Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Holy Grail Post, Part 1

I'm still a little stunned that "Ender's Game" actually became a real movie last year, after decades of rumors and dead ends.  It wasn't a very good movie, but it was undeniably "Ender's Game."  And many of the other projects once thought to be impossible and untenable have reached the big screen screen in some form or another over recently - "Cloud Atlas," "Watchmen," "Life of Pi," "Days of Future Past," and even Kerouac's "On the Road" - which was pretty good - and "Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" - which was not.  With the "Preacher" TV pilot in the bag, and the announcement that "The Killing Joke" is getting an animated adaptation, what were once thought to be "Holy Grail" projects are coming our way fast and furious. 
Of course, there are plenty of big ones left.  "Neuromancer," "Blood Meridian" and "Confederacy of Dunces" are still in development hell and probably always will be.  "Dark Tower" and "Foundation" projects are inching ahead, but they've been inching ahead for years now.  Still, I think they have a much better chance to be made in 2015 than they would have twenty years ago, thanks to the new affordability of CGI effects, and the increased appetite for genre content from a wide range of new content producers.  So I think this is a good time to revamp my own personal list of "Holy Grail" properties.  What are the stories that I'd be the most excited to see become a movie or television/web series today?
First, the caveats.  The list below does not cover the specific projects tied to a particular director, so we can leave off James Cameron's "Battle Angel Alita," Terry Gilliam's "Man Who Killed Don Quixote," Satoshi Kon's "Dream Machine," John Milius's "King Conan," and the long lists of projects that Steven Spielberg and Guillermo Del Toro are attached to.  I'm focusing on the source material here, where my excitement doesn't depend so heavily on the people adapting it.  Also, I'm limiting the selections to material than hasn't been adapted yet, or at least not very recently and not to their full potential.  So as much as I'd like to see others tackle the "Dark is Rising" and "His Dark Materials" series, I think they both need to wait a bit for the recent Hollywood misfires to be forgotten before somebody tries again.
"The Sandman" - Neil Gaiman's got a long list of development hell occupants like "Good Omens" and "American Gods."  However, the oldest and most difficult project associated with him is still his fantasy series "The Sandman," which unfolded over the course of 70-odd issues of a comic book series aimed at grown-ups.  Highly literary, conforming to no easy template of good vs. evil conflict, and full of fantastic concepts, the series quickly attracted a devoted readership.  It's still hugely influential and remains one of the most first titles recommended to dispell the notion that comic books are only for children.  Since the '90s there have been attempts to make a film version, but I think "Sandman" stands a much better chance of getting a worthwhile adaptation now.
For one thing, "Sandman" would work better as a series than as a stand-alone film.  At heart it's a character study of it's central protagonist, Morpheus the Lord of Dreams, who has more in common with Don Draper than he does with Tony Stark.  A film version certainly could work, though, and would benefit from the serialized nature of modern comic-book movies, which are often told over multiple installments.  You could make a trilogy from the "Preludes and Nocturnes," "Season of the Mists" and "Kindly Ones" storylines.  Or throw in "Doll's House" and "Brief Lives" if you want to extend it.  And then spin off an anthology series for the dozens and dozens of side characters and peripheral tales contained in "Sandman."  There's a massive amount of material here that could sustain an entire universe by itself.  Fox's new "Lucifer" series is based on a "Sandman" spinoff, so we're seeing bits of it being adapted already.  Fingers crossed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt or someone else gets "Sandman" made soon..
"The Last Unicorn" - The 1982 animated film is a cult classic, and plans for a live action version attracted a lot of attention after the success of "The Lord of the Rings."  Alas, the company holding the rights to Peter S. Beagle's book never raised the funds to actually do anything with them, and I believe that the rights are currently in limbo.  "The Last Unicorn" is a long shot for a major adaptation anyhow, since it doesn't fit the Hollywood blockbuster template well at all.  High fantasy never really did come back into vogue after the boom in the '80s.  Superficially similar modern films like "Stardust" have flopped.  Moreover, "The Last Unicorn" is very melancholy and contemplative, without much by way of action or thrills.  I always found its poignant depictions of characters touched by loss and regret to be what set it apart from other fantasy tales, but that also makes it a less appealing property for the big studios.
On the other hand, I can easily see a smaller, more intimate live action version of this story being made with minimal CGI.  You'd need an old school fantasist like Terry Gilliam or Michael Gondry involved, but the scope of "The Last Unicorn" is small enough that it would be manageable as an independent feature.  The best case scenario I can think of is an auteur far outside Hollywood taking this up as a passion project, making use of the new effects technology to introduce it to a new generation, while preserving its quieter, more thoughtful nature.  While ther interest is certainly there, a studio film would likely require far too many compromises to be worth the trouble.  Meanwhile, a new stage version is currently in the works, and Beagle wrote a brief sequel story a few years ago.
"Neon Genesis Evangelion"  - There are a lot of anime that I'd love to see adapted for live action in some fashion.  Realistically, it's the popular science-fiction adventure stories like "Cowboy Bebop" and "Attack on Titan" that are most likely to make that leap.  "Neon Genesis Evangelion" is at the top of my list because it has some concepts that would provide such a great opportunity for visual spectacle.  "Pacific Rim" has established that skyscraper-sized mecha can work in live action, and it borrowed more than a few of its Jaegar design elements straight from "Evangelion."  However, "Pacific Rim" lacked the apocalyptic setting, the screwed up teenage characters, and the utterly terrifying antagonists - the Angels.
There are a lot of big hurdles here.  Any sort of decent film version would be massively expensive, and though the "Evangelion" fanbase is famously devoted, it's not very large.  The seminal 1996 series gained a lot of fans in the West, and has been very influential over the years, but it's not popular on the same scale as something like "Pokemon."  The source material has a lot of problematic and controversial content, though I think it could survive shedding the most troubling bits.  The twisted pieces of Judeo-Christian mythology, filtered through depressed creator Hideaki Anno, make for some awesomely strange and disturbing visuals, but will probably be too much for domestic audiences.  The anime franchise remains alive and well after nearly twenty years, though, and we've all seen that nifty WETA concept art.  This is somebody's dream project just waiting it happen. 
Prydain Chronicles - I'm genuinely surprised that nobody has made another attempt at adapting Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books after "The Black Cauldron" became one of the Walt Disney Studios' most infamous animated bombs in the '80s.  The book series is in the same sword-and-sorcery vein as Narnia and Middle Earth, and remains very beloved by its fans. It features lots of memorable characters, fun villains, and fantastical adventuring - all very straightforward, family-friendly, and easily accessible.  On the other hand, maybe I should be grateful that it has escaped Hollywood's notice long enough to take advantage of the current trends in adapting this kind of material.  Prydain has five books, following a strong core cast through different stages of their lives, and would make for a great serialized film or television series.     
It's not clear whether Disney still has the rights to the Prydain books, but they're in the best position to make another attempt to get them right.  There are enough fantasy elements that you'd need a decent sized budget to be faithful to the books, and Disney knows how to market to kids like nobody else.  Its competitors are more in need of the content though, with major young adult fantasy franchises like "Hobbit" and "Hunger Games" either complete or nearly there.  The biggest hurdle for Prydain is its age - the series was written in the '60s, and may be a little too straightforward for the current generation of kids.  But good grief, if they managed to bring "John Carter" and a new "Lone Ranger" to the screen, Prydain should be a piece of cake.
This post got terribly long when I wasn't looking.  Part 2 and the rest of the list tomorrow.

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