Conan, Neil Gaiman’s latest, and more join upcoming Lord of the Rings and Cursed in a battle for the TV fantasy throne. Plus, four more series we’d like to see.
TV is set for an onslaught of high-profile fantasy epics come 2019, and we at Rotten Tomatoes can’t wait. Witness the buzz around The Lord of the Rings television series in development at Amazon — acquired for $250 million and expected to ultimately cost more than $1 billion — the Gormenghast series announced last week by FreemantleMedia North America, and Netflix’s new take on the Arthur legend, Cursed. It’s a big change from the genre’s historical position in the medium.
It may be strange to think of it now, but Game of Thrones was a risky proposition when HBO first began development of the series, and its prospects were buoyed by the fact that its more fantastic elements appeared later in the narrative (we had to wait so long for those dragons). Prior to that, fantasy was relegated to syndicated fair like Conan the Adventurer and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Xena: Warrior Princess was an outlier in terms of quality storytelling, but its occasionally cheesy effects proved to the television executives that fantasy TV was too expensive, while other series proved it was often built on poor story standards. GoT changed that perception, even if the fantasy shows which emerged in its wake — The Shannara Chronicles and Shadowhunters for example — proved closer in story quality to the BeastMaster television series.
But The Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast, and Cursed are not the only promising fantasy series in development at the moment. A number of classic fantasy epics and novels will become television thanks to the power of streaming services like Amazon, cable options like BBC America, and others outlets that are worth spotlighting. There are also a few notable series not yet scooped up by the powers in television that we think should get the TV treatment as soon as possible. So here are the six fantasy epics set to hit your screen soon and four we hope will follow them.
FANTASY SERIES COMING TO TV AND STREAMING
TV Release Date: 2019
Based on: The 1990 novel by the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (or vice-versa, depending on which cover you bought). Set in a world where biblical legends are true, the keeper of the east gate of Heaven and the Serpent from the Garden of Eden unite to prevent the apocalypse as they’ve come to enjoy their quaint lives in the United Kingdom.
The Fanbase: The combined fanbases of Gaiman and Pratchett, poets, jokesters, lovers of myth and song.
Everything we know so far: David Tennant and Michael Sheen star as the serpent and the angel, respectively, with actors like Jon Hamm, Anna Maxwell Martin, and Nick Offerman set to feature in key roles. Filming is currently underway with Gaiman acting as an executive producer and showrunner. The six-episode series will debut on Amazon and then air in the United Kingdom on BBC Two.
It’s most like: Time Bandits, the 1985 Terry Gilliam film that also featured an irreverent look at God, angels, and Evil Geniuses.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: Season 1 of Gaiman’s only other television show, American Gods, is Certified Fresh at 92% on the Tomatometer. While it has similar themes, Gods is a far more serious — even portentous — take on Gaiman’s love of myths and legends. But Good Omens’ very British mindset may find an audience in the U.S. that American Gods has yet to capture.
His Dark Materials
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy — Northern Lights (published in the North America as The Golden Compass and adapted into a movie of the same name, pictured above), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass — centers on two children who grow up while journeying across parallel worlds, where they encounter talking armored bears and, of course, our world. Pullman’s story upends fantasy conventions and revolves on the notion that Original Sin is one of mankind’s greatest qualities.
The Fanbase: The kids who read Harry Potter and wanted more.
Everything we know so far: The British Broadcasting Corporation commissioned an eight-part adaptation of the entire trilogy in 2015. In April of last year, writer Jack Thorne said the program was still in preproduction and that he was still trying to balance “what works and what doesn’t” while maintaining as much fidelity to the books as possible.
It’s most like: Harry Potter with a healthy skepticism of organized religions. Pullman was surprised by the intense scrutiny the Potter books received from religious groups in the U.S. while his series openly criticized a Catholic form of government. Catholics eventually took notice and campaigned against the series’ film adaptation, 2007’s The Golden Compass.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: Produced by Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner — two of the people heavily involved in Doctor Who’s revival (88% Fresh) — the series may prove successful depending on how much compression of Pullman’s world is required to make it fit into eight hours of television.
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: Elements from the 41 Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Set on a world that is really a disc held in place by four elephants standing on the back of a turtle, Discworld is both a parody of early fantasy works and a sweeping universe in its own right. Thanks to the series, Prachett was the U.K.’s best-selling author in the 1990s. While Discworld does not tell one single overarching tale, its characters weave in and out of story lines, with characters like Death receiving major ongoing tales and constant cameos.
