News has arrived that Warner Bros., the home of Harry Potter and The Hobbit, is adding another realm of fantastic beasts to its scaly roster. The studio has snaffled the rights to the hugely popular Dragonriders Of Pern series written by Anne McCaffrey and her son Todd. There are 22 volumes in total, providing plenty of the kind of world-building and narrative raw materials it has so successfully juiced with J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. But who are these dragonriders? And where, for that matter, is Pern? For those that aren’t au fait with the property, we’ve answered some of the key questions surrounding what could become a major movie franchise.
What Is Dragonriders Of Pern?
In short, it’s a series of books by American-Irish novelist Anne McCaffrey. The first two novellas, Weyr Search and Dragonrider, combined to form 1968’s Hugo Award-winning Dragonflight and won her a small army of fans that’s swelled with every subsequent addition. And there’s been 22 of them. 1978’s The White Dragon made it onto the New York Times Best Seller list, which means LOADS of people read it, and her son Todd has taken on the mantle since McCaffrey’s death in 2011.
Pern, eh? So It’s Set In Switzerland?
That’s Bern. This one is set somewhere in the vast expanse of space you can’t get to on EasyJet. Pern itself is a planet that is threatened by lethal, mycorrhizoid spores known as ‘Thread’ that periodically rain down from an orbiting mass called the Red Star. They enter the planet’s atmosphere and devour everything organic in their path, like tiny versions of those things Kevin Bacon was faced with in Tremors. This is extremely bad news for the human settlers who’ve been eking out a pre-industrial existence since colonising the planet several generations earlier.
With 20-plus books, there’s a wealth of characters and storylines to explore. The novels themselves offer coming-of-age tales, sci-fi/tech themes and Threadfall survival stories.And Who Are These Dragonriders?
They’re the people charged with defending Pern from Thread using the planet’s indigenous dragons for the job. The wyrms, which come in many different shapes, sizes and even colours, and have a rich inner life in the books, are bred and trained in communities called ‘weyrs’. All but the largest Gold queen dragons chew on phosphine rocks and, thus fuelled, are able to incinerate the spores with their flames. And effective teaming between dragon and rider requires a Maverick-and-Goose – okay, Hiccup and Toothless – like understanding. A psychic bond, if you want to be all New Age about it.
Like In Avatar?
Those were Great Leonopteryxes, an entirely different species. Don’t ever work at a zoo.
So What’s The Likely Scope Of The Story?
Good question. With 20-plus books, there’s a wealth of characters and storylines to explore. The novels themselves offer coming-of-age tales (The White Dragon), sci-fi/tech themes (The Skies Of Pern) and Threadfall survival stories (Dragonsong). There’s even one with a dragon-offing pandemic that could play like Contagion-with-wyrms (Sky Dragons). Key figures to expect include young dragonrider Jaxonmand Lessa, a girl whose path to heroic deeds is seriously bumpy. If you’re reading the books, keep an eye out for her.
Will Do. So Why Hasn’t This Been Adapted Sooner?
It nearly was. Twice. Warner Bros. has already been most of the way down the road to adapting it, albeit for its TV arm, in 2002. Sci-fi maven and Star Trek alumnus Ronald D. Moore had already put out feelers to adapt it into a miniseries via another Canadian company, Alliance Atlantis, when he revisited it determined to find a way in. He talked the studio into commissioning a pilot but baulked at last-minute script changes that, according to some sources, had made it feel “like Buffy The Vampire Slayer”. Moore walked away, becoming showrunner on a certain Sci-Fi series called Battlestar Galactica, and the rest is Twelve Colonies history.
Erm, You Said “Twice”
Yes indeed. In 2006, Toronto’s Copperheart Entertainment – the righteously medieval-sounding enterprise behind Vincenzo Natali’s Splice – optioned the McCaffrey books. Anne McCaffrey understandably kept a J.K. Rowling-like grip on the rights until she was satisfied with their plans. “I wouldn't let it go to someone unless I was certain that they were committed to excellence,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. Those plans involved Hollywood screenwriter David Hayter, whose CV now includes X2 and Watchmen, but despite work on a script, physical concept art and a distribution deal with Entertainment One, it never came together. Disaster struck.
Yup. With that flop as a contributing factor, the project fell apart and rights reverted to the author(s). Now, thanks to yesterday’s deal, they’re residing in Warner Bros.’ vault ‘o’ goodness again.
We’ve Had Peak Beard. Aren’t We Approaching Peak Dragon?
Not nearly. There’s Game Of Thrones’s ever-more-formidable dragons, Peter Jackson’s final Hobbit, in which Smaug goes all Solange Knowles on Lake-town, and, of course, a How To Train Your Dragon 3 now in development. Jackson has also been long-linked with Naomi Novik’s eight-strong Temeraire series – he’s talked of an HBO-style miniseries in the past – which sees dragons flambéing large swathes of the Napoleon Wars. You can also get Reign Of Fire really cheaply on Blu-ray.
So Will We Be Dragon-riding At PernWorld Amusement Park One Day?
Well, it won’t be called ‘PernWorld’ because that’s a rubbish name, but it’s safe to say that Warner Bros. has merchandising and franchise opportunities in mind here. Fans of a good balance sheet – and aren’t we all? – will know that the end of the Harry Potter and Middle-earth series is the kind of thing that can lead to uncomfortable silences at AGMs. A new box-office smash fantasy epic would lead to much Hippogriffing in Burbank boardrooms. And probably with fans too.
This All Sounds Expensive.
Well, yes. Copious VFX, production design, costume and practical effects work are needed to make McCaffrey’s world really sing on the screen (mycorrhizoid spore doesn’t come cheap either). But if Warner Bros. can translate the huge Dragonriders fan-base into bums on seats with anything like the success of its Harry Potter series, the rewards will be enormous. Watch this space.