The massive success of Marvel movies has powerfully renewed public interest in cinematic universes. From DC crossovers to Universal’s hastily scrapped “Dark Universe” (yeah, we don’t talk about that one), every major studio seems desperate to get in on the action, pumping out their own version of the winning formula. The thing is, their ideas are starting to look a little tired (looking at you again, Universal).
Well, studio execs, it’s your lucky day! Here are seven ideas for the next big cinematic universe: fictional worlds from literature that would translate beautifully to the big screen, thanks to their amazing worldbuilding, expansive plots, and endless spin-off potential.
1. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
It’s incredible that a fictional world as beloved as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld hasn’t already been given the cinematic treatment.
Pratchett’s hilarious fantasy series — which began in 1983 with The Color of Magic, widely recognized as one of the best fantasy books of all time — takes place on the titular Discworld (a flat planet balanced on the backs of four elephants, which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle flying through space… naturally).
Populated with such diverse characters as the personification of Death, an orangutan librarian, and the Oh God of Hangovers, the Discworld is surely prime material for an extended universe. There are dozens of distinct yet interconnected stories, and you’ll spot familiar faces popping up time and time again in the series — perfect for those all-important crossover movies. Not to mention that, despite its comedic veneer, Discworld contains some surprisingly profound themes that would lend a film adaptation the gravity needed to endure in popular culture.
While there have been a handful of miniseries and TV specials produced which do a good job of adapting Pratchett’s books, I think it’s time to give a full-blown movie franchise a try.
2. Philip Reeve’s Larklight universe
Set in an alternative Victorian era in which space flight has been achieved and the British empire extends into the stars, Larklight is the steampunk space opera you didn’t know you needed. This sci-fi action adventure would be perfect for a big screen, largely because of its out-of-this-world settings; with key episodes taking place on the moon, Venus, and a hotel floating in an asteroid belt, you’re spoiled for choice in terms of cool visuals.
Add a host of weird creatures (think giant spiders and hoverhogs), plus the possibility to expand on a whole backstory of interstellar exploration, and you’ve got a sure winner.
Oh, and did I mention there are space pirates? Yeah, there are space pirates. And though they’ve recently re-entered the mainstream as minor characters in movies like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, I won’t rest until we have complete media saturation.
While a Larklight film adaptation was in the works a decade ago, it’s petered out since. So to any studio executives who happen to be reading this, now’s your chance to give the people what they want: space pirates. Seriously guys, it’s not rocket science (pun 100% intended).
3. James Gurney’s Dinotopia
No, Dinotopia wasn’t a weird nineties fever dream — it was a real book series, following the adventures of shipwreck survivors who stumble upon a utopian society populated by intelligent dinosaurs and their human companions. I don’t think I need to explain why this is an excellent idea for a film franchise, but if I must, here goes.
The books, albeit completely bonkers, are genuinely beautiful. Gurney’s illustrations of his dinosaurs and the impossible-to-date quasi-historical world they inhabit are next-level stunning. While previous adaptations were limited by the CGI technology available at the time (check out the TV miniseries trailer for a flavor of the visuals), with today’s tech, I think we might just be able to produce something that would do the original artwork justice.
Fun fact: George Lucas was accused of ripping off the Dinotopia aesthetic in the Star Wars prequels movies. Gurney has been a good sport about the whole thing, but I would be pretty mad — especially considering Lucas even met with studio execs to discuss a potential film adaptation of the series just five years before releasing The Phantom Menace.
That said, he could more than make up for past indiscretions by throwing his weight behind a Dinotopia movie now. Come on, George, do the right thing.
4. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern
Dragons! In space! Enough said.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern novels are prime cinematic universe material — not only because people love dragon movies, but because their scope is simply huge. The 23 novels and other short stories cover a span of more than 2,500 years in time. And there’s plenty of cross-pollination among plotlines: separate stories and characters weave together in the saga of Pern, a planet inhabited by human colonists who have lost most of the technology they arrived with, and instead live a simple pre-industrial life (and ride dragons, as the name would suggest).
The lore is so intense, and the timeline so detailed, that fans of the series are even able to carbon-date stories to different time periods using minute context clues (and take great pleasure in doing so). With a built-in fan base as cult-like as this one, a Pern series would be a guaranteed return on investment — the SEGA game based on the series already made good money, after all. Plus, with the fantasy renaissance exemplified by shows like Game of Thrones, there’s clearly more appetite than ever for stories featuring dragons and other high-fantasy creatures.
It’s high time somebody got the ball rolling on an adaptation. Just make sure to double check the timeline for canon accuracy, or you’ll have some very angry dragon fans on your hands.
5. Larry Niven’s Known Space
This sweeping fictional universe created by Larry Niven is another property just begging for a big screen adaptation. Covering a thousand years of hypothetical history, from early human space exploration to full colonization, Niven’s hardcore sci-fi Tales of Known Space pack in so much detail it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. His best-known novel, Ringworld, kicks off with an investigative mission to a vast alien space station that may or may not be dangerous to humans — and only grows more thrilling from there.
The world(s) formed and refined by these dozens of short stories and novels have inspired other authors to create too: the spin-off Man-Kzin Wars anthology features titles by other writers, meaning Known Space even qualifies as a shared universe! Exciting stuff.
Considering the microscopic attention to detail, any screenwriter would have plenty of food for thought here in penning a franchise-worthy film. Indeed, with all this rich source material on the table — from how the sociopolitical landscape might devolve on Earth, to brilliant and thought-provoking inventions, like the longevity drug “boosterspice” and the remotely brain-stimulating “tasp” it’s hard to imagine ever running out of ideas.
6. Walter Moers’ Zamonia
If you haven’t gotten yourself lost in Zamonia yet, you really should. This fictional continent (located between North America and Eurasia, FYI) is the home of German author Walter Moers’ characters, and offers some pretty spectacular bang for your buck in terms of adventure.
The continent, which apparently once existed in our own world but sunk under the ocean Atlantis-style during the “great descent”, is as vibrant and varied as its inhabitants. From the perilous and labyrinthine City of Dreaming Books, to the foreboding Lindworm Castle, to the disorienting Demerara Desert, Zamonia has it all — and that’s before you even meet the locals. Giant blue bears, spiny dinosaurs, and gnome-like Booklings all populate Moers’ pages, and their capers and crusades are nothing short of Odyssean.
It’s as zany as it sounds, but that’s all part of Zamonia’s charm. The ridiculous variety of settings and heroes would certainly keep a film series fresh. Plus, a few decent film adaptations would help us English readers out, since several installments of this anthology-style series have yet to be translated from the original German.
7. Stephen King’s universe
Even Stephen King’s shortest books are well-crafted in and of themselves, but what might be even more impressive is King’s ability to interconnect his works in subtle (and terrifying) ways.
From recurring cameos like Pennywise and the mysterious Man in Black, to repeated mentions of specific fictional locations, fans have managed to produce an incredibly intricate map of cross-references among the 60 or so works in King’s catalogue. You can see just one attempt to chart the mind-bogglingly complex connections here.
While there have been more than 40 film adaptations of King’s writings already, alongside myriad TV shows and miniseries, none of them have fully captured the intertwinement of his works just yet. Rather than a number of disparate stand-alone films, a cohesive movie universe featuring geographical continuity and creepy cameos would much better vitalize the full chill factor of King’s world.
On the other hand, that would probably increase the chances of Pennywise popping up unexpectedly. So maybe this isn’t such a great idea… but it’s a risk I’m willing to take for the magnificent potential of a fully developed SKCU.