1977’s release of Star Wars showed movie studios the audience interest for science fiction, and ever since executives have scrambled to find the next big “space saga” franchise. There were successes, like the Alien and Terminator films, but when it came to films based on literary series, results have been decidedly hit-and-miss.
Sure, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter films managed to be both financially and–generally–critically popular, but along the way there have also been such misfires as David Lynch’s bombastic Dune, Paul Verhoeven’s mutilation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and the big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Oh, and take Battlefield Earth…please.
Since so many screenplays these days seem to be based on toys and action figures the writers played with way back in the 1980s (did you know they’re seriously considering a feature based on the Stretch Armstrong doll?), here are seven book series that would not only be spectacularly entertaining films–if done right–but could make for a satisfying string of sequels. Some are actually in pre-production stages, but Hollywood’s fickle whims could change that in an instant.
1. DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN – Anne McCaffrey deftly blended sci-fi and fantasy elements to bring to life Pern, a medieval-like world whose only defense against a deadly spore that consumes all organic material are fire-breathing dragons telepathically linked at hatching to their riders. McCaffrey and her son Todd have written 18 novels or novellas and several short stories on Pern since 1967. A Dragonriders film has been on the drawing board for years, but lackluster receptions for Reign of Fire and Eragon may threaten it.
2. FOUNDATION – Think a movie about the establishment of a branch of mathematics would be dull? Not thanks to Isaac Asimov, who in seven books showed how scientist Hari Seldon and his followers used his theory of “psycho-history,” a method of tracking future societal actions, to predict the decline and fall of the vast Galactic Empire. In order to preserve mankind’s knowledge and technology, a secret organization known as the Foundation is established. Again, plans for a Foundation film have come and gone, with one currently being overseen by former New Line honcho Bob Shaye.
3. LENSMAN – long before DC Comics’ Green Lantern Corps, the spaceways were protected by another group of interplanetary lawmen wielding super-powered devices. Genre pioneer E.E. “Doc” Smith pretty much invented the “space opera” with his tales of the Arisians, aliens who built the thought-focusing Lenses and gave them to worthy beings (males only–it was the 1930s, after all) to help battle the invading Eddorians. Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski are currently working on a Lensman script.
4. RAMA – Rama was the name 2001: A Space Odyssey guru Arthur C. Clarke gave in his acclaimed 1972 book “Rendezvous with Rama” to a 30-mile-long, 12-mile-wide cylindrical spaceship of unknown origin that enters Earth’s solar system in the 22nd century. The research vessel Endeavour is sent to make contact with Rama and whoever might be inside, but Endeavour’s crew finds only cybernetic ogranisms among the uninhabited cities, forests and seas that make up the ship’s vast interior. Rama leaves the solar system with its mysteries intact, mysteries that Clarke and co-author Gentry Lee would eventually explore in three more novels. Actor Morgan Freeman and filmmaker David Fincher worked on a Rama project for years, but various problems have put it in development limbo.
5. RINGWORLD – Even with the advances in CGI effects, few things in sci-fi cinema to date could compare with a depiction of Larry Niven’s immense ring-shaped construct, a million miles wide and 600 million miles in circumference, roating in its orbit around a distant star. Niven’s original 1970 novel followed two humans and their alien colleagues as they set out from Earth to explore the Ringworld, with subsequent books detailing their efforts to repair and save the construct and its inhabitants, even as they seek to learn the secrets of its designers, as well as the interplanetary war that breaks out for control of its technology.
6. SHANNARA – Fans of Tolkeinesque fantasy have been reading Terry Brooks’ “Shannara” series for over 30 years. Set in a mysterious world called the Four Lands, whose magic and lack of technology hide its societies’ apocalyptic origins, the 1977 debut novel “The Sword of Shannara” detailed the quest of the half-human, half-elven Shea Ohmsford and his adopted human brother Flick to find a mystical sword that will stop the evil Warlock Lord’s plans of conquest. Trolls, dwarves and other genre staples are given new life through Brooks’ knack for characterization, and a film series (Warner Bros. and director Mike Newell are said to be working on adapting the second book, “The Elfstones of Shannara”) would find favor with Lord of the Rings devotees.
7. WILD CARDS – Giving the superhero milieu a realism beyond the X-Men films or even Watchmen, this collection of “shared universe” books–penned by Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, George R.R. Martin, and others–outlined an alternate history of Earth since 1946, when an alien virus that alters human DNA was dispersed across the globe. Of the hundreds of thousands who were uniquely affected (hence its desingation as the “Wild Card” virus), 90 percent “drew the black queen” and died within days, nine percent mutated into disfigured “Jokers,” and the remaining one percent became superpowered “Aces.” Such real-world events as the ’50s Red Scare, the Civil Rights Movement and the Iran Hostage Crisis are re-imagined through the eyes of the Wild Carders, with the Jokers becoming an international minority (most U.S. vicitms settle in a Lower Manhattan neighborhood dubbed Jokertown) and the Aces (few of whom bother with masks or secret identities) becoming vigilante crimefighters, government agents, celebrities, and, of course, criminals.