Nowadays, everything from Divergent to Outlander is coming to our screens — but one beloved, fantastic author is still being passed over. They're brilliant tales of magic and heroes, with incredibly vivid characters. Why isn't Tamora Pierce getting the love she deserves from Hollywood?
On TV and in film, we're seeing a lot of properties get developed that we never thought would have a chance. In some cases, we're seeing single properties stretched to into whole universes. Why do this when there are two worlds, by the same author, which are perfectly suited to this kind of adaptation?
Top image: Circle of Magic Bookmarks by Minuiko
Every year, I go back and re-read some books that I loved as a kid. The last few months, I decided to re-read all of the books by Tamora Pierce. And now all I can think about is how much I want to see these stories up on the big screen.
Pierce has two universes ripe for the adapting: Tortall and the Circle novels. Tortall has five book series that take place in the same world and there are two series and a couple of standalone stories in the Circle universe. These are epic worlds that Hollywood should be jumping all over itself to adapt.
Pierce has answered the question of why it hasn't been done and why she's okay with that, saying:
My film agent tells me that the largest barrier to my getting a film deal is one of the things my fans like best: the fact that, for 14 of my Tortall books, and 10 of my Circle books, there is a good chance the reader will encounter friends from the earlier books. Readers of the Kel series will encounter characters from the Alanna and Daine books; readers of THE WILL OF THE EMPRESS will encounter characters from The Circle of Magic.
The feeling among moviemakers is that if Company A makes a movie based upon the Alanna books, and Company B makes a movie based on the Kel books, Company B will be profiting from all the work Company A did, for free! (Gasp! Say it's not so!) The bottom line is that unless I get J.K. Rowling-hot, so that a film company will buy an entire universe, my chances of getting a film deal are Not Good.
... When I'm not writhing with envy, I actually don't much mind. Unless I get as big as You-Know-Who, the likelihood that I will be given any degree of control or any advisory position on a movie is zilch.
... If I did make a movie deal (I can be had—movie money is VERY good), I would warn my fans not to expect to see my books on the screen. As I said above, Hollywood is notorious for changing the book in their translations. Books take place in the reader's head. No one will capture what you imagine, which is what I love about books.
She's of course, correct in many ways. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that her books shouldn't be adapted, because they're wonderful and would look so good on screen. Plus, the thing about everything being connected, which was a liability when she wrote in 2008 is now exactly the kind of thing studios are in love with right now.
A Very Brief Description of Tortall and the Circle Books
The Tortall Universe starts with The Song of the Lioness, which follows the journey of Alanna of Trebond, who disguises herself as a boy in order to train as a knight. The Immortals has as its lead a teenage girl with magic that allows her to talk to animals and the leads of The Song of the Lioness have aged into leaders and legends themselves. Protector of the Small stars Keladry of Mindelan, who openly trains as a female knight, following Alanna's example. And Tricksters has Alanna's daughter on adventures of her own, out of the shadow of her mother. Finally, The Provost's Dog trilogy is an entry in the ever-popular prequel genre, with the ancestor of Alanna's husband taking center stage as a city guard trainee. Every single tale involves saving the realm from certain destruction.
Less robust, but equally compelling, are the Circle books. In this world, four "orphans" of various walks of life a trained in their very specific forms of magic. In that process, they deal with threats of all kinds and forge their own family, eventually taking apprentices of their very own.
Let's start with the venal reasons why these books are perfect ripe for the picking. First, Pierce's books hit right in that "female-lead-young-adult" zone that the film industry has been in love with for the last couple of years. I get that those have been more dystopic science fiction than fantasy, but the same principle should still apply. Second, they (mostly the Tortall books) fill the void of classic sword and sorcery fantasy movies that the final Hobbit movie will leave in its wake. Third, did I mention how many books there are? There are a lot. No need to stretch a single book into three movies here. And, while the universes stay the same, the main characters split off from one another or age into cameo-roles. That should be like printing money in Hollywood.
