Iain M. Banks’ Phlebas TV adaptation at Amazon no longer happening

Exclusive: Amazon Prime’s planned adaptation of Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas/the Culture book series is not happening, confirms writer Dennis Kelly

Consider Phlebas Iain M Banks cover detail
Photo: Macmillan Publishers

For obvious reasons, it’s been a year for disappointments and delays to much-anticipated TV and film projects. The frequency of bad news though, never makes it sting any less. Unrelated to the global coronavirus pandemic, it’s been confirmed by writer and Utopia creator Dennis Kelly that Amazon Prime’s planned television adaptation of Iain M. Banks’ the Culture novel series is no longer going ahead. 

Speaking to Den of Geek about new experimental Sky Atlantic-HBO drama series The Third Day, Kelly revealed his disappointment that the Banks project, first announced in February 2018, is no longer moving forward. 

“We’d talked about it for two or three years and it went a certain way along,” says Kelly. “I’d written probably 20-30 pages of the bible, but once I got a sense that it wasn’t going to happen, I had to stop writing because you become emotionally attached to the work. You think, I can’t bring myself to write work that I think may not happen, especially not that, because I loved Iain Banks. I loved those novels, I thought they were incredible.”

What does Kelly think explains the decision? A change of heart by Iain Banks’ estate.

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“In the end, I just think the estate didn’t want to go through with it. It wasn’t the material. They hadn’t seen anything [he had written], it was just because I think they weren’t ready to do it, for whatever reason. I’m a little mystified myself, to be honest.”

“I don’t know why it fell through, because it looked like it was all lined up to be really, really interesting but it just didn’t happen. I think I sort of smelt that something was coming a little while before and then decided I had to stop working on it. I thought, if I’m not going to get the chance to write these, I can’t get emotionally involved in it.”

It was a particular disappointment, he continues, because the potential of a Consider Phlebas adaptation would have been great. “The possibility of saying something really interesting, because of where [Banks] comes from politically, just felt unique.”

The sci-fi novel is the first of 10 volumes, and is set against the backdrop of intergalactic conflict between AI-driven utopia The Culture, and the war-like Idiran Empire. It follows a shape-shifting mercenary named Horza tasked by the Idirans with recovering a crucial item that could bring The Culture to an end. 

Back in 2018 in the official press release, Kelly expressed his admiration for Banks, describing him as a personal hero whose “innate warmth, humour and humanism shines through these novels. Far from being the dystopian nightmares that we are used to, Banks creates a kind of flawed paradise, a society truly worth fighting for—rather than a warning from the future, his books are a beckoning.”

Re-reading that early enthusiasm, it’s hard not to feel the sting of missed opportunity, especially in light of how the themes of the Banks series could have been a rich continuation of the philosophical discussions on utilitarianism and individual responsibility for the future of a species in Kelly’s cult Channel 4 series Utopia, the US remake of which is due to launch on the streaming service this September. 

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“I think it could have been,” agrees Kelly, “and that’s why it was kind of heart-breaking for it to fall through, but that’s what happens. Those books are amazing, they’re so unbelievably creative. It was a real shame.”

The Third Day miniseries starts on HBO on Sunday the 14th of September and on Sky Atlantic on Monday the 15th of September.