The Fanbase: Trickster know-it-alls with hearts of gold.
Everything we know so far: The BBC series will focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. It is said to be a police procedural set in the major Discworld city, which will definitely set it apart from the likes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and NCIS. The program does not have a U.S. distributor yet, but you can imagine it will be scooped up quickly by Syfy or Netflix.
It’s most like: . Like Douglas Adams’ comedic sci-fi yarn, Pratchett’s work appeals to those with a wide sense of humor and a love of rich characters.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: Previous Discworld-based television series like the Cosgrove Hall–produced Discworld animated shorts and The Hogfather are cult classics in the United States, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to major critical or commercial success. But the series could last a long time should the BBC and the eventual U.S. streamer or broadcaster position it toward the right audience.
Game of Thrones Prequels
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: The yarns of history or myth A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin likes to tell while characters eat sweet meats and plot their next move in the Game of Thrones. Also based on the stories he tells his audience while not finishing The Winds of Winter.
The Fanbase: Game of Thrones fans, which is a large part of HBO’s subscriber base at this point.
Everything we know so far: According to HBO president Casey Bloys, there could be as many as five prequel series after Game of Thrones completes its run next year. Developed with Martin and talents like The Leftovers‘ Carly Wray and Kick-Ass‘s Jane Goldman, multiple premises are said to be in a competition for one singular broadcast slot. But Bloys also called having two or more potential series ready for air a “high class problem” he would solve should more than one pilot script prove exceptional. No matter how many prequels HBO ends up putting in production, they will all be set before the era depicted in Games of Thrones.
It’s most like: Game of Thrones. Unless, of course, Martin convinces HBO to put an outright GoT parody on the air.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: Unless it’s a colossal train wreck, it will be a hit. Even in its toughest moments, GoT, season-by-season, never dipped below 90% Fresh on the Tomatometer – though the episode “Unbroken, Unbowed and Unbent” wiped out at a barely Rotten 58%. It would take an act of the Old Gods and the New to make it a dud. And should it fail, they have four more ideas to use.
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: The stories of Robert E. Howard featuring Conan the Cimmerian who roamed a fictional “Hyborian Age” said to occur after the destruction of Atlantis, but before the rise of “modern” civilization. An accomplished warrior in his teens, Conan became a pirate, thief and mercenary before claiming the throne of Aquilonia in his forties by strangling the man who was sitting in it at the time.
The Fanbase: Everyone from fantasy authors like Robert Jordan to filmmakers like Oliver Stone and former president Barack Obama, as well as fans of the Conan films like 1982 Universal Pictures release Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (pictured).
Everything we know so far: Amazon is developing a series based more directly on Howard’s stories than later authors’ work or the Marvel Comics series of the 1970s and ’80s. Colony co-creator Ryan Condal hopes to reveal Conan’s search for a purpose, but the pilot will reportedly see him driven out of Cimmeria, possibly setting up his eventual fate on the Aquilonian throne. Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik (“Battle of the Bastards”) is set to direct the pilot.
It’s most like: A Dark Age version of Thrones in which men wear fewer garments.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: If the pilot is anything like Sapochnik’s “Battle of the Bastards” – an episode which happens to be 98% Fresh on the Tomatometer — the program will make a great initial splash. As part of Amazon’s overall push toward fantasy, it may have a hard time distinguishing itself from The Lord of the Rings and the streamer’s other fantastical offerings.
The Wheel of Time
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: The epic fantasy series by Robert Jordan and concluded by Brandon Sanderson — whose own Mistborn series is getting the film-franchise treatment — after Jordan’s death in 2007. Set in a world that is both Earth’s distant past and far future, the cycle of time is threatened by a Shadow of ultimate evil. It searches for “The Dragon Reborn,” a being of light fated to clash with the Shadow. Various enemies and allies of both sides appear as the main characters learn more about their fate and even cross into parallel worlds. Each book in the latter half of the series — books eight through 14 — hit No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list.
The Fanbase: Probably every fantasy fan you know.
Everything we know so far: Amazon and Sony are developing the series in concert, but since that announcement in February, little more has been revealed.
It’s most like: The Lord of the Rings, which may be a problem as Amazon is committed to a five-season LOTR series already.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: Without any key production personnel attached, it is hard to say if the series will be successful. The key issue at the moment is whether or not Amazon will have any money to develop it once LOTR begins production.
The Lord of the Rings
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, an epic tale of four Hobbits, a Wizard, an Elf, two Men and a Dwarf attempting to destroy the Dark Lord Sauron’s master weapon without letting him discover their plan. A war across most of Middle-earth ensues.
