Fall television season is upon us, and fantasy fans are eating well. I have a real penchant for fantasy movies and television shows based on books that I haven’t read, and there is plenty of new content to keep us entertained as the nights start to get darker. Below are some adaptations I’m particularly excited about; let us know your own picks in the comments!
House of the Dragon
How are we feeling, everyone? Are we ready to revisit the world of Westeros? Have we put our hurt sufficiently behind us? We all remember the catastrophe that was season 8. I don’t want to talk about it. Suffice to say, when Game of Thrones ended in 2019, I declared that I would never lay eyes on another A Song of Ice and Fire–adjacent property again. Fool me once, right? Cut to three years later, which in pandemic years feels more like eight, and I find myself cautiously optimistic about this new prequel series. The groundwork has already been laid; we already know the houses and the lore of Westeros. We all have our fave houses (Tyrell forever!). But where Game of Thrones spanned several houses and the entire continent of Westeros (and a bit of Essos), House of the Dragon, based on the novel Fire and Blood, reins in the scope to focus mainly on the platinum-haired, dragon-wielding Targaryen family.
Where the original series covered conflicts and power grabs from house to house, House of the Dragon deals with the inter-family civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons (not to be confused with A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series…), which is essentially a war of succession (funnily, apparently the showrunners looked to Succession for inspiration). So get ready for more inappropriate family relationships (the Targaryens are famously incestuous, much like the real-life Ptolemy and Habsburg dynasties) and confusing names like Rhaenyra, Rhaenys, Aemond, Daemon, and multiple other combinations of a and e (as someone who still can’t spell Daenerys without the help of Google, this will surely be fun for me). I just watched
Wigs Versailles, a show about King Louis XIV’s court at the titular palace, full of melodrama, political machinations, assassinations and the like (and also beautiful, gorgeous hair). So I, for one, am primed and ready for more of that…plus dragons.
House of the Dragon airs on Crave (HBO), Sunday nights at 9:00 pm. Get caught up on the original series here.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
That brings me to the show I’m perhaps most excited and most nervous for: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, a title outdone only by High School Musical: The Musical: The Series in clunkiness. We Lord of the Rings fans have already been burned not once but thrice with the abominable Hobbit trilogy. So approaching this new series with some healthy skepticism is probably ideal. The original trilogy might have been released over 20 years ago, but it is still an exceptional feat of filmmaking to which all other high fantasy adaptations will necessarily be compared—most often, unfavorably so. Peter Jackson’s original run had the benefit of being created at a time of nascent CGI technology, before big studio productions became overly reliant on it (cough cough Marvel). The blend of practical effects with (limited) CGI is what makes the original LOTR trilogy such a landmark series, and it’s why, 20 years later, the films still look as good as they do. Seriously, compare, say, the balrog scene in The Fellowship of the Ring to that new She-Hulk show and tell me which looks better. There’s a weight and a texture to practical effects that is lacking in CGI, and our brains can detect it.
Anyway! The shoes this new show has to fill are, in the immortal words of Julia Roberts, big. Huge! Amazon has been pretty tight-lipped about the plot, but it takes place during the Second Age in Middle Earth (which basically means thousands of years before the original trilogy), with material mined from the appendices of The Return of the King (so, Tolkien-compliant). Thanks to Elvish immortality, we’ll see some familiar faces like Galadriel and Elrond. The show already has some things going for it: it was filmed in New Zealand, aka unofficial Middle Earth; the cast is much more diverse than the other films; the creators are big fans of the source material; and the budget is famously set to $1 billion for the course of 5 seasons. And the cons? I worry that too much focus will be spent on lavish sets and battle scenes at the expense of the emotional core, which, to me, is part of what makes Jackson’s first three films so beloved. It’s also hard to gauge the level of CGI from the trailer, but with that massive budget, one hopes they could spare some dollars on practical effects. On a pettier level, why do the male elves have short hair? Why don’t the female dwarves have beards? Why are we more scared of straying from gender norms now than in 2001?
Technically, this one has already been out since early August. The Sandman is the latest adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s work, which has been mined plenty of times for both movies and TV: the sweet fairy tale Stardust, the stop-motion creepfest Coraline, the visually stunning American Gods, and the pitch-perfect Good Omens being the most successful (well, season one of American Gods, anyway. Best not to talk about the rest). The Sandman, a genre-defying graphic novel series, is widely considered to be Gaiman’s masterwork. In it, a man tries to summon Death but ends up with Dream instead (you know, as you do). After finally escaping, Dream sets out on a quest to retrieve his lost possessions (the source of his powers). From there, he runs into his siblings (personifications of Destruction, Desire, Despair, etc.), Lucifer, and even one John Constantine. Originally published from 1989-1996, the series spans 75 issues and 10 volumes (conveniently available to read digitally via Hoopla!). For those, like me, who might find this world intimidating to dive into, the Netflix adaptation is a good way to wet your feet. But keep in mind: this series has always been said to be unfilmable. Netflix does what it can, but I imagine the comics are an entirely different experience.
The Sandman can be streamed on Netflix.
A Discovery of Witches
I’ll end with some books I did read. The latest (and final) season of A Discovery of Witches was released on DVD this month (though it hasn’t shown up in our catalogue at the time of writing). This series, titled the All Souls Trilogy, is an absolute dream for nerds of the history or literature variety (and those who fancy a little Dark Academia). The first book kicks off at present-day Oxford, as protagonist (and witch) Diana plumbs the depths of the Bodleian Library in search of the lost alchemical manuscript known as Ashmole 782. The conjuring of this book kicks off a struggle between witches, vampires, and demons—all of whom are hiding as regular members of society. This series (first published in 2011) had the misfortune of following Twilight fever, and so there’s a distractingly annoying love story between witch and vampire at the centre of it. In fact, I struggled to overcome my frustration with Diana and Matthew, the witch and vampire in question, in the books; too often the plot hinges on Diana making idiotic decisions. But the world building is so incredibly rich, and the story outside the boring lovers is enthralling (honestly, just give me a series about the ancient vampire de Clairmont family and I’ll be happy).
Author Deborah Harkness is a professor of European history with a background in alchemy and the occult, and yes, she did study at Oxford! All of this comes through in the series. I find the show to be a fantastic adaptation of the series, because it takes it seriously: throughout the three seasons, the show has been filmed in the streets of Oxford, medieval Italian villages (standing in for France), the canals of Venice, and the Welsh countryside. Even the built sets look believably historical—necessary for the plot that takes Diana and Matthew back to Elizabethan London (is Matthew somehow friends with Christopher Marlowe and the School of Night? You betcha!).
You can find A Discovery of Witches on the VPL catalogue.