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.

1. PLOT

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.

2.  BUDGET

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.

3. HERO

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.

4. PHILOSOPHY

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.

Image of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos)
Author: Dan Simmons
Price: $7.59
Publisher: Spectra (1990)
Binding: Mass Market Paperback, 481 pages
Erik Wecks

Column by Erik Wecks

I am a full time writer and blogger living in Vancouver, Washington. I am an author of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as a contributor to the GeekDad blog on Wired.com. I write on a wide range of topics. I am the author of two published pieces of Science Fiction and a best selling book on everyday personal finance. Currently I am working on my third story set in the Pax Imperium universe and a book on how to survive serving on an HOA or Condo Association board. When not waxing poetic on various aspects of fiscal responsibility, I tend toward the geeky.

When not poised over the keyboard, I love to spend time with my family. I am married to an angel, Jaylene, who has taught me more than anyone else about true mercy and compassion. We are the parents of three wonderful girls. As a group we like swimming at the local pool, gardening, reading aloud, playing piano, and beating each other soundly at whatever table top game is handy.

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Comments

Sara Dean's picture
Sara Dean from Southern California is reading A reader's review copy of Second Sons May 22, 2013 - 2:06pm

I wrote my whole Master's Thesis on the Hyperion Cantos, and I couldn't agree more.  The whole series was, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked, amazing, epic series of novels.  While we would want it to be as good of an adaptation as say LOTR, we would be lucky to get Harry Potter and likely get something more akin to Twilight.  

Over the past several years I have seen rumors of scripts of the Hyperion Cantos, and Bradley Cooper is still working on adapting a script (when he apparently hasn't done it before.) I hope it continues to not get made, because I just don't see how that would be possible.

 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life May 22, 2013 - 2:13pm

Bradley Cooper? Ew...

Sara Dean's picture
Sara Dean from Southern California is reading A reader's review copy of Second Sons May 22, 2013 - 3:21pm

Yes, my thought exactly. Bradley Cooper...ew.  He's a handsome guy and a good actor, but I don't believe you can be a good writer just because you semi-successfully have played one a few times.  I would love it if he had the chutzpah to send his first three pages to John August and Craig Mazin on the Scriptnotes podcast and let them rip it a new one.  :)

James McArthur's picture
James McArthur from Potato is reading a book May 23, 2013 - 3:05pm

Do we actually know anything about Bradley Cooper's writing abilities? I'm doubtful myself but it seems to me that without knowing his capablitities in writing, there's an equal chance of him being awful or terrific. Probably awful though. If he could write, he'd be making money that way. Not by being handsome and in front of a camera.

Michael.Eric.Snyder's picture
Michael.Eric.Snyder May 23, 2013 - 9:05pm

Please don't film it. Please don't film it. Please don't film it. Please don't film it. Please don't film it. Please don't film it. Please don't film it. Please don't film it. Please don't film it. Please don't film it.

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Thomas Ligotti's works May 28, 2013 - 9:12am

So, no one else is bothered by whats stated as the point/theme of the books? Love is unnatural? If anything, thats principally what makes it unfilmable.

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster June 12, 2013 - 2:10pm

Great. I think I have to read these now. Because I needed more "I need to read these" books. 

That being said, whenever another of my favorite books gets filmed, I get scared, because I'm so afraid it's going to be horrible, but I can't resist going to see it...

hal's picture
hal September 7, 2013 - 5:40am

A Prequel?

I was thinking. Assuming that the best format would be something like one book = one movie. How do you deal with the fact that the first movie couldn't possibly stand on its own? A way to introduce the cantos to the big screen could be for Dan Simmons to write a prequel (like the sequel "Orphans of the Helix", but longer). I would be delighted to read it, as fans would I can guess. Then, if it does well on the big screen, it's the green light to go ahead with Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. If it does not, the four Cantos remain unspoiled. As for the special effects, the technology as advanced quite far and it's not as challenging as it used to be to do something decent. As for the ideal director, it's hard to tell. Anybody but James Cameron that's for sure.

Cesár Sa's picture
Cesár Sa September 25, 2013 - 11:35am

I always thought Book 1 & 2 hould be adapted into a Game of Thrones format, 2 Seasons of 10 x 50 minute episodes. It will give the characters enough room to breathe and unfold.There would have to be some rewrites , just as G.R.R Martin had to do , but it can be done and be done well. GoT introduced new characters in practically every new episode, and it WORKED.