The Fanbase: The obsessive devotees of Tolkien’s legendarium and fans of the Peter Jackson film series.
Everything we know so far: Amazon is committed to produce a five-season series based on The Lord of the Rings in partnership with Tolkien’s estate and the various rights holders of the Rings and Hobbit film series. According to various reports, it will focus on some of the side stories referenced in the epic, leaving the Fellowship’s journey south of the purview of the films.
It’s most like: The Lord of the Rings film series. Since the TV rights to Tolkien’s work remained with his estate, hammering out a deal with the likes of Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema, and MGM suggests Amazon has an interest in making the series visually consistent with Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth. Reportedly, the streaming service also opened a dialogue with Jackson himself, though it is unclear what may result from talking to him.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: The Lord of the Rings films are all Certified Fresh at 91%, 95%, and 93% respectively. The Hobbit films less so — 64%, 74%, and 59% — but they were always at a disadvantage by adopting the tone of LOTR. Side stories pulled directly from The Lord of the Rings have a better chance of working creatively and commercially by their very nature; they share the same tone Tolkien envisioned for the War of the Ring. Unless, of course, the entire series is set in the house of Tom Bombadil.
The Dark Tower
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: Stephen King’s flagship fantasy series The Dark Tower. Across eight novels, a number of short stories and numerous connections to his other writings, the series details the journey of gunslinger Roland and his band of friends as they attempt to reach the Dark Tower — anchor point of the multiverse — before the Man in Black can destroy it. Once there, Roland discovers he’s played out this cycle before, clearing the way for film and television adaptations to be sequels of the original novel series.
The Fanbase: King’s wide audience and fantasy lovers who manage to get past the rough first chapters of The Gunslinger, the cycle’s first novel.
Everything we know so far: Originally intended as a companion piece to 2017’s The Dark Tower film centering on the life of Roland (played by Idris Elba, pictured above, in the film) in Mid-World, King’s recent comments suggest the series will be its own separate attempt to adapt his work. Which, considering the film’s poor performance (17% on the Tomatometer), is probably for the best. Though still unconfirmed, The Dark Tower series is likely another part of Amazon’s push toward fantasy with former The Walking Dead executive producer Glen Mazzara reportedly writing the pilot script; although, tweets by Mazzara and Amazon’s head of event series, Sharon Tal Yguado, confirming those facts have since been deleted.
It’s most like: Like a number of fantasy series from the 1970s and ’80s, it openly wears its Tolkien inspiration everywhere. In fact, King says as much in a foreword to the novel series. But it grows by leaps and bounds as King discovers a way to tie Mid-World to Derry, Maine, and his other favorite locations.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: The film’s rough showing is definitely a black mark against its potential as a series. But the sweep of the epic was always an ill-fit for the sort of movie Sony seemed interested in making. A full series, backed by Amazon’s money, could reveal characters and settings in a more successful and lucrative way. Plus, King is on a roll, between the success of the feature film It remake, which was Certified Fresh at 85% on 311 reviews and Hulu’s highly anticipated summer release of Castle Rock.
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: Mervyn Peake’s mid-20th century novel trilogy — Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone — and the incomplete follow-ups centering on Titus Goran, reluctant heir to the immense Castle Gormenghast and the surrounding domain. But even as Titus grows up knowing he must eventually become a ruler, an ambitious kitchen boy plots his downfall.
The Fanbase: Writerly types like Neil Gaiman.
Everything we know so far: Gormenghast fan Gaiman and Star Trek: Discovery’s Akiva Goldsman are set to produce a new version of Gormenghast for FremantleMedia North America. The project, which was only announced two weeks ago, has yet to find a streaming platform or broadcaster it can call home. While the 2000 BBC adaptation of Gormenghast, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (pictured above), focused on the first two novels, the new series will cover all three of Peakes completed novels and the two further stories he outlined prior to his death in 1957.
It’s most like: Historical fiction with a few fantasy trappings.
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: Unlike most of the other projects in development, Gormenghast is notable for a distinct lack of magic despite its fantasy setting. Like the grounded first season of Game of Thrones, the more realistic world will set it apart from Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age.
TV Release Date: TBD
Based on: The forthcoming novel by The Cape creator Tom Wheeler and illustrated by 300’s Frank Miller. It is a retelling of the Arthur legend though the eyes of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake as she journeys to deliver a sword to the wizard Merlin. Along for the ride is a young mercenary named Arthur.
