This week, we launch a brand new feature: culture round tables! We discuss the announced adaptation of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series and Hollywood's adaptations of SF properties in general. This chat has been lightly edited.
Renay (Lady Business, Editor): Item for discussion! This article: N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season Book To Be Developed As TV Series At TNT. I wanted to talk about this in particular because a) the Broken Earth series is amazing and definitely deserves an adaptation, b) we see hyped adaptation news about properties created by men pretty often, but rarely see women get the same treatment, and c) do we think we may be seeing a shift in women getting their stories adapted now that TV has scooped up some of the prestige that film used to carry? I'm thinking about this in the context of the recent Who Fears Death news and Ava DuVernay adapting Octavia Butler.
KJ (Lady Business, Editor): I think that's a great point, about the focus of prestige projects shifting to TV. It's my impression that TV executives are more willing to take chances on projects than movie execs.
Renay: Why has it taken so long for them to get with it? (Spoiler I know the answer to this, it's racism.) But it's also a problem with stories by white women, too. For example, if you look up a list of announced adaptations, you can scroll multiple times before you hit property by a woman.
Bridget (SF Bluestocking, Editor): I always watch for the big lists at Tor.com every few months and WITHOUT FAIL they are 95% adaptations of work by white men. I know because I count. Every time. I'm somewhat concerned about what a Broken Earth adaptation will look like, though.
Renay: We know TV can deliver good visuals now.
Bridget: It's such a strongly structured and self-contained story that I don't think it would benefit from being turned into a sprawling, 7 season-long prestige show.
Renay: The writers have the benefit of all the books, at least? Since the last book is out.
Bridget: True. I think I'd just like to see it get longer episodes and fewer seasons. Like treat each book as a miniseries.
Renay: SyFy has been doing interesting things with structure like The Expanse? The seasons don't correspond to the books neatly, and it helps the TV show stay more dynamic.
Bridget: That's true about The Expanse. The actual visual look of a Broken Earth series I totally trust TV to deliver on, actually. Jemisin is vague enough about it in the books that there's a lot of room for a good creative team to go wild with costumes and sets and locations.
Renay: I wish now I had the stomach for Games of Thrones, since I expect it will be influencing future fantasy media visually for a very long time.
Bridget: Game of Thrones is trash, and I honestly suggest skipping it. I wish I had.
Renay: ~controversial opinions
Bridget: I've stuck with it because it is influential, but I think it's bad that it's so influential.
Renay: There are for sure some parts of it we don't want future showrunners to pick up and run with. For instance, a writers room that doesn't contain enough women.
Bridget: I do worry about that for things like The Fifth Season and Who Fears Death.
Renay: Women can write excellent stories, but if the people adapting
them for television are a homogenous, it does not bode well for their material. I'm over here like, "can we clone N.K. Jemisin so she can be in the writers room? Just in case?"
Bridget: I love The Song of Ice and Fire books so much, and the show has missed every point of them and it makes me so sad that this might be the most resolution we ever get to such great source material. Because I think that a big part of the problem is that television and the creatives who work in television don't know what to do with stories that actively subvert and interrogate common tropes.
For example, most people agree that Daenerys in ASOIAF is a deconstruction/subversion of White Savior and Chosen One and other associated tropes. But the show has played her 100% completely straight. Things that in the books are meant to make the reader question Dany and really think about her actions and how she exists in the story are portrayed in the show as unambiguously heroic—like that infamous scene where she's crowdsurfing on a sea of brown people that she just "freed" from slavery or like the way she continues to exploit former slave soldiers without them technically being slaves. The show just takes that stuff at face-value and regurgitates it unironically for the audience.
KJ: I'm more forgiving of the Game of Thrones adaptation than you, I think, but I definitely agree on it's difficulty with subversion of tropes. Weiss and Benioff have misunderstood so much of what the books are trying to do—my go-to example is the focus in earlier seasons on Robb, who is a comparatively minor book character.
Bridget: It would be like if someone adapted The Stone Sky and treated Schaffa as a totally awesome dude and wrote him for the audience to identify with and centered the story around him as a viewpoint character. That's my worst fear about this Broken Earth adaptation. That said, I'm still super stoked for it so far.
KJ: I haven't read The Stone Sky yet, but it would be a problem in the earlier volumes too. And I agree, it's a serious risk.
Renay: There's a lot about oppression in the Broken Earth series that requires a deft writing hand, and a strong director that understands the source material so they can communicate it to the actors. There's tons of places where writers could misunderstand or misrepresent a character. So all my excitement right now is simply that it exists at all; that it has the chance to exist.
Bridget: One of the things I realized, reading The Stone Sky, is that on a fundamental level it's also a book about mother and daughters. About parenthood and the ways in which we fail our children and how we can make it up to them when it counts.
Renay: Yes, that's a theme of the whole series. And it's so rare to find a story like that with characters like this in visual media.
Bridget: That's what really resonated with me in the end, maybe just because my own daughter is a teenager and becoming so much her own person now or maybe because my own mother fucked me up so much, but it's like there's all this great Big Picture stuff going on in the series, and that is resolved at the end, but the mother-daughter stuff just destroyed me.
