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2021 Was the End of “Unfilmable”

In less than two months, ‘Dune,’ ‘Foundation,’ and ‘The Wheel of Time’—three of the most notoriously unadaptable pieces of popular fiction—changed Hollywood’s relationship to scaling the Everests of IP

HBO/Apple TV+/Amazon Studios/Ringer illustration

In late September, Foundation debuted on Apple TV+, bringing Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi franchise to the screen for the first time. “The series of books was long held to be unfilmable,” the BBC said.

Less than a month later, Dune arrived on HBO Max and in domestic multiplexes, having hit international theaters weeks before. The movie marked the first attempt in more than 20 years to translate Frank Herbert’s books to the screen, after multiple prior tries that resulted in an unforgettable flop of a film and two forgettable TV miniseries. “Dune has earned a reputation for being ‘unfilmable,’” Time observed.

The month after that, The Wheel of Time rolled out on Amazon Prime Video. Like Foundation, the series represented the inaugural big- or small-screen adaptation of a seminal genre text—in this case, Robert Jordan’s library-length opus. “The Wheel of Time is the ultimate unfilmable fantasy saga,” NBC News noted.

In less than two months, three of the most notoriously unadaptable pieces of popular fiction from the second half of the 20th century yielded three honest-to-goodness, full-fledged adaptations. Almost in tandem, Foundation, Dune, and The Wheel of Time shed their “unfilmable” labels not only on tautological grounds—they had, in fact, been filmed—but based on some amount of merit. All three were, at minimum, well cast, competently (and expensively) produced, and coherently told; all three met with more critical acclaim than condemnation; all three earned green lights for sequel seasons or films. Their nearly simultaneous and at least semi-successful releases reflected the culmination of multiple trends in on-screen, scripted entertainment that made it both desirable to tackle these Everests of IP and artistically and financially feasible to summit them. Together, they made 2021 the end of “unfilmable.”

The reasons for the former widespread belief in the three properties’ unsuitability for the screen vary by the franchise, but in all three cases, the difficulties begin with the extent of the source material and the scale of its world building. The Wheel of Time is a 14-book (plus a prequel) series so sprawling that it took two authors to finish it; Jordan died before he could complete the narrative, leaving Brandon Sanderson to pen the last three volumes based on Jordan’s notes. All told, the story spans a five-figure page count and close to 4.5 million words.

Foundation began as a series of short stories that were collected into a trilogy; decades later, Asimov added two prequels and two sequels, resulting in a seven-book series with enough peripherally related novels in their orbit to form a 15-book suggested syllabus. Dune comprises six novels, not counting the two sequels published by Frank’s son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson, who finished the story the elder Herbert had planned to tie up in a seventh book he hadn’t begun when he died. In case the saga wasn’t convoluted enough, the younger Herbert and Anderson also pumped out 14 more prequels (and counting).

The three epic tales take place in far-future versions of our current reality—so distant in time and/or place that only scattered references to the world we know survive. In place of our historical-cultural context are thousands of years’ worth of backstory stuffed with cycles of rapid progress and complete collapse; fearsome devils and feuding dynasties; inscrutable prophecies and struggles to control interstellar travel; complex systems of magic and science so sophisticated that it’s indistinguishable from magic; mysterious sisterhoods or few female characters at all. As Tayshia Adams would say, “It’s a lot.” For those inclined to immerse themselves in stacks of lore-filled doorstops, Foundation, Dune, and The Wheel of Time are rare treasures. But for producers and screenwriters in search of stories that could be compressed into two-hour movies or hour-long episodes with manageable budgets, they were tantalizing, unobtainable totems of nerd culture whose hordes of fans and enduring renown didn’t translate into lucrative cinematic or televised tentpoles.

Thus, the trifecta of unfilmability remained on networks’ and studios’ radars but took decades to creep from “optioned” to “developed” to “produced.” After the fallout from David Lynch’s infamous 1984 take on the material, Dune went without another movie version for almost 40 years, though Syfy aired two three-part miniseries, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, in 2000 and 2003, respectively. (Herbert’s books also spawned 2013’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, a celebrated documentary about an earlier, doomed adaptation attempt.) Five years elapsed between the 2016 announcement and 2021 release of the version that eventually clicked, which was produced by Legendary, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and distributed by Warner Bros. That effort followed a four-year Paramount project that never came to fruition.