Image Credit: The Woman Who Rides Like a Man by Jessi Jordan on deviantART
Universes That Really Work
Tamora Pierce puts a lot of effort into worldbuilding. The Tortall stories have history and politics that run as undercurrents to the stories of the leads. In particular, because of the way the series follow each other, we see the long term effects of events in previous books. Alanna becomes the first female knight in centuries and the king she trained with makes a proclamation that allows girls to enter knight training openly with boys. But that doesn't magically make things better, since the first to take advantage, Keladry of Mindelan, faces prejudice and aggression as she trains.
Similarly, Daine of The Immortals finds herself caught up in the politics that precede a war. The villains of every book are sponsored by the Emperor of a rival nation to Tortall, but actual war doesn't actually break out until the final book of the series. Instead, there are proxy battles, spies, and political machinations to work through.
And, again, the effects of The Immortals last into the books set chronologically later. Daine's magic makes the animals smarter, the war of those books change the tactics being taught to Keladry in her training, and so on and so forth.
All of the series can stand on their own, but they are enriched by knowing the stories that came before.
Realistic Coming of Age Stories
If you read Tamora Pierce's books as a kid, like I did, a number of things struck home in a way that few other young adult fantasies did. While I don't know if they'd survive an adaptation, it was revolutionary to read stories that handled things like getting your first period or getting a crush on a friend and then falling out of love again. It's not about finding a soulmate on the first try, it's the more normal flush of hormones that puberty brings.
The Circle books also hit on something that happens to most of us: Growing apart and reconnecting with your best friends. The first quartet of books saw them become family, the second followed their lives on their own, and the next book reunited them. And now, with experiences they hadn't shared, they couldn't fall back into old rhythms quite so easily. They didn't know how to talk about things anymore. It was hard to figure out how navigate back to that place and it's a reminder that friendship takes work to sustain. Even for people who lived in each other's minds.
Found Families and Mentors
Speaking of the Circle books and the family forged in them, some of us are suckers for found family trope. And these books have them in spades. Alanna's father doesn't understand her, but she finds a mentor who does. All four of the Circle children find mentors who nurture talents that no one else saw. And while one's a street urchin, one was effectively abandoned by parents who thought she was too much trouble, one lost her family in an epidemic, and one was exiled by the beliefs of her people, they consider themselves brother and sisters.
As for the others, Daine is adopted by her friends in Tortall, even though she's able to see her parents once again. And Keladry, the focus of bullying for her sex and who has a supportive family, still finds support among her classmates. True friends are the kind of trope that hits a lot of us right where we live, and Pierce does it better than almost anyone.
Image Credit: The Winding Circle by lemonflower on deviantART
Pierce's books are replete with diversity of all kinds. There's class diversity everywhere, with nobles and merchants and maids and farm girls and the poor and homeless sharing the pages. There's racial diversity, with the skin color of the various characters explicitly named. There's cultural diversity, and culture clashes form the basis of a number of plots (In particular, one of the Circle books has a main character in a land very different from hers, who faces a lot of roadblocks for being an outsider.) There's diversity of sexuality, and not regulated to side characters. One major part of The Will of the Empress in the Circle universe is the same-sex relationship of one of the main characters.
It's also not utopian by any stretch of the imagination. Two characters who become effectively sisters, Daja and Tris, have prejudices against each other based on the stereotypes of their respective upbringings. They use slurs and they're mean. And Tris indulges in blaming the sickness of her friends on the fact that they venturing into the poorer parts of town, when "everyone knows the poor carry disease." They grow and learn, but no one is perfect.
And, as mentioned above, the Tortall universe in particular tackles the ugly reality of discrimination very directly, including the politics that cause every advancement to be one of inches. Keladry is placed on probation for the simple reason of her sex. And the king agrees because the political fight isn't worth it. Her maid is the victim of assault because of both her sex and her station, and the penalty is money paid to her employer. Keladry is warned that changing the law will be a slow and painful process and won't apply retroactively. It's all painfully real.
