, could also result in some worthwhile storytelling.
But if studio executives really wanted their own Game of Thrones, as Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos has apparently been asking for, they’d do well to ditch Tolkien altogether. The Lord of the Rings is the most famous modern work of fantasy literature, but it’s far from the only one. There are plenty of dark, literate, sexy, diverse, and thought-provoking fantasy novels out there. Adapting any one of them would likely be more interesting than just going back to the same old Middle-earth well.
In case there are any studio executives out there who need to be pointed in the right direction, I rounded up a small sample of personal fantasy favorites that could make for great TV — better, even, than Tolkien.
‘The Inheritance Trilogy,’ by N.K. Jemisin
The resemblance between Jemisin’s first fantasy trilogy and Game of Thrones is so strong, I even included the first installment (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) on my list of books to read during the HBO show’s current hiatus. Like George R.R. Martin’s novels, Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy is populated by fleshed-out characters with complex motives, competing for power and political advantage in a magic-suffused world of gods and godlings. But where Game of Thrones‘ politics are mostly just a revolving door of schemers competing to out-backstab one another, Jemisin’s story interrogates the very structures of its world, with thought-provoking implications for our own. That means things never get same-y, and could sustain multiple seasons of storytelling that feel different from each other even as they continue to build a single world. For instance, after painting a picture of institutional injustice in the magical city of Sky, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms ends with a great socio-political upheaval. The second book in the trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms, then catches up with totally new characters to see how their lives are going in this changed world, while the final installment, The Kingdom of Gods, leads toward a final reckoning. The series is both diverse (the female protagonists are not white; their oppressors are) and sexy (Jemisin’s descriptions of divine intercourse between a human woman and the night god Nahadoth are jaw-dropping). If faithfully adapted, Jemisin’s series could be an absolute juggernaut.
‘The Book of the New Sun,’ by Gene Wolfe
Amazon’s LOTR announcement said that its agreement with the Tolkien estate was for a “multi-season” series, with the potential for even more spinoffs. That’s a tall order to make of the stories that take place in between Middle-earth’s biggest adventures. Such an expansive scope would work much better for The Book of the New Sun, sci-fi author Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, which follows protagonist Severian from his beginnings as a lowly torturer to his assumption of the highest throne in the universe. The four-book cycle — Shadow of the Torturer, Claw of the Conciliator, Sword of the Lictor, and Citadel of the Autarch — is technically set in the far future, but with a technology level reduced to the medieval era, it feels more like fantasy. So there are dying suns, exotic planets, and other genre delights, but also a thoughtful exploration of bigger themes like torture and mercy. This would probably be the toughest story to adapt of this whole list, but the potential rewards are much higher than just making someone’s third-favorite Tolkien adaptation.
‘Earthsea,’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
Okay, yes, this one has been adapted before. But SyFy’s Earthsea miniseries was so catastrophically awful, Le Guin herself wrote a scathing article disowning it. Alas, the adapters tried to hard to fit Le Guin’s Earthsea stories into a Tolkien-shaped box and ended up excising most of what made it unique in the process (a similar problem afflicted New Line’s 2007 adaptation of The Golden Compass). A more faithful take on the Earthsea mythos could take an anthology approach, since there’s plenty of story to work with. Le Guin has written six books under the Earthsea banner, and many of them have a lot to say in our current cultural moment. The Farthest Shore, for instance, follows a young ruler-in-training teaming up with Ged (now an aging archmage) to find out what’s making the world sick, and the scenes of people feeling powerless, alienated, and beaten-down certainly feel resonant. It’s actually a similar plot to Moana, and any new Earthsea adaptation should take some pointers from the recent Disney film. Contrary to SyFy’s whitewashed version, Le Guin’s Earthsea is diverse; Ged himself has “red-brown” islander skin, and his closest friends are black. That diversity isn’t just skin-deep, either. The Tombs of Atuan, perhaps the best of the Earthsea books, is an in-depth exploration of how much darker (and more painful) a young woman’s journey through the world is than a young man’s — and how, when men and women combine their strength, they are capable of overthrowing even the most insidious and ancient systems of oppression. An Earthsea series that cast Ged adrift in his world, sailing from island to island of new characters to meet and learn about and help with their problems, is precisely the kind of fantasy adaptation we could use these days.
The Lord of the Rings