You may or may not have heard about the movie The Giver coming out this August. While most moviegoers will see this film as just one more adaptation of a popular young adult novel, to me it is must more than that.
The Giver was one of the first “older” books I ever read. I got it at one my school’s yearly book sales, and it remains one of my favorite stories to this day. I won’t spoil the plot for any of you; it’s a bittersweet dystopian story about conformity, the importance of remembering the past, and it also shows how a society that devalues human life, or at least a society that enforces a rigid caste system where some people are more important than others, is horrific. If Hollywood does the movie justice, I believe the movie will sell. Though I’m doubtful, since there’s one key scene in particular that has an anti-abortion slant to it. But we’ll see.
The Giveris hardly an obscure book; it won the Newbery Award in 1993. Several reviewers have compared it to the other great dystopian novels of the 20thcentury: 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451; you know, the usual suspects.
Any person who loves film or studies it for a living will tell you that studio execs in Hollywood wouldn’t have approved it if it hadn’t been for everyone’s favorite boy wizard, Harry Potter. He kicked off the young adult novel adaptation trend.
Harry Potter is something no one saw coming. 400 million books sold worldwide, the second most profitable movie franchise in history. A success story about how a single mother on welfare climbed her way out of the black pit of poverty and despair with nothing but her imagination. It is the stuff dreams are made of.
Like any other popular trend in Hollywood, there came the inevitable parade of imitators hoping to make some money by reflecting the light of Harry Potter glory. Eragon, Percy Jackson, The Dark is Rising, Twilight, I Am Number Four, The Golden Compass, Narnia, The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments. Most of these probably wouldn’t have been approved if Harry hadn’t paved the way with his wand.
Harry, in turn, wouldn’t have existed without Gandalf.
It’s always amazed and amused me, as an avid fan of fantasy literature, that the HP series did in ten years what Lord of the Rings did in several decades. Hell, most authors would be happy if they’re book sold a few hundred thousand copies, let alone hundreds of millions. Two series, separated by about 30 years, both landing in theatres with big budget, mega-hyped films at the same time; I was a very spoiled 14-year-old, I just didn’t know it or appreciate it at the time.
Of course, any fan of fantasy fiction (i.e. me), will tell you that when the popularity of LotR took off in the 60s and 70s, it created a whole generation of writers who toiled in the shadow of Mordor. Most of these imitators didn’t slavishly copy the style, setting and ideals of Mr. Tolkien’s work word for word of course. Some these books were good (The Belgariad, The Thomas Covenant Series, The Wheel of Time), some were okay (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Iron Dawn, Forgotten Realms), and some were Oh-God-my-eyes-are–bleeding-make-it-stop horrible (for all that is holy and good in this world, don’t read The Eye of Argon).
Of course, with Game of Thrones and its source material A Song of Ice and Fire being a smash success, now you have everyone imitating the dark, gritty, morally complex style of George R. R. Martin. And so it goes, on and on.
You don’t need to be an English major or have a degree in film studies to understand that movies with broad appeal sell. Anyone who’s a cinephile knows what I mean.
Producers try to boil down successful movies to a strict formula of clichés . It’s a well-known fact that George Lucas created Star Wars from a hodgepodge of other stuff, primarily Buck Rogers, The Seven Samurai, Buddhism, and Joseph Campbell’s magnum opus, Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Same thing with Harry Potter; J.K. Rowling wasn’t the first person to write about a school for wizards and witches. She wasn’t the first one to write about a fantasy world full of ghosts, goblins, centaurs, unicorns, basilisks, magic cars and evil relatives. She wasn’t the first to talk about the pain of death, of losing those closest to you, or the horrors of war, bigotry and hate.
We didn’t know that. We were ten or just exiting adolescence; this was the first time most of us were being exposed to this stuff. The brilliance of J.K.’s writing is not only giving a whole new generation a whole new take on the Hero’s Journey, but also making the story grow up with us.
This is what I call “The Harry Potter Effect”: when a new generation is exposed to old story structures and archetypes. Yes, I am relabeling Campbell’s “monomyth”, but relabeling is sort of what I’m getting at here. Every generation is exposed to the same stories over and over again. For us, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings; For Gen X, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, for most of our parents, The Adventures of Sinbad and the great sword and sandal epics like Ben Hur, Jason and the Argonauts, and Spartacus. For our grandparents, they grew up watching Errol Flynn, Zorro and Thief of Baghdad. It would be way too easy to go on for a few more pages on this tangent, but I won’t.
So now that Frodo, Harry, and Ned Stark have shattered box office and ratings records and opened up the door for fantasy series on the big and small screen, I’d like to recommend a few more obscure and/or popular series that deserve their own adaptations. For the sake of brevity I’ll try and keep each recommendation brief.
1. The Seventh Tower Series by Garth Nix
Nix is a staple of YA fantasy, with good reason. Although I’ve only read the first two books in the series, the story has stuck with me all these years. The protagonist, Tal, is a member of the Chosen, a large group of mages who use their own shadows as familiars and who create magic by channeling their energy to create a variety of effects. Good characters, an interesting world, and a conspiracy theory. This world be a solid hit if anything else.
2. Codex Alera by Jim Butcher
I’ve mentioned Jim Butcher before, and I’ll probably mention him again several times in the future. This series came about when a friend dared Butcher to try to make a good story involving Pokemon. So Butcher somehow made an awesome coming of age story, in a fantasy alternate-universe ancient Rome, where the citizens make pacts with elemental spirits known as furies which provide them with a wind range of powers. Epic battles, power politics, a great cast of cast of characters, snarky humor a plenty, and a dash of romance. Tavi, the protagonist of the series, is what happens when you combine Ender Wiggin, Harry, and Ash Ketchum. There’s a sentence I thought I would never type.
3. Blue Beetle (John Rodgers version)
Like a lot of superheroes, there have been many different takes on the character. The character of Jaime Reyes is the one version I’m most familiar with, so I’m going with him. When Jaime uncovers an artifact known as the Scarab, he unwittingly “awakens” it and it permanently bonds itself to him, giving him access to a thinking, talking, morphing suit of power armor. Although the story and characters do share a few similarities with Green Lantern and Spider-man, there are quite a few refreshing differences. For one, Jaime has a loving, supportive family who he has to hide his secret identity from. Two, being Hispanic, it would be a nice change of pace for Hollywood to adapt a comic book starring a non-white, non-Asgardian, non-mutant protagonist.
4. The Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer
There’s been rumors floating around the internet for years that Hollywood was planning to adapt this series. The execs should green light this project already! The plot involves a child criminal mastermind and his various adventures with a race of fairies that live in the center of the earth. Or more specifically, the military branch of a supernatural underground community. How’s that for a premise? There’s lots of great humor and action in this one. The only thing I think the scriptwriters should leave out are the blatant, in your face environmentalist messages lurking the background of each installment, bashing us over the head with the message “nature is precious, we should stop destroying it”.
5. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
This is one of my favorite high fantasy trilogies. The story involves Fitz’ Chivalry Farseer, the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, who was first in line for the throne of the pseudo- medieval kingdom of the Six Duchies, who has passed away at the start of the story. Since Fitz can neither officially own land or hold an office, being a literal royal bastard has it’s perks. He has access to a type of magic known as the Wit (basically telepathy). He uses this power to act as he king’s assassin. He becomes involved in a dark conspiracy, and must due all he can to protect the royal family and the kingdom from being destroyed from within by power politics, and without by war. The characters are memorable, complex and relatable. The trilogy has universal themes about duty vs. desire, the danger of ignorance, hate and fear, and rediscovering the past, would make for another great movie trilogy.