8 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books That Deserve a Screen Adaptation

8 minute read

There’s been an explosive renaissance in science fiction and fantasy TV and film programming for quite some time now. Yet, there’s still room for more. The complex nature of most science fiction and fantasy series means that TV adaptations are often a better choice, but I’m not picky: I just want to see these eight novels or series on the screen in some capacity.

The Warrior’s Apprentice, Lois McMaster Bujold (The Vorkosigan Saga)

In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a famous segment from the Disney film Fantasia, a naïve and hapless Mickey Mouse casts a magic spell that results in a hilariously escalating disaster. If the title of the first novel in The Vorkosigan Saga sounds like a play on that, well, that’s because it is. Except that instead of an uncontrollable army of water-obsessed brooms, our 17-year-old protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, ends up in charge of an entire spaceship fleet of mercenaries, thanks to a series of increasingly comical misunderstandings and improvisations. That leads to political consequences of galactic proportions.

The Warrior’s Apprentice is a galloping romp of a book. Miles Vorkosigan is one of the most fantastic science-fiction characters ever written, and it’s a crime that he has yet to be brought to life on screen. Perhaps part of the reason he hasn’t is that he’s visibly disabled: an assassination attempt while his mother was pregnant resulted in prenatal damage that even advanced medicine wasn’t able to fully repair. Miles’s growth is stunted and his bones brittle, and as a result, the prejudiced and aristocratic society of his homeworld is ready to write him off as weak and inconsequential. The brilliance of his character is in how Miles refuses to accept his own limitations, relentlessly seeking a path to greatness in spite of—or maybe because of—every seemingly insurmountable obstacle in his way.

Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey (Kushiel’s Legacy)

Game of Thrones proved that combining sensuality with fantasy is a compelling draw. Kushiel’s Dart, a story of courtesans, angels, politics, and intrigue, focuses on the unlikely heroine Phèdre nó Delaunay, who is born with a red mote in her eye—which portends that she is destined to find pleasure in pain. She’s sold as an indentured servant to a nobleman who trains her to be not only a courtesan but a spy, eventually embroiling her in a plot to overthrow her entire nation.

Though it’s not appropriate for kids, a screen adaptation could be a celebration and examination of the darker and thornier sides of human sexuality. The novel is beautiful and carnal in a way that few American productions allow themselves to be, and it would be fascinating to bring something so intelligent, ethereal, and unapologetically sexual to the screen.

The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (The Robot Series)

Isaac Asimov is one of the greats of early science fiction. He was a monstrously prolific author who wrote or edited more than 500 books in his lifetime, and who coined the term “robotics” in a 1941 short story.

While his Elijah Baley books are less well-known, they’re my favorites, possibly because they were the first Asimov books I read as a kid. Asimov has said he wrote The Caves of Steel as an exercise to prove that science fiction could be incorporated into other genres; in this case, the murder-mystery genre. The book, which is set in a far-future Earth where massive overpopulation has prompted humanity’s retreat into cities isolated from the outside world, centers on New York police detective Elijah Baley. He’s forced to collaborate with a disturbingly human-like robot to investigate a homicide—and is quickly drawn into a mystery that’s deeply political and more dangerous than it seems. It leads to shocking discoveries about himself and the world he lives in.

An adaptation of this novel aired on the BBC in 1964, but at the time, the network had the historically tragic habit of erasing its master tapes for reuse, so almost none of the footage survived.

Daggerspell, Katharine Kerr (Deverry Cycle)

For a textbook example of “epic fantasy,” look no further than the Deverry Cycle novels. The first, Daggerspell, was released in 1986, and the most recent (Sword of Fire) came out in 2020. The story they contain—which is massive and sprawling and complicated and wonderful—begins with a star-crossed romance, the tragic outcome of which has consequences that echo across worlds, generations, and time itself.

There’s no doubt these novels would be a challenge to adapt for the screen, as they frequently jump across time and feature a succession of reincarnated characters. But the appetite for good, epic fantasy has been whetted in recent years, and there’s no better time to try. It could be marvelous if pulled off correctly.

All Systems Red, Martha Wells (The Murderbot Diaries)

All Systems Red, which first published in 2017, describes a cyborg security unit that, unbeknownst to its owner—ominously referred to as “The Company”—has managed to hack its own brain. The cyborg, which secretly refers to itself as “Murderbot,” just wants to watch soap operas but is reluctantly drawn into a mystery that threatens the lives of the humans it’s been assigned to protect.

All Systems Red won the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and was nominated for the 2017 Philip K. Dick Award. It would be fascinating to see how it would work as a screen adaptation.

His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik (Temeraire)

The basic premise of the Temeraire books is easy to summarize: it’s the Napoleonic Wars, except with dragons. What that doesn’t convey is how delightfully the author weaves together this seemingly outlandish fantastical concept.

The story introduces British naval captain William Laurence, who bonds with a dragon he names Temeraire. In this alternate-history version of the Napoleonic Wars, dragons are intelligent and capable of speech, and used throughout Europe and Asia in aerial warfare. Laurence and Temeraire must learn how their partnership changes their roles, both in society and in war.

An adaptation featuring these characters would be magnificent to see on screen. A 19th century aerial battle fought with dragons? Yes, please.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey (Dragonriders of Pern)

Speaking of dragons: A list like this requires a vote for perhaps the most famous dragon-oriented series of the 20th century: Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. Originally begun in 1967, with the novella Weyr Search, the series ballooned to more than 25 novels and multiple compilations of short stories and novellas. McCaffrey was a pioneer of the genre, becoming the first woman to win both a Hugo award and a Nebula award for her work, and one of the first authors of any gender to have a science fiction novel reach the New York Times Bestseller List (The White Dragon, in 1978).

Dragonflight (1968) is a compilation and expansion of Weyr Search and Dragonrider, the first two novellas in the series. It focuses on Lessa, the sole survivor of a slaughtered noble-ruling family on the planet Pern. Using her then-secret psychic abilities to hide in plain sight, Lessa disguises herself as a common servant—but her plans are thrown into disarray by the arrival of a dragonrider.

There are aspects of the Pern books that haven’t aged well, in particular the sexism—but I envision a TV or film adaptation that can correct the story’s flaws while still retaining its setting and overall plot.

Magic’s Pawn, Mercedes Lackey (The Last Herald-Mage)

I read an awful lot of fantasy novels as a kid, but I would be hard-pressed to think of many that made more of an impact on how I saw the world than this one. Originally published in 1989, Magic’s Pawn is the story of Vanyel Ashkevron, whose noble birth and potentially vast magical abilities are eclipsed by the shameful-to-many discovery that he is homosexual.

It may seem hopelessly backward in 2022, but reading this in the early 1990s was a revelation. Up to this point I hadn’t seen gay characters portrayed in anything other than a mocking, disgusted, or pitying light, and I hadn’t come across one who was the hero of the story. Being invited to experience firsthand the bigotry and hatred Vanyel encountered, and seeing the staunch validation of his love through the magic of his world, was a game-changer. The power of science fiction and fantasy is that it’s a fantastical mirror to our own prosaic world; its unreal settings can be startlingly effective evocations of real-world injustices, and this trilogy is a perfect example of that.

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