Game of Thrones deconstructed the familiar cliches of high fantasy, taking a grittier, more logical look at that genre. And everyone loved it.
Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns both did that for superhero comics. And everyone loved it. Or comics people did, at least. Then everyone did when Christopher Nolan drew from the latter work to inspire his Batman trilogy.
And The Walking Dead did that for zombie fiction, kind of (kind of because George A. Romero started at a gritty and logical point with it years ago, but Walking Dead has extended the concept out to long-term survival, arguably a deconstruction of a genre often limited to the early days of the outbreak). Everyone loved it, kept loving the comic, stopped loving it after early seasons of the show.
A billion people have deconstructed horror movies. Some love it. That’s fine. I’m not really interested in most horror films, but I do want to make my point a little more.
Zombies, wizards, caped crusaders, murderers...all major tentpoles of genre storytelling have been deconstructed and taken to real, logical places with a notable exception: science fiction.
There is, however, source material out there awaiting adaptation to remedy this, to take our Star Wars and Star Treks and turn them into something we relate too without having to sustain disbelief. This material might even stand up to scientific scrutiny from Neil Degrasse Tyson, it's that good.
I’m talking about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle novels, the bulk of which were written during a torrid and arguably unmatched ten-year literary stretch from 1966 to 1976, with the final three entries capturing the Hugo Award, basically the Pulitzer Prize of sci-fi.
I can see it so clearly in my head, a series on FX or HBO or AMC, an anthology where characters don’t carry over from one season to the next, starting with Rocannon’s World. I can see the world-building, done slowly at first. I can see the twists and reveals of the first book, as well as of the second and third, Planet of Exile and City of Illusion, respectively. I can see warring and subtle aliens and fights for survival.
I can see it then transition from genre into undeniable prestige TV in the fourth season, which brings the classic The Left Hand of Darkness, easily the most distinguished book in Le Guin’s prolific career, made more relevant now as society begins a presumably long process of integrating gender fluidity.
In these books there are myriad alien races, different worlds, civilizations in various states of development, windows into ages of fantasy. There are love stories and meditations on consciousness and questions about whether human evolution itself might have been tampered with by peoples from the stars. There’s political intrigue and politicking and science, all built upon a staggeringly realistic foundation of ideas rooted in real anthropology, presumably gleaned by Le Guin’s upbringing as the daughter of a UC Berkeley anthropologist and a writer.
I know the anthropology stuff is a dry sell, but Mad Men worked, didn't it? I also think the zeitgeist has never been so primed for such an adaptation, for an alternative to the annual Star Wars releases, which are tiring now in their early phases with the accompanying year-round news and hype cycles, both of which only stand to get worse in the years to come.
What you get in Le Guin’s works is not swashbuckling space operatics. It’s a series of barely-connected stories of how planetary characteristics influence culture, evolution, and the ways people socialize. It’s different and easier to relate to than laser swords. In her work, communication through space is hard, travel is harder. People spend lifetimes moving between worlds, as it no doubt would be had we mastered that sort of technology.
This all makes so much sense, and it would seem Le Guin herself is amenable to having her work adapted. A recent news note suggested Left Hand of Darkness was getting a limited television series, but also called into question its own likelihood by noting there was no screenwriter. And she has previously allowed for adaptations of another series of books of hers, the Earthsea fantasy novels (although she lambasted the questionable quality).
The point is this can and should be done, and if it does happen, the potential for mainstream success is there, as much as it was for Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.