When Will Hollywood Discover the Magic of Piers Anthony?

The discovery of a strange new world right behind our own seeming reality is a staple of the fantasy and science fiction genres. It offers a perfect canvas on which to paint out existential what-ifs, to literalize our darkest fears and dangers, to show characters unearthing special untapped talents (that are, it's implied, inside all of us). Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments are two of the most successful recent young-adult series with this premise to find their way from bookshelves to theaters. The adaptation of Riordan's mythology-themed second book, Sea of Monsters, opened August 7, and right behind it Clare's demon-heavy first novel City of Bones sits poised to take a run at moviegoers Wednesday, August 21.

The variations appear inexhaustible, and Hollywood remains eager to back them as movies (and potential franchises). This got us thinking about other great, earlier fantasy fiction that built plots on the dual-worlds foundation but has yet to be made into movies despite being rich material for cinematic translation. Arguably, no one has played in this storytelling sandbox as much as Piers Anthony, a prolific and popular fantasy author who has never quite reached the cultural penetration of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis or George R.R. Martin. His absence on movie and television screens may be the key reason. (The same could be said of Terry Brooks.) Despite having published more than one hundred novels in the half-century he's been writing (he turned seventy-nine this month) and sold millions of books, Anthony has yet to see Hollywood adapt his work. This seems like a missed opportunity.

In the late '70s and '80s, Anthony created three different series built around clever twists on the formula. In the Apprentice Adept series -- originally a trilogy that grew to seven books -- two worlds occupy the same space in separate dimensions, with each inhabitant having a matching self in the other world (a trick Stephen King and Peter Straub used to fantastic effect in The Talisman). One world, Photon, is badly depleted and science-based, with a mix of aliens, robots, and humans, while the other, Phaze, is lush and magic-based, filled with fantasy creatures. If a twin dies in one world, the remaining iteration can then travel back and forth between them. The first book, Split Infinity, introduces Stile (note the name), a lowly inhabitant of Proton who inadvertently discovers Phaze, where he has a destiny that could lead to his political rise in Proton. The series' mix of personal magic, inter-species relationships, and game-based political machinations is fascinating and wholly original.

At thirty-six books and counting, Anthony's Xanth series, which began with A Spell for Chameleon in 1977, is one of the longest-running series in literature. Its tweak on the premise is that the magic-based reality full of fantasy creatures that the main characters inhabit is the "real" one, while Mundania, the reality we know, is the "other" world. The Xanthian humans can travel to Mundania and mix with Mundanes, but the latter are generally seen as random interlopers when they stumble into Xanth. The first book follows Bink, a Xanth inhabitant exiled to Mundania for not having a magical talent who encounters a woman named Chameleon whose attractiveness and intelligence vary as the lunar cycle spins. The series is full of wordplay and title puns (Crewel Lye, Isle of View), and its playfulness cheekily teases the genre's typically oh-so-serious demeanor (i.e. Tolkien, Lewis, et al.). Which may be why Hollywood hasn't touched it, though Chameleon was once in development with Wolfgang Petersen and David Benioff producing at Warner Bros.

A third series, Incarnations of Immortality, posits that regular people are suddenly recruited to take on the godlike roles of Time, Death, Fate, War, etc. Faced with such a momentous responsibility, each character is forced to reckon with just how his decisions affect those around him. Each of the eight books in the Incarnations series, beginning with the Death-focused On a Pale Horse, published in 1983, reveals to a single human the unknown forces at work in the world (albeit a magic-enhanced version of it).

Maybe Anthony's work is just too strange or light for Hollywood. Maybe it's not action-oriented enough to justify the big-budget scale required to generate its eye candy, though a veteran studio screenwriter could juice that easily enough. Given that each series creates its own unique fully-formed world, unfolds with a large cast of characters and plays out storylines over multiple books, his stuff is probably better suited to television. And actually, the 2003 Showtime series "Dead Like Me" took some inspiration from Pale Horse, which at one point was in development for a standalone series at Touchstone/ABC. So maybe it's simply a matter of patience -- something the Grim Reaper knows a little about.

Of course, there could already be dozens of Anthony adaptations running in that alternative reality shimmering just behind ours.

Have you read Anthony? Which books are your favorites? Why do you think his work hasn't been adapted for television or film?

  • Christopher Marry Hultman

    I think Anthony's series of books would make a great TV show, a more humorous fantasy show that would play with the genre itself. This might come in conflict with the fantasy/CSI spoof that British TV is developing based on Pratchett's Night Watch from Discworld.

  • Teacher in China

    I just brought this up in a thread on avclub - I totally agree with the author here on all the suggestions. In a perfect world, I'd love to see a TV series on the Incarnation series - one season for each novel. I'm not sure how well it would do though since each novel really has a different feel - would people tune in consistently? Oh well, each one in a movie would be good enough (with an extended DVD Director's Cut, of course!)

