Film and TV

From Game of Thrones to Outlander: Ranking the Best and Worst Sci-Fi and Fantasy TV Adaptations

When it comes to TV adaptations of sci-fi and fantasy novels, Terry Brooks, author of The Elfstones of Shannara, said it best at the Tucson Festival of Books: “The book is always better!”

But some book-to-TV adaptations are better than others. For every loving adaptation like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, there is an Earthsea, where the showrunners clearly did not pay attention to the source material, much less the subtext or authorial intent.

And with the current explosion of programming in the wake of Game of Thrones, your binge-watching time is at a premium. So let’s take a look at 15 sci-fi and fantasy book adaptations and how well they meet the standards of their book counterparts, ranked from worst to best.

The Winter Dragon (2015)
Based On: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Winter Dragon is just comical. When Jordan passed away in 2007, the TV rights to his “Wheel of Time” series were bought by Red Eagle Entertainment. When those rights were set to expire last year, the company released a hastily-produced, half-hour infomercial based on the six-page opening prologue from The Eye of the World, the first novel in the series. The “adaptation” starred Billy Zane, essentially reciting that prologue, and was purportedly shot in a single day the week before the rights were set to revert to Jordan’s estate. In an even odder twist, the director died in a car accident the day after production wrapped. It is as good as can be expected giving those circumstances — a crass attempt to hold onto intellectual property without actually doing anything with it.

Earthsea (2004)
Based On: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin’s groundbreaking YA fantasy is rightly acclaimed as one of the foundations of the genre. And the announcement of this miniseries adaption by the SciFi channel met with excitement in the wake of Lord of the Rings’ success. Alas, the tale of Ged, a young student at a magic school who eventually becomes a powerful and scorned mage, was universally condemned upon its release. And the loudest voice criticizing the miniseries was Le Guin herself. The acclaimed author was excluded from the show’s development despite being credited as a consultant. She went so far as to pen an open letter to her fans disavowing the adaptation, and excoriating the producers for their indifference to her material, especially by whitewashing her dark-skinned characters.

The Dresden Files (2007)

Based On: “The Dresden Files” series by Jim Butcher

These novels about a magical private investigator living in Chicago form one of the archetypal urban fantasy series, so the announcement that SciFi would adapt it for TV in 2007 met with excitement from the fans of the bestselling titles. Pity SciFi botched its handling of the series on near-Firefly levels. The initial pilot stayed close to the original novel, Storm Front, but that episode ended up being delayed and recut to the point it didn’t fit with the rest of the short series run. The rest of the episodes strayed further from the series, incurring fan ire and failing to build a following. The show ended up getting scrapped after one season. The books continue to top bestseller lists, however.

Legend of the Seeker (2008-2010)
Based On: The Sword of Truth” series by Terry Goodkind

There's an old joke about the two most influential books on teenage boys being Atlas Shrugged and Lord of the Rings. With Legend of the Seeker, you get the best of both worlds. Applying Rand’s Objectivist philosophy to a sword-and-sorcery setting, Goodkind’s series has been polarizing fantasy fans for more than 20 years. The Sam Raimi-produced TV series toned down the Randian politics (and the graphic sex) in favor of a more straightforward sword-and-sorcery approach. While the show lasted two seasons, it never garned much attention, often comparing unfavorably to Raimi’s '90s hits, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.

Childhood’s End (2015)
Based On: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke’s tale of a benevolent alien invasion, provoking mankind’s evolution to a Utopian society at the expense of its humanity is one of science fiction’s true masterpieces. Concepts from the novel formed the basis for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and inspired bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis. Sadly, the SyFy miniseries fell short of expectations, ditching the philosophical ruminations and Cold War paranoia of Clarke’s novel for an X-Files-esque mystery about alien invaders. Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones) shined as the alien supervisor Karellen, however.

Shannara Chronicles (2016-)
Based On: The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

The Elfstones of Shannara is a seminal work of post-Tolkien fantasy, topping the bestseller list in 1982 and ushering the era of “big fat fantasy” novels. MTV seemed like a strange fit for this adaptation, but Brooks was enthusiastic about the show. It has received a mixed response from fans, however. Given MTV’s target demographic, the show is geared more towards YA audiences rather than the older geeks who discovered the book 30 years ago, amping up the teen romance and lessening the adventure. Another common complaint is the post-apocalyptic setting of the series — there are subtle hints in the books that Shannara is Earth in the distant future, which become more pronounced as the series continues. The TV series places the post-apocalyptic setting front and center, with overgrown modern landmarks like Seattle’s Space Needle and a scene where the main characters watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It did resonate, however, and recently was renewed for a second season.

True Blood (2008-2014)
Based On: “The Southern Vampire Chronicles” by Charlaine Harris

True Blood started so well; unfortunately, it ran out of steam after a few seasons. With its stylish credits and brilliantly curated soundtrack, the tale of Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress in Bon Temps, Louisiana, and her vampire lover, Bill, was the latest in a string of HBO successes in 2008. As the show continued and the stories strayed from their source material, the quality declined. There were occasional flashes of brilliance in the later seasons, but overall the show remained popular before it wrapped up in 2014.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael runs the Sci-Fridays Book Club at the Poisoned Pen, and volunteers at local pop-culture conventions. He can be found at the occasional prog-rock concert.
Contact: Michael Senft