The discovery of a strange new world right behind our own seeming reality is a staple of the fantasy and science fiction genres. It offers a perfect canvas on which to paint out existential what-ifs, to literalize our darkest fears and dangers, to show characters unearthing special untapped talents (that are, it’s implied, inside all of us). Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments are two of the most successful recent young-adult series with this premise to find their way from bookshelves to theaters. The adaptation of Riordan’s mythology-themed second book, Sea of Monsters, opened August 7, and right behind it Clare’s demon-heavy first novel City of Bones sits poised to take a run at moviegoers Wednesday, August 21.
The variations appear inexhaustible, and Hollywood remains eager to back them as movies (and potential franchises). This got us thinking about other great, earlier fantasy fiction that built plots on the dual-worlds foundation but has yet to be made into movies despite being rich material for cinematic translation. Arguably, no one has played in this storytelling sandbox as much as Piers Anthony, a prolific and popular fantasy author who has never quite reached the cultural penetration of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis or George R.R. Martin. His absence on movie and television screens may be the key reason. (The same could be said of Terry Brooks.) Despite having published more than one hundred novels in the half-century he’s been writing (he turned seventy-nine this month) and sold millions of books, Anthony has yet to see Hollywood adapt his work. This seems like a missed opportunity.
In the late ’70s and ’80s, Anthony created three different series built around clever twists on the formula. In the Apprentice Adept series — originally a trilogy that grew to seven books — two worlds occupy the same space in separate dimensions, with each inhabitant having a matching self in the other world (a trick Stephen King and Peter Straub used to fantastic effect in The Talisman). One world, Photon, is badly depleted and science-based, with a mix of aliens, robots, and humans, while the other, Phaze, is lush and magic-based, filled with fantasy creatures. If a twin dies in one world, the remaining iteration can then travel back and forth between them. The first book, Split Infinity, introduces Stile (note the name), a lowly inhabitant of Proton who inadvertently discovers Phaze, where he has a destiny that could lead to his political rise in Proton. The series’ mix of personal magic, inter-species relationships, and game-based political machinations is fascinating and wholly original.
At thirty-six books and counting, Anthony’s Xanth series, which began with A Spell for Chameleon in 1977, is one of the longest-running series in literature. Its tweak on the premise is that the magic-based reality full of fantasy creatures that the main characters inhabit is the “real” one, while Mundania, the reality we know, is the “other” world. The Xanthian humans can travel to Mundania and mix with Mundanes, but the latter are generally seen as random interlopers when they stumble into Xanth. The first book follows Bink, a Xanth inhabitant exiled to Mundania for not having a magical talent who encounters a woman named Chameleon whose attractiveness and intelligence vary as the lunar cycle spins. The series is full of wordplay and title puns (Crewel Lye, Isle of View), and its playfulness cheekily teases the genre’s typically oh-so-serious demeanor (i.e. Tolkien, Lewis, et al.). Which may be why Hollywood hasn’t touched it, though Chameleon was once in development with Wolfgang Petersen and David Benioff producing at Warner Bros.
A third series, Incarnations of Immortality, posits that regular people are suddenly recruited to take on the godlike roles of Time, Death, Fate, War, etc. Faced with such a momentous responsibility, each character is forced to reckon with just how his decisions affect those around him. Each of the eight books in the Incarnations series, beginning with the Death-focused On a Pale Horse, published in 1983, reveals to a single human the unknown forces at work in the world (albeit a magic-enhanced version of it).
Maybe Anthony’s work is just too strange or light for Hollywood. Maybe it’s not action-oriented enough to justify the big-budget scale required to generate its eye candy, though a veteran studio screenwriter could juice that easily enough. Given that each series creates its own unique fully-formed world, unfolds with a large cast of characters and plays out storylines over multiple books, his stuff is probably better suited to television. And actually, the 2003 Showtime series “Dead Like Me” took some inspiration from Pale Horse, which at one point was in development for a standalone series at Touchstone/ABC. So maybe it’s simply a matter of patience — something the Grim Reaper knows a little about.
Of course, there could already be dozens of Anthony adaptations running in that alternative reality shimmering just behind ours.
Have you read Anthony? Which books are your favorites? Why do you think his work hasn’t been adapted for television or film?