These days, it seems like book characters are more popular than ever, with shows like Sherlock, Once Upon a Time and the upcoming NBC series Dracula building stories around classic literary characters. We decided to take a look at some at classic literature to see what other books could be mined for their great characters for the sake of a potentially great TV series, and here’s what we came up with.
(Just for reference, by "classic," we set the maximum year of publication at around 1980. So nothing published after 1980 was in contention when we made our picks.)
Jessica’s pick: The Princess Bride’s Miracle Max and Valerie
While the heroes of William Goldman’s 1976 novel, The Princess Bride, are undeniably Westley and Buttercup, the unsung heroes of the book are Miracle Max and his wife, Valerie, who bring back the potential for true love by drugging our hero back to life so that he can save the day. In a short segment, we get to see a truly wacky team that is quick to harp and berate on one another but still manages to get the job of “miracle man” done. Basically, we catch a quick glimpse at a hysterical medical partnership that could more than support its own TV show.
It would be pretty hard to get a fantasy setting as comical and medieval as The Princess Bride’s Florin across during a half-hour comedy, but I say we give good ol’ Miracle Max and Valerie an hour-long medical procedural in which they travel across the realm to perform miracles. They could diagnose a few “to the pain” injuries, disinfect R.O.U.S. bites, and even bring back a Sicilian or two from the dead. There’s so much room for interpretation when miracles are on the line, and Miracle Max, M.L.T. would never run out of good stories. Plus, some fan favorite Princess Bride characters like Inigo Montoya could always pop into the plot for an episode or five. With the return of some big name actors to television, something tells me that Billy Crystal would be up for donning the make-up and screaming at his witch of a wife again.
Jesse’s Pick: The Circus’ George Smiley
FX may have already brought cold-war espionage to the small screen with (the excellent) The Americans but there's certainly room for another drama set in the fascinating era, especially one based on the work of John le Carré that follows his MI6 spy George Smiley. The last time audiences got an adaptation involving Smiley, it was the underrated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (from Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson) that featured an Academy Award nominated performance by Gary Oldman in the literary-based lead role.
One of the primary complaints lobbied against the (what I would call an impeccably crafted) feature film was that it was too dense, leaving viewers both confused and cold suggesting that the 'anti-Bond' material might be better suited for long form storytelling. That's also what makes the BBC version of TTSS, with the late Sir Alec Guiness as Smiley, a great watch and why the character (and setting) would be perfect for serialized exploration on a cable network. And with the spy showing up as the main character in five novels (as well as a minor one in three others), le Carré has produced a a wealth of material to draw from for a potential series. I would love to see a show called The Circus that shows both Smiley's early years in intelligence (and his burgeoning rivalry with Karla) to him running things in his old age. Are there two British actors, third years apart, who look alike? Bill Nighy and Ben Whishaw?
Nick’s pick: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Zaphod Beeblebrox
As the two-headed, multi-armed entrepreneur/space captain/inventor of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, Zaphod Beeblebrox has already appeared in radio and TV versions of Hitchhiker's Guide as performed by the amazing Mark Wing-Davey, and in the slightly exaggerated feature film version played by Sam Rockwell. But I could have used an entire sub-series of novels dedicated to the conceited and calculating Zaphod and the interplanetary travels and troubles that Adams only hinted at. And a TV show with an extremely well-crafted team of writers and actors might sate that feeling.
By the time we first meet him, he is already the President of the Galaxy, albeit in name only, and is in charge of the stolen spaceship Heart of Gold. In that theft, we already have our TV series finale. But it’s the lead-up that I’m interested in now. Adams himself already created a prequel blueprint in the short story “Young Zaphod Plays it Safe,” written between So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless. In it, our lowly hero runs the Beeblebrox Salvage and Really Wild Stuff Corporation. If that company isn’t ripe for serialized storytelling, I don’t know what is.
This type of retroactive storytelling normally gets on my nerves, but in this case I want to see where his third arm came from, and I want to meet his father Zaphod the Second and his grandfather Zaphod the Third. If we’re being honest, I’d even take a Kardashian-style “reality show” where he’s followed on a day to day basis, spending more time than necessary in his enormous oddity-filled closet and getting his hair done. In any iteration, it’s all about the wit.
Kelly’s pick: Tarzan
There have been attempts at Tarzan TV series in the past, one of which occurred a decade ago at The WB, though in that case, someone thought it would be a good idea to take Tarzan out of the jungle and put him in the city where he’d help solve crimes. The jungle is where a Tarzan series needs to be set, whether it’s a proper adaptation that attempts to retell Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic story about the son of a British lord and lady being raised by a tribe of apes, or a series that’s merely inspired by the story, using the lead character in some other similar context.