At least there was some precedent, however derided, for a Dune adaptation. Foundation went through roughly five false starts—mostly film projects, plus a planned HBO series—over a quarter-century or so before its big breakthrough this year as an Apple streaming series, created by Josh Friedman and showrunner David S. Goyer, whose 10-episode first season most famously featured Jared Harris and Lee Pace. And various would-be creators whiffed on Wheel of Time miniseries, film, and TV adaptation attempts over 20-plus years before another series slowly came together in an eight-episode first season coproduced by Amazon Studios and Sony Pictures Television, run by Rafe Judkins, and headlined by Rosamund Pike.

Given the investments of time and resources required to propel these properties to the screen, it was, perhaps, preordained that the massive swings wouldn’t be one-offs. Mercifully for fans who had dreamed of these adaptations for decades, more Dune, Foundation, and The Wheel of Time are on the way. Despite the pandemic and a day-and-date cinematic/streaming release, Dune has grossed almost $400 million in theaters worldwide, and according to some sources it was the most-watched streaming movie for weeks after its high-profile launch. All in all, the movie did brisk enough business to seal an unsurprising announcement of Dune: Part Two, which is scheduled for October 2023. (Villeneuve hopes to make at least three Dune movies, and a prequel streaming series, Dune: The Sisterhood, is also in the works from a separate creative team.) Streaming audience sizes being as opaque as they are, it’s tough to tell how well watched Foundation and The Wheel of Time have been, but both were renewed for second seasons before their first seasons premiered, and The Wheel of Time especially seems to be something of a hit.

It’s not a coincidence that this wave of once-unfilmable adaptations crested in 2021. As the streaming wars have intensified, Hollywood’s appetite for TV content has grown as insatiable as a sandworm. This year, the industry set another new record for scripted-TV quantity, the product of a pandemic-induced production backlog that caused a slight release downturn in 2020, a COVID-caused uptick in demand for at-home entertainment, the launch of even more streaming services, and increased competition among the existing streaming top dogs amid slowing subscription growth. Those forces have fueled bigger budgets, higher-pedigree casts and creators, more flexible formats, and greater tolerance for risk in the fight for differentiators—prestigious, must-see series with the potential to drive subscription growth. Those series tend to be drawn disproportionately from fantasy and sci-fi, which—as Game of Thrones most powerfully demonstrated—bring built-in fan bases and long-gestating stories that are ripe for the picking. (Unless their world-builders unexpectedly slow down.)

An annual avalanche of reboots, sequels, and spinoffs isn’t sufficient to meet the demand; stocking streaming catalogs takes fresh adaptations, too. Enter the unfilmables. After decades of neglecting and mismanaging video game IP, Hollywood has gotten wise to gaming’s largely untapped stockpile of stories: HBO’s The Last of Us, Amazon’s Mass Effect, Paramount’s Halo, and Sony Pictures’ long-delayed Uncharted movie (with a screenplay by Judkins) are among the forthcoming big bets on the genre. But beloved, bestselling book series that haven’t been seen on screen (lately, at least) also broadcast the siren song of recognizable names, preexisting demand, and near-infinite narrative runways. Foundation, Dune, and The Wheel of Time may have been famously unfilmable, but at least they were famous for something.

Other “unfilmable” properties have been filmed to great effect: Stanley Kubrick supposedly dismissed The Lord of the Rings as unfilmable decades before Peter Jackson leveraged more advanced technology to bring it to the big screen. In the past, though, only moviemakers had pockets deep enough to bankroll convincing sci-fi/fantasy special-effects fests, and they would have had a hard time condensing the likes of Foundation down to two hours—or even LotR’s nine. The explosion in scripted budgets and the increasing quality of home theaters now allows TV writers, producers, and directors the luxury of presenting an extended sci-fi/fantasy narrative (or an eight-hour docuseries about the Beatles) without sacrificing the audiovisual spectacle that comes from a big screen and surround sound. Foundation, Dune, and The Wheel of Time are big. It’s the pictures that got less small.