KJ: Do we know, yet, how much Jemisin will be involved in the adaptation?
Renay: I haven't seen anything explicit about it, no. I know, for instance, from John Green getting to be so involved in the adaptations of his books, that is is very uncommon. He said it, a whole lot, that it doesn't happen very often. He was very lucky.
KJ: The head writer was on Sleepy Hollow, which did a great job creating a diverse cast but then had no idea what to do with it
Renay: Ahahahaha, moment of silence for Sleepy Hollow, which went from fun romp to absolute garbage fire.
KJ: The only producer I recognize is Tim Krieg, from Heroes, which also had a fantastic first season and then went completely to hell.
Renay: Dear universe, Nicole Beharie would be a great casting decision, hint hint hint hint.
Renay: I have tried to control my excitement about casting because I know it will be fraught. Sadly, I expect some kind of repeat of the Rue drama from when they cast The Hunger Games because I am pessimistic and cynical.
Bridget: Oh god.
Renay: Yeah, every time I remember it I feel ill. But I know there are white readers out there that when the cast starts coming out will go, "Why are these people black?" Because they will have ignored all the explicit textual klaxons and will have populated the book with white people. brb launching myself into the sun
KJ: This one thing I do trust, that they will cast actors of color. Because if there were any whitewashing shenanigans, that would be the klaxon horn of "STAY FAR AWAY".
Renay: Yes, I am super thankful for social media in this case. The blowback would be swift and merciless.
KJ: Deservedly so.
Bridget: Yeah. Plus, they've got to be depending on fans of the book for early buzz.
Renay: Now I want to do a fancast. I'm excited all over again.
Bridget: I think it will be very telling when we see how they cast Tonkee.
Renay: Yeah, that's another casting choice that will be a huge deal to fans of the book. Don't fuck it up, folks! It's going to be on TNT, and I admit I looked at all my favorite shows and I've never watched an SF adaptation from that network. I have no idea what to expect.
Bridget: They did a Witchblade show in like 2002. hahhahahahaahaa
Renay: I'm assuming by your cackling that did not go well? XD
Bridget: And The New Adventures of Robin Hood.
KJ: The only TNT SFF show I've ever watched is The Librarians, which I love, but it's a very different kind of story.
Bridget: But they also did Falling Skies, which I did not watch, but had a decent-sized fandom. And The Librarians, which was cute.
Renay: Oh, Leverage aired on TNT. It has great character work, for example.
KJ: Ah yeah. I don't consider Leverage spec fic but it has a lot of crossover audience
Bridget: I mean, it's hard to say. Lots of folks are getting into SFF now.
Renay: I guess it depends on how the executive producers approach the material. BACK TO FEELING STRESSED ABOUT IT.
Bridget: MTV did The Shannara Chronicles, which I actually enjoyed, though it had some issues.
Renay: I want to follow the first book around and protect it through this process. INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY BODYGUARD. Now that someone has the rights to The Fifth Season, I'm waiting on someone to also purchase The Killing Moon. Come on, people with millions of dollars, let me have this thing.
KJ: Are we talking dream adaptations? I know it's not quite on theme, but I think Becky Chambers's space opera universe would make fantastic TV in the right hands.
Renay: It's 100% on theme. Because I want this deal, the deal that Nnedi made with HBO, and Ava DuVernay adapting Octavia Butler (and racebending A Wrinkle in Time) to start a cascade of buying IP by women. How much awesome stuff have women been making that just sits there ignored while some executive somewhere goes, "how can we reboot Starship Troopers so it becomes a franchise?"
(I just made that up. Please don't let that be a thing.)
Also: Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott. We could literally sit here and think of stories that would be visually fascinating to watch by women for awhile. Three months later: blinking cursor, half-written titles and...three skeletons.
Bridget: The Becky Chambers thing would be so good. Also, on the grimdark-TV front, I have been wanting an adaptation of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha for years.
Renay: I would love that. It wouldn't even be that intense, visually! Dear some channel, please contact Hurley's agent immediately.
Bridget: It would be a great sort of heist-of-the-week show. Like Firefly, but good and gritty and with more alien bugs.
Renay: The first reason I want Spiritwalker is because it's a rad story about BEST FRIENDS saving the world. The second is that it has a lot of a dudes in suits/nice clothes and then another dude who is a cat. Third reason: dinosaur lawyers. I seriously don't know what Hollywood is doing over there not adapting stuff by women (I mean, I do know. But still.)
To wrap up: do we think the recent spate of adaptations by IP from women is an aberration or a sign of things to come in the future?
Bridget: I think we'll know in 20 years, maybe. Every rad new thing done by/about women in Hollywood/on TV in my lifetime has been hailed as a sign of a new trend, and yet the needle on actual representation hasn't moved since like the 80s. At this point, I'm not getting my hopes up.
KJ: Totally, totally this. People of color, too.
Renay: I would like the short-term trend (if that's what it is) of POC getting big deals with their stories and having them actually made into shows and films. A new deal announcement every month, please.
Bridget: That would be awesome.
Renay: Be better, TV executives! WE WANT TO SEE OURSELVES.