There are in fact many things you could change and still be true to the source material.

in Season 1, clearly the Consul would be the central perspective. Not in a classic hero type way, but just like Ned Stark was in GoT, you just "assumed" he is the main character, even though there were many equally important stories and he was by no means always present .And just like Ned dies at the end of Season 1, the Consul...well you know what I mean.

If Simmons is willing to write a new edition of his opus, this would be the way.

Then IF the series catches on , you can then adapt the books 3 & 4 into two neat and nice epic motion pictures with the money and stars an epos needs.

 

....so what do you say?

Fu Manchu's picture
Fu Manchu September 27, 2013 - 9:50pm

Well its simple. You do the first two books as a TV show a'la Game of Thrones. The first two books read/run like a television show. You could a season for each story. A season for the Priests tale. A season for Kassads and so on. Maybe consolidate or run two stories side by side. 

GoT has proven that a complex show with hundreds of characters is indeed possible if and only if you stay faithful to the original story and plot. Yes there are some changes but overal these changes improve the story and are so well done that I, even after reading the series several times, have no idea when bits have been altered. 

Back to Hyperion. You'd build the back story as a television show. This would allow for the construction of an experienced team of writers, production people, sets and other material that could safely sustain itself within the budget of the show and the revenue it'd earn. 

Building off the success of the shows you could then justify that their was indeed an audience/market sizeable enough to support a several hundred million dollar production budget. 

Plus you could go straight into Aenea's story without the baggage of any leading actor/ress from the television series. As the OP himself has noted this story is straight forward enough plus the fact you don't have to tell people about the back story allows you to drop a bit of the baggage that Simmons put in the later novels (to help the reader remember and to rewrite some of the siller momoments).  

Damn it people this stuff is basic and straight forward.

Maja0202's picture
Maja0202 from southern Ontario is reading Simmons, Pratchett, E F Benson, Friedman February 22, 2014 - 11:07pm

It must be done, it must be filmed.  There's talented, genius people who can do it - and then I, we get to see it.  BITE THE BULLET AND STOP WHINGING - THINK BACK.  

Didn't you go see every bad Lord of the Rings attempt, cartoons and all, hoping for the gift - that your vision of it would be realized?  

I lower-lip-bit through - 6 times - the first  Star Wars when I was 16... it was The First Seeing Of The Dream - o yeah, I was Luke Skywalker /never Princess Leia/... and I still see each worse and worser roll-out of SW, with just a touch of the same transportation.  And yup, for the most part disappointed and, if it's possible at a sci-fi movie, incredulous.... mainly at the writing and characterizations.  But never at the possibilities of the movie.

At 13, I watched Shatner as Kirk, morph from how'd-he-ever-get-that-job-when-Spock-is-obviously-better-qualified, and doesn't-anyone-else-here-wonder-why-commissioned-officers-if-they're-female-are-wearing-cocktail-waitress-outfits, to decades later of mouth-snarking, eye-popping disbelief that hundreds-of-hair-plants-and-Shatner's-still-here-plus-the-cocktail-waitress-mentality-is-still-cast-in-cement disbelief.  Albeit:  Redemption Points:  Janeway did take some of that disgust away.  The point is:  I watched because there was spec-fic/sci-fi value to me.

I watched - for gods-sakes, Dune, may-they-be-forgiven... although they never, never will.  And every permutation of every sci-fi, spec-fic novel I've ever loved, I've sat through every visualization of it - because the creators of that visualization may see some, may see all, may see it so much better, than what I saw when I read the original.  Moral:  you gotta give it a chance.

Lord Of The Rings:  in the glow of my forgiving love of the book, the movie was perfect.  From 13 years old, I've been able to transmute femaleness to Frodoness (and to create an warrior elf queen vital to several pivotal slaughters) and to not bitchslap Tolkien, who was only a male product of his time.  My only beef with the big screen realization was Liv Tyler - an Elf - Really - an Elf.  OK, actually, also the Ents.... a weak realization... poor, poor.  But I wasn't my friend who refused to see any realization lest it spoil his personal vision.  I think the LOTR's cinematic team saw my vision one better.

From to a woman who's a life-long reader of spec-fic and sci-fi, on the topic of film realization of spec-fic/sci-fi, here's a point of view that the majority of opinions on the subject - male opinions - don't register:  hardly a speck of both realizations and opinions ever register a fair balance of 50% of the human race.  Absolute fact - the genre is still mainly a man's game right now.  But I still watch, because - there's no alternative if you want to see sci-fi and spec-fic. 

