Had we but world enough, and time.
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
Even though I was never an avid follower of Game of Thrones I still couldn’t help but be aware that this particular Next Big Thing had drawn to a close. So while the vast majority of you mourn an absence of dragons in your lives I’ll try to cheer you up by writing about what I’d like to see be the Next Big Thing.
Now while I believe there are a number of Game of Thrones spin-offs planned I will confidently predict that none of them will be anywhere near as popular as the original series. That curious beast, the general public, doesn’t like to graze in the same place for too long. For example I’ve been assured by a number of people that the Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, is a great show. This may be so but as far as I can tell it has never reached the Must Watch level of popularity that its progenitor enjoyed.
Given the fickle tastes of the general public it surprises me not in the least that no two Must Watch shows of recent years have been alike in setting. Series such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad which have taken up the Next Big Thing torch have certainly had aspects in common. All of them have been gritty shows about the dark underbelly of society and the currency of violence that fuels it. On the other hand each series employed quite different setting and and casts of characters which in turn has ensured the plot dynamics of each show be not quite like the others. Superficially the criminals portrayed in each series might resemble each other but try to turn a typical episode of one into a typical episode of another and you will find it much harder than it might seem at first glance.
This is why Game of Thrones, which on the surface seems an unlikely successor to the likes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, managed to grasp the Next Big Thing torch. That the story had a fantasy setting rather than being set in the real world didn’t matter since it was still all about what the ruthless will do to satisfy their lusts. The fact of the matter is that dynastic struggles are very like gang wars and the sort of terrifying people we have an eternal fascination for watching from a safe distance invariably become players in both.
What I’m getting at here is that if the coming Next Big Thing is to be a fantasy or science fiction epic it has to have a number of attributes in common with what has come before. First of all there needs to be a story big enough to fill multiple seasons of plot. For example Lord of the Rings is a big story while The Hobbit is not. The former easily filled three films with material left over while the latter was not able to repeat this feat. The story needs to, at the very least, partially focus on the dark underbelly of society and do so in a visceral manner. Mad Men not withstanding boardroom style drama is no longer as popular as it was back in the days of Dallas and Falcon’s Crest. Audiences are more interested in seeing characters get down and dirty in the streets with guns and knives than as grey suited executives attempting to manipulate each other from behind desks. It should not require expensive locations or settings, or at least these should be mostly kept to establishing shots. The source material needs to be capable of being tailored to fit modern sensibilities. I would assume this is not a concern in regards to recent fiction but since I’ve not read much of recent vintage I couldn’t honestly say. On the other hand hand I do know older stories would need tweaking to a greater or lesser extent. However, it should be noted that such tweaking isn’t always due to older material containing problematic attitudes. Sometimes it’s a matter of adding problematic modern features such as excessive darkness of plot, excessively gritty world-building, gratuitous nudity, and that visceral violence I mentioned earlier. And finally a potential Next Big Thing should not feel too much like what has come before. Bit of a tall order, eh?
Of all the requirements listed above clearly it’s the first one which is the most difficult to satisfy. I can think of a great many science fiction or fantasy stories that would make a great movie but which simply could not be stretched to fill multiple series of a TV show. For example, I’m certain that The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers could be made into an extremely interesting film but I don’t think the novel contains sufficient material for anything longer. (Also, unfortunately, I suspect this and Powers other novels aren’t the sort of stories which have sufficiently wide appeal to even be considered by film studios.)
I’m not sure that even book series such as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga would work (even though I’m sure many people would be excited if they did, I’d certainly like to see the latter). Though both series consist of multiple novels I don’t think the stories contained within each individual book are linked together sufficiently to work as a multi-season TV show. Besides which I think the central characters are a bit too noble and nice to carry a TV show attempting to emulate Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Plus, the major threat in McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, the thread, lacks something as a threat. The thread, being in essence a non-intelligent natural disaster, doesn’t allow for the same degree of dramatic tension a conscious, reactive threat poses.
So after much thought I’ve only been able to come up with a single collection of novels which might work if translated into television terms, this being Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion universe.
At this point I imagine those of you familiar with Michael Moorcock’s work have already raised your eyebrows and begun to frame a series of objections. Foremost among these I suspect being whether Moorcock would allow his work to be turned into a big budget TV show at all. However, since this is an article of speculation I think we can safely set this argument to one side.