The Fanbase: Unknown, but fans of Miller’s art will likely take a look at the book once it is published and look to the series to visually capture his unique style.
Everything we know so far: Netflix is developing a 10-part series alongside Wheeler and Miller’s final revisions of the novel. Both are attached to the project as executive producers, but no showrunners or actors are as yet attached to the project
It’s most like: Excalibur, First Knight, King Arthur, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Chances it will be a Certified Fresh hit: Considering most King Arthur live-action movies falter — Excalibur is the only Certified Fresh live-action Arthur film at 78% — there is something of a curse around the legend and its various tales that affects attempts to film it. (Crossing fingers for the live-action feature-film adaptation of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, based on the beloved 1963 animated film and which reportedly will start production in Belfast, Ireland, in September.) Arthur has fared better on television with shows like Merlin surviving for five seasons, although its first season is rated at 29% on the Tomatometer. The new protagonist may be the best thing going for the project.
OUR FANTASY TV WISH LIST
Based on: The Earthsea novels and stories of Ursula K. Le Guin. Set on a planet of small archipelagos, various cultures, and a real magic tradition, the first novel centers around Ged, a young mage who comes of age while trying to escape a demonic shadow he conjured into being. Sadly, Le Guin passed away before anyone could make an Earthsea adaptation which reflected her core concept for the world: a fantasy setting composed mainly of brown-skinned people accepting the inevitability of death.
Why We Want a TV Series: The 2004 Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) Legend of Earthsea miniseries haunts fans’ memories. Le Guin’s multiple criticisms of the adaptation — beginning with the whitewashing of Earthsea’s inhabitants — are far more entertaining than the show itself. She later allowed Studio Ghibli to adapt elements of the later novels into Tales from Earthsea (pictured above). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro, Le Guin was disappointed in its focus on combat and externalized villain despite praising its visual beauty.
Should anyone ever attempt Earthsea again, it would require a deep understanding of Le Guin to make it work for the fans. It would also require a Thrones-sized budget to make it look like the world the author envisioned.
The Broken Earth
Based on: N.K. Jemisin’s novels about a world in which the single supercontinent, Stillness, is ravaged every few centuries by a dramatic climate change known as “The Fifth Season.” The most recent Fifth Season proved to be particularly bad, leading some to believe the end is at hand. The society of Stillness is broken into races, castes and species. Those divisions help and hinder the people’s efforts to weather the possible apocalypse. The first two books in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015 and 2016.
Why We Want a TV Series: The series has not been optioned for film or television adaptation, which is surprising as it could be, say, Netflix’s counter to Amazon’s coming fantasy content. With a world like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and a civilization reminiscent of Game of Thrones, it could be a strong counter-program to Amazon’s Wheel of Time, Conan, and Lord of the Rings series with a major emphasis on female characters and ecological disaster.
Elric of Melniboné
Based on: The novellas – and later novels – of Michael Moorcock featuring Elric, a frail albino who also happens to be the 428th and final emperor of Meliboné. Though quite weak, Elric’s sword, Stormbringer, offers him renewed health and vitality, but it requires a constant supply of souls to keep it powered. At odds with traditional Meliboné society, his antics cause him troubles at court and lead to his own nephew plotting a coup against him.
Why We Want a TV Series: In its setting, it may remind some of Lord of the Rings and Conan, but Moorcock actively wrote Elric as an antithesis of the Cimmerian wanderer. Heady, weird, and expressly anti-Conan, Elric’s chances of success commercially or critically are a long shot. But then, an enterprising producer could position a series based on Moorcock’s stories as a compelling alternative to Conan.
Based on: The Dungeons & Dragons role-playing scenarios by Laura and Tracy Hickman and the later tie-in novels by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. In the world of Krynn, dragons dominate and dragonlances are the only weapons mortals not adept in magic can use to kill them. In the first trio of novels, the Heroes of the Lance fight to restore order to the realm. Since then, nearly 200 Dragonlance novels have been published.
Why We Want a TV Series: While seemingly obscure, a properly developed Dragonlance series would have the potential to fill the void left by Game of Thrones when it ends in 2019. The upcoming Dungeons & Dragons film is said to be based on Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first Dragonlance novel, but a full series devoted to the game mechanics of D&D and the world of Krynn could be something revolutionary. And as Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role proves every Thursday, there is an audience for stories steeped in the role-playing tradition.
Got another fantasy novel or series you think a smart network or streaming service should adapt? Let us know in the comments.