TV networks and online providers don’t ask for much. They simply want their next “tentpole” program to be massively successful. The formula for this is to pick a popular book or story as its source material, throw bucket loads of money at the production, stars and costumes, then wait for the viewers to crash social media. When they do, it’s slaps on the back for everyone. When the audiences don’t manifest, the project is quickly canned.
Although it’s been off the air for more than a decade, shows with a supernatural bent (like iZombie, for example) are often touted as “The Next Buffy.” A few years ago any series with a corset was “the next Downton Abbey.” Now several properties including The Last Kingdom and The Bastard Executioner are predicted to be “the next Game Of Thrones.”
And by “the next Game Of Thrones” what publicists really mean is, “wildly successful all over the world and the most pirated show of all time.” Not to advocate piracy in any way shape or form.
FXX’s forthcoming The Bastard Executioner and the BBC’s The Last Kingdom are getting a lot of interest, and rightly so. They look epic, inspiring, and handsomely cast. There will be battles, carousing, plotting, twists, turns, downfalls and empire building. We’ll have to wait and see just how violent and bloodthirsty things become as these series get their Viking on, but I’m predicting it won’t be suitable for children.
Which is all well and good. But which property truly deserves to be the next Game Of Thrones? It has to be The Belgariad. The books have been wildly popular for thirty years, they feature accessible and familiar characters, an easy to follow plot and loads of action and adventure. And best of all they are completed works – no risk of catching up to the source material before the end (Godspeed your typing fingers, George R.R. Martin!)
First published in 1982, The Belgariad is a five-book fantasy adventure series by David Eddings in collaboration with his wife Leigh. Beginning with Pawn Of Prophecy, the story follows the journey of a naive farm boy and his magical and resourceful entourage, as they set about fulfilling an ancient prophecy. The Belgariad was so successful it was soon followed by another five-book arc, The Mallorean. In other words, there’s plenty of source material to create season after season of fantasy awesomeness. Plus the two prequels. Twelve books equals plenty of seasons.
The Belgariad is accessible fantasy on a large scale, a gateway into the fantasy genre if you will. It features well-loved tropes, such as a ‘chosen one’ who is also an orphan, guided by mentors as he takes on a mystical quest. There’s a Big-Bad who can’t be mentioned (I’ll whisper it, Kal Torak) and many journeys through multiple lands meeting strange, wonderful people.
Like many time-honoured tropes, the ending of The Belgariad is never really in doubt. In a whodunnit, they find out who did it. In a Bond film, the villain’s lair blows up. In a romance, we get a happily ever after. With fantasy, the prophecy is fulfilled. The joy of the story is not in whether the good guys will win, but in finding out how they got there.
One of the easiest reasons The Belgariad should be the next Game Of Thrones is purely to do with its popularity and ready-made audience. Millions of readers have already enjoyed the books. Those who read the books in their teens *cough* now have avidly reading younglings of their own. Those who haven’t read the books will ‘get it’ because the tropes and structure are so familiar. If you’ve ever visited tvtropes.org you’ll see just how many common plot and character devices the story uses.
The characters are already familiar, so the viewers feel as if they know them already. The Belgariad’s characters fulfil classic moulds – a wise old mentor, a resourceful mother figure, a dependable blacksmith, a clueless kid who accepts the challenge etc. This is both criticism and part of the charm. The characters are memorable because they are painted with such broad brushstrokes. It’s about allowing the reader/viewer to get into the story quickly, rather than figuring out whether someone is a good guy or a bad guy. Unless you have a blunt-force head trauma, you’ll pick it up pretty quickly.
That being said, it would be awesome to see Game Of Thrones Jack Gleeson (Joffrey) as good guy/spy Silk, where the audience could enjoy his nefarious endeavours. It would make a nice change from hating him as Westeros’ super-punchable teen King. Meanwhile, how about we give the Belgariad character of Lord Barak a gender switch and cast Miriam Margoyles? She turns into a bear any time Garion is in strife. I can totally see her both protecting and keeping the chosen one in line.
The Belgariad is far more family friendly than Game Of Thrones; nobody gets his or her head explodey-crushed in trial-by-combat. (Reading the book was confronting enough.) There’s no incest or rooms full of whores (they didn’t have running hot water but by the old gods and the new they did a good wax). But there is adorable and age-appropriate romance (all the feels) fun twists and turns, battles big and small and several weddings. All of which makes The Belgariad a perfect candidate for the Saturday night family slot.
If you think The Belgariad is old hat, remember that Beowulf is about a thousand years old. Beowulf is ‘in the public domain’ so anyone can play in that sandpit. The original epic poem is about 3,000 lines long, so I’m assuming if ITV’s series is a hit, the creators will get a little creative with the script. Beowulf is about a chosen hero called upon to defeat a monster or two. Then he takes it easy for a few decades before meeting his third challenge. I wouldn’t dare spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure.
Beowulf began a long and illustrious storytelling tradition in western culture of a chosen hero marching off to battle enemies. Or, as Joseph Campbell summed up in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949) “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
(Quick digression, Beowulf also established the ‘rule of threes’, which pops up again and again in fairytales and legends. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, heck, even the Three Musketeers, although there were four of them and they had swords, not muskets).
The Last Kingdom in turn, looks insanely great, especially for fans who love history but wouldn’t want to live there. Adapted from the first of Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories, there is no shortage of Viking-versus-Saxon source material. Book nine of Cornwell’s series comes out in October.
Having seen an official teaser for The Last Kingdom, it’s hard not to think that it runs the risk of being a bloke-fest. BBC America only released a few spare seconds so it’s hardly fair to judge the entire season on one sneak peek. The main cast has eighteen players, four of them women, none of whom made the trailer.
The Belgariad could also have an issue with gender imbalance, depending on which characters the future producers choose to emphasise. Among the dozen main men in The Belgariad are four pivotal female roles; Polgara, Ce’Nedra, Velvet and Taiba. A clever gender change or two could create even better balance. Let’s face it, casting Starbuck as a woman in the Battlestar Galatica reboot was awesome. It created a stronger dynamic and made the show more interesting. The further change of not knowing whether someone was a Cylon sleeper agent only added to the magnificent paranoia.
Aside from all of the above reasons, perhaps the best reason to bring The Belgariad to the small screen is the sheer joy that will arise from the inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter. I can’t wait for the inevitable “who would win in a tri-wizard tournament between Dumbledore, Belgarath and Gandalf?”
Ebony McKenna is the award-winning author of the 4-part Young Adult series of novels Ondine. Find out more at: ebonymckenna.com.