There are other reasonable objections to to using the Eternal Champion universe of course, the foremost among these being the books themselves, or at those of them I’ve read, being on the short side. I have to admit that if a novel like The Hobbit doesn’t have enough enough meat in it for three films then the slender volumes in trilogies such as The History of the Runestaff or The Chronicles of Count Brass are hardly going to stretch any further. However, according to John Clute, writing in The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (edited by John Clute and John Grant), Moorcock ‘…constantly revises and retitles his texts and because he habitually reshuffles the order in which those texts appear…’ which suggests to me that even greater liberties could be taken with pre-existing plots and characters of the Eternal Champion universe without incurring any more than the standard level of outrage. (I was going to describe this as viewer outrage until I realised that waiting to view the completed project is hardly necessary when it comes to outrage).
So what do I mean by taking even greater liberties? Essentially choosing one avatar of the Eternal Champion and expanding their story so that other avatars, and perhaps parts of their own stories, can be introduced into the chosen plot. There’s already precedence for multiple avatars coming together to perform a task in The Quest For Tanelorn so that’s clearly not going against the rules of the universe. Admittedly I don’t recall the various characters interacting with each other much but if it’s permissible for multiple avatars to perform some task together then I don’t see why there can’t be some (by which I mean a great deal of) drama between them. There is the problem that as far as I recall the majority of the Eternal Champion avatars are a bit on the bland side, being primarily sword-wielding action heroes, but a little tweaking of personalities should solve that. Again, there’s precedent for this in the form of Elric of Melnibone, who is already an introspective, treacherous, angst ridden individual who’s also in thrall to his soul-drinking sword, Stormbringer. Now if the other avatars could be made half as interesting as that we might have something.
Which brings us to the question of in what part of the Eternal Champion universe should our story begin? Well, I think that’s obvious, it has to start with Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Coln. The books about Hawkmoon are set in an alternate science-fantasy version of Europe which is under threat by the insane warriors of Granbretan. This choice has a number of advantages as I see it.
For starters the warrior tribes or clans of Granbretan would make an excellent evil threat as they’re always described as being a bit on the insane side. Which I believe means they have the potential for every sort of scenery-chewing possible (and perhaps a few not yet invented) ranging from cold, sneering contempt to incoherent rage, with a bit of Brian Blessed style exuberant bellowing in between. In short the Granbretan leadership should be able to reduce Europe to rubble by force of their over-the-top acting alone.
Secondly the Europe of Dorian Hawkmoon is set in world that I would describe as science fantasy. (Just as an aside I’ve seen these books described as steampunk, a term which I consider inappropriate here. There seems to be a tendency to label any story which mixes technology with anything else as steampunk. As far as I’m concerned this is stretching the definition of steampunk too far. Steampunk as a term should be reserved for non-magical worlds where technology has been developed in advance of the rest of society.) What this means is technology exists in this world but is present in a far from universal manner and that it’s not always clear whether a particular piece of technology operates using science or magic. Thus the Granbretan army has helicopters but not rifles and that some of the weapons used by their opponents are almost certainly magical. All this adds an exotic flavour to the familiar, so that for example we might see what looks like the Eiffel Tower being built in the alternate Paris only to discover that it is intended as a platform for Granbretan helicopters.
Moorcock used a particularly baroque style of visuals which would make a TV version of it particularly interesting. For example the warriors of Granbretan all wear helmet-like masks designed to look like whichever animal each tribe uses as a totem, wolf, boar, etc. Their helicopters are also designed to look like insects, prey-mantises as I recall, which would look impressive on TV.
Finally, every avatar of the Eternal Champion has been chosen by fate to help maintain the cosmic balance between law and chaos. However, Dorian Hawkmoon, unlike many of the other avatars of the Eternal Champion clearly can’t defeat his enemies without significant help so the idea of assembling a team to save his homeland seems reasonable. In the books he went searching for the Runestaff in order to do this but it wouldn’t take much tweaking to add a few fellow avatars to Dorian’s shopping list. The advantage to this change is that it would ensure there were two competing teams, with endless drama plaguing both. On one side the leaders of Granbretan would be in disagreement as to how best to hunt down and eliminate Dorian Hawkmoon and his companions. Meanwhile relationships between the various avatars of the Eternal Champion would be strained to say the least given most don’t understand their role in the universe and would resent the burden of it if they did. Dorian Hawkmoon would find them a very difficult group to keep from each other’s throats and focused on his goal.
With any luck the end result would be a weird mix of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Dirty Dozen. I’d certainly watch that if somebody would care to make it.