I'll watch anything I've read and loved.  I'll sublimate, transfer female-ity to male-ity for the sake of connection to the protagionist or the plot.  Because - it's my genre, my main literary direction.  I have faith and I have hope that my enjoyment of the novel might be displayed beautifully by talented cinema artists.

Somebody might deliver Hyperion.  Dan Simmons has given it all the right ingredients and out there are all the right artisans.  Eventually it will be here.  And I'll be there, possibly with my 3D glasses on, hoping the detective is totally transferrable to me being her.

Cinematic realization of speculative fiction and science fiction is a minor grail that some people keep chasing...  we are not destroyed by the frequent disappointment, we are disproportionately blissful with the occasional viewing. 

 

Piotr Wojcik's picture
Piotr Wojcik March 14, 2014 - 7:56am

@Maja0202 but remember this is not like LoTR, because there wasnt any second of sex scene and nudity. Cantos books have sci-fi/romance genre with often sex, love, nude scenes, so it 's a dilemma for creators to censure to PG13 and expose themselves to hates and critics from fans or add sex scenes and have higher age category and more money from movies...

Ray Licuanan's picture
Ray Licuanan April 30, 2014 - 10:55pm

@Sara Dean: Please do not use Hyperion and twilight in the same sentence...
 

Given The Cantos is a complex story telling, I still count it as one of the most in-depth ones. I may have skipped on some parts, but the ones I did read was still so well written...

oniMV's picture
oniMV January 17, 2015 - 10:35am

I joined this site just so I could comment here: everyone has taken away something different from this series, except, I think, the story. There is indeed one main hero in Hyperion, though perhaps not in the stereotypical sense as it is the Consul, who not only plays the role of mediator, and narrator in some senses, but is himself a player in these tales. The stories of each character intertwine beautifully, irrevocably, and integrally: they have each their own reasons and purposes, but their lives have culminated to a distinct point where they must all meet and see how their paths lead them to Hyperion. And not belabour the point, but I found this series to be an epic poem all its own, despite Mr. Simmons' integration of real and reconstituted characters as well as his intellectual usage of the Canterbury tales as the basis for his premise. It is original, thoughts provoking and yes, it would be difficult to produce as a film or series if films. I would like to point out, however, that Bradley Cooper (whatever your opinion is of a man you do not know) is an actual avid fan of these books, and without knowing what his capacity for screenwriting, I feel more enchanted by the idea of someone who respects the story as he obviously does to ha e the opportunity to introduce others to what I refer to as my "SciFi" bible. Thanks for reading.

Q Day Tah's picture
Q Day Tah May 22, 2015 - 5:56pm

I have also joined this site to say thanks to omIMV for their post, capturing my thoughts quite well.  Consul is the main character, Shrike/AI's the villain(s), and in an age of ever improving movie magic, why should we continually limit ourselves to selling the same superheroes and vampire love stories, and shy away from telling a truly unique, and epic tale.  If the movie(s) don't follow the timeline of the books, who cares?  The stories themselves don't follow a sequential timeline.  This is a perfect environment for creative license.

 

To Eric, on your comments on book one, "nearly unreadable?"  Are you out of your freaking mind?  I've recommended the series to quite a few people, including my teenage son, and no one else has found it anything approaching unreadable.  Simmons ability to craft each tale in a different voice and genre was one of the things that caught my attention.  The depth and vision, action and deeper philosophy kept it, and made this my favorite series, with the first book being my favorite.  The Canterbury tales framework seems almost a happy accident, and really doesn't deserve mention, except to describe the similarity.   Not having a definite ending as a criticism?   So GoT, LOTR, etc.  suffer the same flaw.

 

My hopes for the movie, the thing that brought me to this site, are that Cameron and company will get tired of retelling Pocohantas in space, and make some movies with a real plot.  Thanks

lineman's picture
lineman June 3, 2015 - 6:02pm

I need to agree with most of you who think that Hyperion is impossible to be translated into a motion picture . But it definitely could be transformed into a TV series. HBO and Netflix have proved that great story telling can be shown on TV, not only in Cinema. They can play with the stories and characters ( and SGI dont have to be Oscar worthy) . As long long as they get the tone right ( like Jackson did with LOTR ) little changes will be acceptable. I know that as fans is very tempting to thing that this story is so great that no body could make a movie out of it, but could you imagine what it would be if they actually succeeded?