    The Xanth books definitely have enough good stuff in them to make a TV series, and there's just an arse load of books to choose from, as you mentioned. Again, I'd take movies if that's all we can get.

    And yeah, the Phase / Photon stuff would be amazing too. You've really hit on the only series of his that I really got into a lot. It's been a while since I've read them all, but I remember the first 2 Xanth books being excellent, and various ones after that as well (the one with the Night Mare was good). My favourite Incarnations were Death, Time, Satan (still haven't read the "Night" one). The Phase / Photon stuff I haven't read in AGES, but the name "Juxtaposition" jumps out at me as one that I remember being good. I think I enjoyed them all pretty equally possibly...

    Anyway, I'm with you! Let's hope it happens some time soon!

  • Ilia

    Ugh... I used to like Piers Anthony's books, but the same themes kept cropping up over and over in them, and I kept getting more and more uncomfortable the more of his books I read.

    In the Xanth books, the whole "you don't have to love him, you just have to marry him and produce an heir" with princesses may be technically accurate, but when the same thing is repeated in EVERY book that deals with a princess/prince marrying makes the series really irritating to me. I started to get uncomfortable overtones that this was Piers' actual mentality toward women, because it never went away in ANY book. The fact that love came in anyway, was like "Oh well, so it's okay now, right?"

    In the Incarnations of Immortality, something that pissed me off royally was when the God of War insults a female character by calling her a Geisha (basically a prostitute), She gets angry and tells him off. He gets angry and sulky and refuses to form an alliance, so she is ultimately forced to sacrifice her "first blood" (aka let him take her virginity) in order to soothe his male ego from her "insult to his pride."

    Oh yeah, and guys needs a concubine, because a wife isn't capable of satisfying his lust, so if he's in the mood and the wife isn't, he should be able to screw a concubine instead! THAT showed up too in the Immortality series...

    And these themes keep occurring. Every book I read, there was always this "What the males want first WHICH IS SEX! DID YOU KNOW? SEX! WE'RE TALKING ABOUT GIVING YOUR MAN SEX WHEN HE WANTS IT! Oh yeah, and love is optional," vibe keeps slapping me in the face.

    I think Piers has some misogyny toward's women. In his Mode series, he was describing rape and molestation of his female characters through every single book.

    It's the "It's okay to have sex with little girls if it's 'True Love'" thing that finally got to me. Every single book, including Xanth and Immortality, which actually ended with the person who took over being God saying it was okay for a grown man to be with a 14-year-old girl. Ugh.

    I used to have ALL of them up to Swell Foop and all of the Immortal series. But I ultimately sold ALL of his books to a used bookstore because this themes just wouldn't go away.

    • Totally. Enjoyed Piers Anthony's Immortal series as a teen but when I read Macroscope as an adult (heh) the blatant sexism in depicting the main female via the protagonist was just way over the top.

      Great scifi despite the clay in the writers feet.

    • Maria Dryna

      I am CRUSHED! I was ready to defend him and everything he has written but...oh wow. That IS true he does use his women in the books like sex toys. I was a little disturbed by the girl/man relationship though they kept repeating the theme that she DID know her own mind and was the more experience one in the relationship having been a prostitute. She was obviously looking for a father figure type of guy and would never have a normal relationship...I got it and it soothed my ruffled feathers. Under a Velvet Cloak, however was a book with solid sex in it. I was sickened first by the relationship she had with a gay man that only liked boys. He was older so I assumed he mean 18-21 and kept on reading. Alas, no the man had sexual fantasies and hankered after boys that were 7-10 years of age. NO!!!!! OMG NO!!!!!!!! Then the book kind of went downhill from there with the sex Sex SEX. We all know Nox is a sensual and sexual creature but every sing page had sex in it.

      I was resistant to your suggestions on here at first, prepared to defend but for the first time, a negative review has actually made me see the truth. I don't know whether to thank you or hate you for it. 🙂

  • Nate

    I read every incarnations of immortality and most were fantastic. On a pale horse was and is still my favorite and was supposed to be film adapted starring Jamie Foxx but i guess Warner Brothers let the option die. I wrote to Piers once in the hopes of getting his permission to write a screenplay of it which is when he gave me the whole story. If 50 shades of grey can get a movie I'm not sure why at least one of Piers' books can't as well.

    • Bob B

      I have no argument about 50 shades. Tried reading it and just awful and juvenile. However, I think Piers' problem is the shallow facetious writing tone coupled with the little misogynistic and sexual sucker punches he throws in unexpectedly. The writing and plots are perfect for YA fiction but the nastiness that leaks through every so often is why my son is not going anywhere near this author. At least not until he's in late high school or older.

  • beth

    Please please please make the Robot Adept series into a tv series like on HBO it would blow game of thrones out of the water in fantasy, magic and sci -fi, amazing story telling by Piers Anthony I absolutely love this series of books and not sure a movie could match my imagination but would love to see someone try with the advancements in cgi like avatar I can see it working now.

  • Toad Thomas

    Total Recall