As I said, there’s the traditional approach, which would be a period piece that tells the story of a man raised in the jungle by apes, and a female explorer who finds herself and her party marooned in Tarzan’s jungle. Perhaps a limited series would be suitable for this. Of course, the alternate approach is to tweak the story for modern-day characters and throw in a sci-fi twist to expand the concept and make it more adaptable for serialized story-telling. Stay with me on this. Jane is a modern woman — reporter, scientist, doctor, some other professional-type, possibly government — who finds her life turned upside down when she’s stranded on a remote island. Let’s not go overboard on the cliches of a modern-day working woman who loves shoes, wifi and Starbucks, but you get the picture. Enter Tarzan, a man raised on the island by apes… or something else. Using actual apes for some scenes and CGI apes for the more interactive scenes might require a heftier budget, but there may be a creative way around that, perhaps by throwing some kind of sci-fi twist into the tale and making the “apes” the products of an abandoned military experiment. Some explanation that would allow for special effects make-up and practical effects to be used on actual actors playing Tarzan's tribespeople, rather than relying on low-budget CGI for that part of the story. And this would allow the tribespeople to be actual characters in the story (Kala, Korak, Kerchak, etc), though not entirely human. Sci-fi aside, the core of the story would be the same, as Tarzan would be a human raised by a community of not-quite humans, while Jane and her people are the outsiders.
If such a series were to exist, the biggest conflict of Season 1 would be Jane and her people’s arrival and attempts getting off the island alive, but the series’ overall arc would be focused on Jane and Tarzan’s relationship and whatever conflicts arise between Jane’s people and the natives. And if they go the sci-fi route, with government experiments, the island could be packed with other mysteries and threats, ranging from strange illnesses to mutated animals and even military engagement, if — let’s say — this island was lost up until Jane and her people found it. A concept like this could work. Or it could be a disaster. Either way, the more modern our world gets, the more interesting Tarzan gets by contrast, so he’ll always be a prime candidate for a TV adaptation.
Mack’s pick: Peter Pan’s Smee
After spending years under the overbearing and scratchy non-fingers of Captain James Hook, it’s time for Smee to step into his own. It’s time for him to leave the superficial hell of bumbling, jovial support staff and see the world through the eye patch of a main character on television.
There are a slew of different ways a network could go with a show centering around Mr. Smee. They could age Captain Hook and his left hand man down a few years and present the no doubt fascinating story of how they ended up working together. They could give fans a gritty and ultimately uplifting drama about Smee’s attempts to move on after his longtime boss is finally consumed by that damn saltwater crocodile. Personally, however, I would like to see a half hour comedy about Smee’s attempts to open up Neverland’s first official restaurant. With Captain Hook’s blessing, as well as that of the Lost Boys, Tiger Lilly and the Mermaids, the portly and good-natured hero of our story wrestles with the challenges of keeping his patrons from fighting each other, keeping them from ditching out on checks by flying away and keeping their incessant, consequences-less appetite satiated.
CBS wouldn’t touch Mr. Smee’s Neverland Saloon with a jagged sword, but it could easily get a series order from BBC America, Syfy, Netflix or if all went perfectly, Showtime.
BONUS ENTRY - While this next pitch isn't based on a specific character, Nick wants to see a series inspired by 1984. Nick’s other pick: Characters from 1984
There is currently a feature adaptation in the works from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, but It would be far more interesting and altogether troubling to me to witness an entire series focused on the unemotional whitewashing of history, and to watch the whole of society gradually becoming inundated with secret government workers. Each successive generation since the 1949 publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has felt the increasingly precise prescience behind the dystopian classic. Not only are we at a point in history where the government seems to try its damnedest to become an independently run spy lab on top of everything else, but the Internet has helped to turn the ideas behind free speech inside out, sending us to an inevitable information implosion. At least, the Ministry of Truth says so.
So what better time than now to put together a sprawling cable epic that tells of the formation of the different Ministries and Parties, when individual revolution was more prevalent and Big Brother saw more resistance. For emotional resonance between the novel and show, the series’ main protagonist can be someone like Julia’s estranged grandfather, or the predecessor for Winston’s position within Minitrue. But this expansive universe can easily be home to a wealth of interesting characters, including the early years of Brotherhood leader and former party leader Emmanuel Goldstein, assuming he exists. Maybe that can remain part of the mystery.
It would be interesting and altogether troubling to me to watch the whole of society become inundated with secret government workers, and to witness the unemotional whitewashing of history as it happens. With shows about counter-terrorism having lost part of their impact, a series about the eradication of knowledge and privacy seems much more relatable to audiences who use television as a paranoia-fueled escape.