Behold The Unfilmable: Hyperion Cantos
I am a firm believer that doing something poorly can be worse than doing nothing at all. That is why I hope no one ever makes a movie out of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos. Please don't misunderstand. I desperately wish it were possible to make a series of movies from the four books that I believe are the greatest space epics ever written. If it were done well, it could be fantastic. It's just the "done well" part that worries me. Here are four reasons why The Hyperion Cantos should remain un-filmed.
The first book in the four book series, Hyperion, is a nearly unreadable author's conceit that offers no script for a film. Simmons gathers together seven pilgrims on a religious journey. Unsure why they have been forced together, they each tell their life story to see if they can unravel the mystery. That's right, Dan Simmons' first book in the Hyperion Cantos is The Canterbury Tales in space.
Now I respect the original Canterbury Tales as a historical artifact. I can even appreciate its stories as stories, but for the modern person it doesn't exactly make for a compelling read. When is the last time you were in a non-academic environment and heard someone say they wanted to read The Canterbury Tales?
The Canterbury Tales is certainly improved upon when you put it in space and add things like deathwands, lightning trees, the Shrike and ousters, but it is still almost as unreadable as the original. Simmons gives his audience no clear reason why the disparate threads of each traveler's story hang together. That is part of the conceit, but very little has been made clear by the end of the first book, and it ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. So filmmakers who want to do justice to the Hyperion Cantos are left with two major problems with the first book: it has no satisfying ending and it does not clearly tell you what is at stake in the journey to come. There is almost no way a viable linear script could be created from Hyperion. This film would have to break a huge number of Hollywood storytelling rules and isn't at all likely to find favor with audiences not familiar with the text. That would kill not only the film, but the rest of the franchise as well, and that would be a pity because books two, three, and four would be amazing to watch. The best hope would be to combine the first and second books into a single film, but this would do neither justice.
The budget for a four film adaptation would be astronomical, approaching one billion dollars. If they did it right, the Hyperion Cantos would be jaw-dropping eye candy. Can you imagine the great tree, Yggdrasil, taking flight? How about swimming in the roots of the floating islands of the Maui-Covenant? These would be fantastic visuals, but they would cost money.
That's not to mention the casting requirements. The major players in the first book aren't the major players in the second, and then there are the thousands of people in the third and fourth books. If the movie were to have any star power at all, it would eat into the budget.
So why is this such a problem for Hyperion when it hasn't been for film franchises such as The Lord of the Rings? Simply put, while Hyperion should have legions of rabid fans demanding that a film be made, it does not. There are not whole online communities devoted to Hyperion like there are to Harry Potter. Without this fan support, and vibrant international demand for the books, there is little reason to expect that Hollywood producers or studios are going to provide the film with the budget it would require to be done well. You don't get a billion from Hollywood without your product having a huge, rabid base of built-in fans. If the Hyperion Cantos is ever made into a film, then it will most likely be severely underfunded, and that will doom the project from the start. At best, it is likely to be two films which do little justice to Simmons' epic vision.
Who is the hero of the Hyperion Cantos? The most likely candidate would be either Endymion or perhaps Aenea. Their story is the most straight forward hero's journey/love story, but they don't show up until book three and four. There is no clear hero in the first two books.
Even worse, there is not a clear singular villain. The AI community which acts from a pure Darwinian self-interest is the best possible "bad guy" in the story, but they almost never step on the stage directly. In written fiction villains are often best left offstage, allowing the reader to make them much larger and scarier than if the author described them in detail. However, movies often play better with a specific personalized villain (or so the Hollywood wisdom goes). This is how we ended up with that awful lighthouse-like eyeball in The Lord of the Rings. It personified the idea of the lidless eye ringed with fire, even as it made Sauron much less frightening and almost comical.
The Hyperion Cantos is in the end a work of fiction which includes a heavy dose of philosophy and religion. It is an argument that love is an unexpected, sacred, and unnatural outcome of Darwinian evolution. It ought not to be, but it does exist. That kind of thought doesn't translate easily to the screen. If a screenwriter tried to grapple deeply with the philosophical ideas of the Hyperion Cantos, they could easily end up in the quagmire that is the second and third installments of the Matrix franchise.
Some books are simply too awe inspiring and breathtaking in their scope for any film to do them justice. The cost and storytelling limits of the visual medium of film make it unlikely that a Hyperion Cantos movie could do the story justice. The Hyperion Cantos may be the greatest science fiction epic ever written, but a film by the same title has a much better chance of becoming a critical and financial disaster than a hit. This epic is best left in the imaginations of its readers.
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