Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) needs to take a dip into the fantasy genre. Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) should follow suit. The big movie houses have already squeezed billions of dollars out of this rich genre tradition, so why wouldn't today's most ambitious storytellers want a piece of that action?
Recently, I took a close look at the popular Wheel of Time series, arguing that it might find new life as an Amazon Prime franchise. Today, I think I found a better fit for Netflix: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
The tighter focus:
Here's a series that might have a chance at muscling Marco Polo aside for a tour of the Netflix campus.
Stopping at nine books, Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever offers a shorter storyline than Wheel of Time. It's also conveniently divided into three distinct trilogies, giving the production company the option to focus on one three-book portion at a time. That's still enough to make for a meaty multiseason series, or the producer could rip a page from the Tolkien playbook with a couple of high-budget movies instead.
The white-gold wielder gets into all the high-concept action you'd want from the next Game of Thrones attempt, coupled with quick dives back into the regular world. The usual Good vs. Evil morality is nuanced into shades of gray here, topped with a broad gallery of colorful characters, and served up in a thought-provoking dream world.
Like most of the true classics in this genre, the Chronicles have been heading toward Hollywood through the years. In 2004, rumor had it the series had been optioned for production by the producers of Saving Private Ryan and Independence Day. Donaldson quickly debunked the report, but noted that the production team was very much interested in licensing the first two trilogies. It's just that they didn't have a firm commitment from a major studio, and hence, no budget for the project.
But the idea was rejected by at least three of the major Hollywood studios. "Too dark," and "Too much like Lord of the Rings," the script buyers complained. Russell Crowe turned down the title role for being "too taxing," and the project died in 2007. Since then, Thomas Covenant has been a free agent.
That opens all kinds of doors here at the start of a new era in film-making. Covenant is quality storytelling with a large audience. As a movie series, it could become an adrenaline-packed thrill ride. Netflix is headed in that direction already with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, and a fantasy trilogy looks like a logical next step.
But movies only account for one-third of all Netflix viewing today, with the rest coming from serialized TV shows. And 13 hour-long episodes add up to a lot more storytelling than an epic three-hour movie (or even a trilogy of these). It's a great way to keep viewers committed to your platform for the long haul -- a strategy that Netflix uses often. So perhaps Covenant would be a better fit for Netflix in the TV-series format.
That approach would give much more screen time to the complicated ethics and philosophical questions of Donaldson's work. More importantly, Netflix doesn't shy away from divisive moral questions, and there's plenty of that in this series.
Stations like HBO (NYSE:TWX.DL) and Starz (NASDAQ:STRZA) have warmed up to complex morals over the years, and might be able to stomach a story that was "too dark" for the movie majors 10 years ago. But I'm still stuck on that dreadful word -- might.
HBO might accept this rich story premise. They might give the showrunners the creative freedom that's required to do it right. Or they might fail on either one of these two equally important points.
With Netflix, there are no such questions. When content guru Ted Sarandos signs off on your project, the company doesn't become a backseat driver. Show creators like to sing Netflix's praises when asked about creative freedom. The binge-friendly publishing schedule deletes the typical clunker of a pilot episode, and Netflix doesn't worry about big opening-week ratings figures, paving the way for a slower, more dramatic story arc.
I think this sets Netflix up to do something truly special with a dark, challenging narrative like Thomas Covenant. If I could pick any literary source I wanted for the next big-budget Netflix series, Thomas Covenant would be it. Sadly, I don't report to Ted Sarandos, and have no way of knowing what goes on behind closed doors at Netflix HQ. But I can dream, right?
Netflix and Amazon sure could use some heavy-hitter stories along the lines of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, and there's plenty of great material left to exploit. But Wheel of Time and Thomas Covenant are my top two fantasy series that look ready to hit the streaming vanguard -- to the cheers of Amazon and Netflix investors, respectively.