Foundation and Dune debuted on streaming services that launched in late 2019 and mid-2020, respectively, and that made significant strides this year in their quests for award wins and market share. The Wheel of Time is a cornerstone of Amazon’s strategy of investing more money in major originals to lure eyeballs away from leading rivals Netflix and Disney+ (which boast buzzy exclusives of their own). If you’re going to drop half a billion bucks on a Lord of the Rings prequel, why not double down and snap up a Tolkien-inspired series whose first book hews uncomfortably close to Fellowship’s framework? Splashy superhero, sci-fi, and fantasy shows can cut through the static of Peak TV: Amazon boasts The Boys; Netflix nabbed The Witcher, Squid Game, and Shadow and Bone; and Disney never stops its MCU and Star Wars assembly lines. The showrunners of Foundation and The Wheel of Time envision their adaptations as eight-season series, best-case outcomes that remain many renewals away but give the streaming execs who hold their rights something to salivate over.

The path to these three challenging adaptations was smoothed by the success of another series that (sadly) ran for eight seasons: Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—another fantasy series once said to be unfilmable, thanks to its depth, its breadth, and its surplus of point-of-view characters—yielded one of the biggest (era-adjusted) TV hits of all time. Thrones became all-consuming because of a confluence of factors, including an active online community that predated the adaptation, suspense surrounding the (still)-unknown ending of the book series, and its pre-Peak TV debut. But A Song of Ice and Fire also oozed attributes that, despite its unfilmable label, made it a great fit for TV: subversive, stunning twists, compelling characters, and a heaping helping of sex and violence. For all of their virtues, Foundation, Dune, and The Wheel of Time individually lack some or most of those qualities—which, when combined with an even less favorable media environment for a monoculture-caliber smash, makes Amazon’s once-explicit goal of finding the next Game of Thrones seem far-fetched.

It’s easy to be cynical about the economic imperatives underpinning the emergence of these heretofore unfilmable franchises, and one could decry the lack of Hollywood hero’s journeys that haven’t been heard before. (As if there were ever a time in human history when our species didn’t recycle stories.) These adaptations were developed against a backdrop of other tiring trends: Actual and fictional conglomerates alike are acquiring and consolidating content catalogs, the better to brew up a postmodern mélange of callbacks, crossovers, and nostalgia. Just as investors demand exponential growth from companies in more traditional industries, investors in studios demand IP proliferation. Fictional galaxies aren’t good enough; only universes or multiverses suffice. Characters connected by little more than a shared corporate parent are meeting up in proto-Metaverses or kicking each other’s butts in a rash of Super Smash Bros.–style brawlers. Some of the Frankenstein’s monsters that stem from this thirst for synergy are exciting (Free Guy), and some are deflating (Space Jam: A New Legacy); at times, a single franchise swings between the two poles. In the aggregate, though, the constant bombardment by brand names feels overwhelming either way.

From the audience’s end, the fact that a piece of IP can be filmed today doesn’t necessarily suggest that it should be filmed. There’s a hefty opportunity cost to developing any big-budget show, and placing a big bet on a Foundation or a Wheel of Time may preclude the pursuit of several smaller-scale projects whose ambitions don’t depend as much on green screens. On the other hand, Dune, Foundation, and The Wheel of Time—in that descending order—are all genuinely enjoyable to varying degrees.

If there’s a common element to the three adaptations’ defiance of those dire, “unfilmable” forecasts, it’s their willingness to make judicious departures from the books. Villeneuve reduces Dune’s lore to its essence, stripping out some of the visions and complex plot elements that Lynch labored to preserve. Foundation simplifies Asimov’s millennia-spanning, anthology-series structure, using technological tricks and a clever reimagining of the empire’s rulers to keep the cast consistent throughout. The Wheel of Time abridges Book 1’s travelogue elements, conflating certain cities and sequences to accelerate the lengthy trip from the Two Rivers to Tar Valon. There’s also much more sex in TV Foundation and The Wheel of Time than there was in the books that inspired their first seasons. (Actually, any amount of sex would qualify as much more sex than that.) And all three adaptations diversify their casts, rejecting the predominantly white worlds of old-school sci-fi/fantasy.