6 thoughts on “The Next Big Thing”
Can’t say if it would make a great TV series or not, for a couple of reasons: (a) I’ve read only two or three of the books, and those many years ago, and (b) I’m one of those dreary louts who (in the last decade or two) almost never watches TV, especially the ‘must watch’ shows. But I do see one objection to the Eternal Champion franchise becoming popular in the way GAME OF THRONES did — namely, that the books it would be based on are (by current bestseller bugcrusher standards) short. This is not to say that they wouldn’t have enough plot and action and Kool Stuff to make for a plausible telly series — I think you’ve argued well that they would — but that Yer Average Media Consumer, told that an upcoming or just-started TV series is going to be the Next Big Thing, is going to expect new paperback editions of the source books to come thundering out into the racks, with scenes from the shows on the covers and excerpted reviews of praise in large letters overprinting same, and — said consumer will then do a doubletake when s/he realizes the books are only a couple of hundred pages long, maybe a bit more if faked out with large type and margins.
This is not to say said Consumer is necessarily going to want to actually *read* the books (though some will), but s/he will be used to quantity-for-money and will have been brainwashed over the last generation or so into assuming that any ‘serious’ novel or novel-type thing has to be at least six or eight hundred pages. Reprints of back-in-the-day normal-sized books of 160 or 180 or so pages nowadays give off an air of “well, the author must have been a bit of wanker who couldn’t be bothered to try very hard; sad, really; but fortunately here’s these thick series of thick books featuring thick protagonists the next shelf over, so they must be better value. So I’ll buy those instead; I’ll still proably never read them, but they will look more imposing on my coffee table. And how can I want to watch a telly series based on *short* books? Someone is clearly trying to put one over on the great viewing public, but I shan’t fall for it!”
You make some very good points Denny but you also prove that you do not have the soul of a huckster (a fact that I’m sure you will take as a compliment). It’s true that most, if not all, of Moorcock’s many Eternal Champion novels are shorter in length than the average SF or fantasy novel being published today. In fact it’s also true that his Eternal Champion novels were in fact shorter than most of other SF or fantasy novels being published around the same time..
As I understand it Michael Moorcock was writing multiple book series and deliberately making each installment slender in order to maximise sales. He did this apparently so that some of the money thus made could be used (at least in part) to help fund New Worlds, of which you know he was editor. What this means is that among the Eternal Champion novels there are a lot of trilogies that are little more than single novels sold as three installments. All that a publisher need do is to lump a trilogy like The Chronicles of Count Brass or The History of the Runestaff into one volume, give it a wrap-around photo cover depicting some cool scene from the TV series (Dorian Hawkmoon dueling with a Granbretan warrior as they balance on top of a burning helicopter comes to mind), add a bit of bonter to the cover promoting the connection to said TV series, and then wait for the money to roll in. Luckily for said publisher there’s are enough of these Eternal Champion trilogies that a series of paperbacks featuring characters appearing in the TV series would be decent in number. Admittedly some of them will have very little connection to the TV version apart from the central character but if they’re being bought to lay on coffee tables rather than be read this isn’t a major problem.
Interesting analysis. I suspect that your worthy effort to boost The Eternal Champion is doomed, but I’d love to see it happen. The books would be reissued as those big fat omnibus editions of course, no doubt with even more revisions. Yes, Game of Thrones fitted the zeitgeist very well, for the reasons you mention and for satisfying the unfulfilled expectations left by the Hobbit trilogy. (My favourite example of Jackson missing the point was his making Radagast the brown autumn wizard a symbol of spring with his bunny-cart. Tolkien himself nodded to legends of summer-winter conflicts with his grey and white wizards, and had got as far as creating a blue role, but inexplicably twinned it and binned it.) Anyway, my theory is that after the leisurely ramble of the 3-film Hobbit, the world vaguely yearned for some mightier clash to exceed Lord of the Rings rather than winding down from it, and Game of Thrones slotted in nicely.
True, my noble efforts to put the Enternal Champion on the small screen are almost certainly doomed to failure . As always Nigel Molesworth sums it up best, “History started badly and hav been geting steadily worse.”
I didn’t mind Radagast’s bunny cart but I do have to agree with you that Jackson missed the point very badly when it came to Radagast the Brown. Why he decided to make him such a comical figure is beyond me. Especially given that Tolkien had made it clear that Radagast, like Saruman, has strayed from his original role of guide to the peoples of Middle Earth. The idea was that both Saruman and Radagast had given up on the elves/dwarves/humans, the former ignoring them for what he considered higher things, the latter abandoning them for nature. If Jackson had taken that on board I like to think the result would be a much more interesting dynamic between the three characters.