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Mary Robinette Kowal – In Search of a Successor to Lord of the Rings

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What do Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and The Princess Bride have in common? Well, aside from the fact that they’re all fantasy movies, they’ve also made remarkably sound transitions from page to screen. Not all flicks are so lucky: Golden Compass and Eragon spring to mind. So what is it that makes a book translate well? In fantasy you’re looking for engaging characters, evocative visuals and a world that’s wholly unlike our own. With that in mind, let’s look at some fantasy books I think could make really interesting movies.

His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
We’re starting off easy, because Peter Jackson has already picked up the rights to the first three books of the Temeraire series, which is set in the Napoleonic Wars. What makes it so spectacular? Dragons, of course. (Hey, if Pride and Prejudice can be rewritten with zombies, why not Napoleon with dragons?) It’ll be hard to pull off — not least of all because it takes place in a world that is well-known to us. But Jackson says, “I love it where the history is authentic 80% of the time, but we’ve got 20% of fantasy in there.” Add to the mix strong characters like Termeraire — the titular dragon — and his great relationship with his captain (which also raises serious questions about slavery) and you’ve got the best buddy movie since Turner and Hooch… if Hooch breathed fire.

Acacia by David Anthony Durham
This one has also had the magic option wand fall on it. This time from Michael De Luca with a screenplay by Andrew Grant. Radically different from His Majesty’s Dragon, Acacia is a sweeping epic in a wholly fantastic world. The Akaran family rules the Known World in a time of apparent peace. The only problem is that it’s built on slavery and the drug trade. One of the reasons I’m particularly hoping this will survive the option phase to actually become a movie is that it will be a step towards solving fantasy’s serious lack of racial diversity. The Akarans? They’re brown. In fact, this is one of the few fantasy worlds where I’ve seen racial issues tackled intelligently.

Jhereg by Steven Brust
How is this not a movie already? Set in a world where humans are second class citizens, it’s got all the elements you could possibly want in a fantasy flick: The main character, Vlad Taltos, is a wise-cracking assassin who also happens to be a witch. Not enough to hook you? He’s also got a pet miniature dragon (the so-called jhereg). The book is positiviely overflowing with floating castles, gods, demons, assassinations and magic. Seriously, someone make this into a movie… right now. I’m waiting.

Momo by Michael Ende
This ought to be a no-brainer. Michael Ende is the man who wrote The Neverending Story. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love that one, but Momo is better, and it’s relevant to our times. Momo is an orphan girl — and we know how much fantasy loves orphans — who has such a strong gift of imagination that anyone who plays with her actually experiences what they’re imagining. Everything’s great until the Grey Men come to town introducing these “time-saving” devices. Yet the more time people save, the less free time they have for imagination. That’s right — put down your crackberry and wrap your brain around this moving character, who employs magic, a tortoise, music and pirates to get adults to remember what it’s like to be a kid again.

The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
True, The SciFi Channel made a version in 2004, but it completely ignored the racial descriptions of characters, choosing instead to white-wash the whole thing. I would love to see a production of this where Ged is red-brown as he was intended. Who is Ged? A boy with a talent for magic who attends the renowned wizards school at Roke. Sounds familiar, I know, but it’s actually got nothing in common with Hogwarts. Earthsea is a more primal tale of magic, sea-voyages and wild spirits. Plus it’s got a dragon. You know how I love those. Someone do this movie correctly, if not for me, than for one of the most influential scifi/fantasy authors of our time.

Your turn. What fantasy books do you want to see made into films?

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.

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