The adaptations’ omissions come at some cost. Even with a 155-minute running time, Dune surrenders some of the series’ philosophical musings and monologues, nodding at its themes instead of exploring them explicitly. The main knock against the film is that it doesn’t come close to finishing the first book’s story, a deficiency its sequel(s) should address. Foundation is faithful to Asimov’s themes but plays fast and loose with some science and tries a tad too hard to inject romance into a story that was largely devoid of it. (Then again, it helps to have compelling characters, and as originally written, Foundation doesn’t.) If anything, The Wheel of Time (which will wrap up its season on Friday) is excessively sped up, losing a little character development in its efforts to keep the exposition and set pieces coming. The on-screen series spells its stakes out too plainly: If the book has a will-they-or-won’t-they, the show almost immediately makes clear that they will. And while the book initially keeps the reader in the dark about the core characters’ roles, the show shares revealing prophecies from the start. As a recent reader of the start of the series, I found some of the Amazon version’s subtle and seemingly arbitrary tweaks distracting.

Across the board, the adaptations are more action-oriented, more sanded down (no Arrakis pun intended), and more accessible than the books, which can be a mixed blessing. But although not every subplot, character, or personality trait makes the cut, the creative teams largely wield their scalpels responsibly: If we’re grading on an adaptation difficulty curve, they graduate with honors. Plus, a large part of the appeal of an adaptation is the chance to see what an imaginary world might look like outside of one’s mind’s eye. The Foundation and Dune adaptations are worthwhile if only because they look incredible. (By contrast, Wheel of Time’s CGI and even practical effects in some scenes are almost embarrassingly bad; maybe Amazon can toss some of LotR’s loose change Wheel’s way next season.)

Some critics of the Foundation and Dune adaptations argue that the old Foundation and Dune still haven’t been filmed—that what we got instead are altered imitations masquerading as the originals. There’s some truth to that, as there is with any adaptation—cue the age-old movie vs. book debate—but if any adaptation should get to take creative license, it’s one that tackles a book as inherently hard to film as Foundation or Dune. Plus, there’s something to be said for switching things up to a certain extent. As a partly plot-driven viewer who’s perpetually swamped with scripted TV, I’ve found myself feeling less and less amped about adaptations, especially those that largely retrace the steps of source material I’ve already read (or played). In general, I’d rather opt into an adaptation that uses the source as a springboard to tell a fresh story set inside the same universe, like Arcane vis-à-vis League of Legends, despite the problems with prequels. Change can be scary, but the unaltered books will still be there when we want them.

If Foundation characters became studio executives, Salvor Hardin might declare adaptations the last refuge of the incompetent. But execs can’t consult Hari Seldon when projecting TV ratings or box office earnings. Instead, they default to known names, which means more adaptations and offshoots of other shows. But with almost 2,000 scripted series airing per year, there’s more than enough room in the TV tent for both originals and retreads. In the 2020s, TV truly can be anything, from the offbeat specificity of Evil or Reservation Dogs to the IP powerhouses that are vying to claim a portion of Thrones’ audience, like the Diadochi carving up the empire of Alexander the Great.

With more streamers stockpiling originals and Foundation, Dune, The Wheel of Time, and other credible recent adaptations (such as The Stand and His Dark Materials) proving that development hell is escapable, the genre vault could be about to cough up more film and TV holdouts. The Three-Body Problem is headed for Netflix, and—speaking of series that have proved hard to adapt—Villeneuve is attached to direct Rendezvous With Rama. (I know I said I was sort of over adaptations, but that one makes me drool.) Might The Dark Tower finally make it to TV? Could Amazon set its sights on fully fleshing out any deep Tolkien lore still left on the vine? What about The Kingkiller Chronicle, which seems to be on the backburner after seeming several years ago to be the next big thing? Or Discworld, which makes Wheel look like light reading? The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, but if those series (or others) aren’t part of the Pattern, it won’t be because they’re unfilmable. That idea died this year.

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