The Magic Is Awesome
On a giddier note, the magic is great. Tortall has the standard fantasy form of magics — spells and sheer power being tossed by people who may or may not know better. There's a mage battle in The Immortals that would be AWESOME to see on the big screen, culminating in one main character turning his opponent into a tree. Or the battle that ends with dinosaur skeletons joining the fight. There's also "wild magic," which allows Daine to talk to animals. YES. Talking animals, with real personalities and drives which are definitely not human. AND she learns to shapeshift. These are the things that make live action adaptations superfun and should be done immediately.
Tortall also has gods, who are interfering and inscrutable in the way of the Greek pantheon. There are major and minor gods, who do what they can to manipulate the world of mortals to their liking. There are dragons, who are scholars with politics of their own. There are giant spiders and griffins, who force truth-telling. Every fantasy magic trope is here in spades.
In the Circle universe, the magic is also split into the more traditional and the other. There are academic mages that fit the bill of magic schools in fiction everywhere. The main characters, however, have magics that work their way through more mundane things. Plants, metalwork, literal thread, and weather. And what seems like the most powerful — weather — leaves its wielder with very little in the way of a living. Unless she agrees to do things she doesn't want to do, like mess with the natural order (which, among other effects, could kill her) or kill for a living.
Image Credit: Alanna by CPatten on deviantART
They're Very Visual
While Pierce's prose is great, the strength of these stories as adaptations is that they are so visual. The dialogue is sharp and the vast majority of the action is external, not internal. Amazingly well-described, or they'd be hard to read, but still mostly action.
Ralon looked at the others. "They won't step in, no matter what?" he asked slyly.
"They won't. I swear on my honor as a gentleman. You'd better swear by something else, though. You don't have any honor." [Alanna] slapped him with all her strength and ducked.
[Daine] frowned, remembering. "[My heart] made too much noise. I wanted it to quiet down so I could talk with the dolphins."
"Do you hear her?" Numair asked the clouds. "She wanted to talk to dolphins, so she stopped her own blessed heart! Mithros, Mynoss, and Shakith!"
Lord Wyldon: "You have been told to mind you manners, Page Nealan. I will have an apology for your insolence."
Neal: "An apology for general insolence, your lordship, or some particular offense?"
Lord Wyldon: "One week scrubbing pots. Be silent."
Neal: "How can I be silent and yet apologize?"
"You don't respect me," Kel told him with her sourest glare.
Neal grinned. "I respect you heaps, lady knight. I'd've thrown myself off a bridge, getting this assignment. You, you're there with lists and plans. You listen to every flap-mouthed bumpkin who thinks he can do your task better, and you answer him with a smile and thanks. Why, you've inspired me to be a blessing to my fellow bumpkin, just like you." He fluttered his fingers in delicate farewell and trotted down the stairs.
"I can turn him into something, if you like," Numair murmured, startling a laugh out of Kel.
"He was actually complimenting me," she told the mage. "It happens so rarely, I'd hate to see him turned into anything for it."
Tris: "I was reading."
Sandry: "You're always reading. The only way people can ever talk to you is to interrupt."
Tris: "Then maybe they shouldn't talk to me."
"Well. Knowing that he will assist you makes all the difference. Now, instead of wishing to throw Winding Circle's mage council into the harbor, I will do so. Immediately."
All of that comes with magic battles, crime solving, wars, and knight training. Everything would look so good on screen, it's such a shame we haven't gotten to see it yet. Tortall as a universe seems ripe for a Game of Thrones-style TV show, with each book series maybe acting as a Star Trek-style nested universe of shows. Having the characters of The Lioness books show up as adults in later shows feels like something The Next Generation did for The Original Series cast. So long as the Provost Dog doesn't end up the Enterprise of the bunch.
And The Circle of Magic would be an excellent movie franchise. It's like Pierce foresaw the interconnected universe that is so beloved right now. The first series even devotes one book to one lead, and then splits up the main characters to have adventures on their own. After that, who wouldn't want to see the team back together for an epic mega-film?
C'mon, Hollywood, this should be such an easy decision.