HBO's Game of Thrones has taken the television world by storm, and other big streaming companies are trying to replicate that success. Netflix has chosen to produce a series based on Andrzej Sapkowksi's Witcher novels, which is a fine idea—the Witcher universe is a "realistic dark fantasy" setting; quite close to the Song of Ice and Fire in grit and blood. Amazon has just announced an adaptation of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time megacycle, which attempts to make up for not being as gritty or "realistic" and well-realized as those other two through sheer quantity.
Here are a bunch of series I'd give the go-ahead to immediately, if I had the power to do so. Looking over this list, it notably lacks much female authorship, so I'm quite open to suggestions on that front; my shelves have a distinct British Male weight to them that I'd like to attempt to balance.
In alphabetical order:
The First Law, Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie's prose can easily be described as "cinematic", which makes it a natural fit for television—such a natural fit, in fact, that I am surprised it hasn't already been done. The world of the First Law is deep, yet realistic enough with a "Almost Europe Elsewhen" flavor that it should be as easily digestible as Martin's Westeros is for folk who haven't read the books; this gives it a potential for similar breakout success. It's rich and distinct characters have enough faults and flaws for the audience to identify with and root for (or against!) and plots that combine cinematic action and adventure with serious questions about history, legitimacy, virtue, politics, and a bit of personal philosophy thrown in.
City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty
In general, I've tried to stick with relatively low-magic, high-availability settings, but this one would, I think, rest at a good balance of ambitious and interesting—it's a modern tale that grows from the Tales of the Arabian Nights tradition. Foreign enough to be of interest in the west, not foreign enough to require huge amounts of exposition. Anyhow, personally, I think we're more than ready for a vision of a fantastic Middle East with djinn, intrigue, and adventure instead of the endless War on Terror dross that we churn out, and this is the best and most compelling modern series in that vein.
Chronicles of the Black Company, Glen Cook
Reading Glen Cook's Black Company is a bit like reading a version of the War of the Ring written not by someone grappling with the horrible reality of World War One but instead grappling with the horrible reality of the Vietnam War. We're zoomed in close on the exploits of a company of desperate soldiers—and their companions—as they are washed around inside of the machinations of the much, much more powerful. I quipped to my wife that these poor bastards were working for "Galadriel, except she took the ring and has become great and terrible", and that's about right. Perhaps I'm making it sound too dark, but this might be the literary fantasy that holds a mirror up to a our endless wars.
Lankhmar, Fritz Lieber
Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are the venerable Old Men of the gritty, realistic fantasy genre—these two loveable rogues come with a rich legacy of short stories and novellas covering the many twists and turns of their partnership, from meeting the women of their dreams, losing them, finding each other, theft, thwarting dark cults, larceny, long-forgotten gods, highway robbery, losing their scores, and eventually finding love and a quiet place to settle down again. As old as these are, I am surprised that nobody has yet attempted to adapt them; their short-story, loose-chronology basis makes me think they'd be a treat to work with. These operate at a swashbuckling tempo.
Gentlemen Bastards, Scott Lynch
If you haven't yet read The Lies of Locke Lamora, go read it. No, seriously, I'll wait! OK, good. A band of dangerously young thieves and rogues learn the trade across the rooftops and along the canals of a fantasy Venice; for you Game of Thrones aficionados, imagine if all the world building in Braavos weren't a sideshow, and a band of loveable Arya-like rogues the protagonists, and the plot less about claiming high titles and more about swindles, casino robberies, piracy, electioneering and other near-death experiences. Along the way (and the series isn't done yet) the kids learn valuable lessons about growing up (naturally) and get caught up in bigger and bigger schemes.
The Nephilim Duology, Tim Powers
By far the oddest entry on this list, but I would love to see an adaptation of both of Power's surprisingly compelling alternate histories of the age of romantic poets. The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves present a twisted world of ancient, biblical monsters who trade the Shelleys and the Byrons of the world inspiration in exchange for addiction to their unstoppable vampiric attention and their deathless opium-like blood. These are 1800s period pieces with known personalities encountering hidden fantastical truths, and for my money no author builds a sense of "how the heck are they going to get out of this" quite like Tim Powers.
His Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman
I am reliably informed that this is happening! But it's been on my short list for quite some time, so hooray for that, especially with the charming prequel series starting to come out in print.
Amber, Roger Zelazny
Ah, Amber. Speaking only of the first five books here (the Corwin cycle), these could make for great television. Traveling between shadow copies of the true world, intrigue, mighty sorceries, cunning and cryptic cabals, shifting loyalties, grandiose gestures, murder, epic invasions, and seemingly insurmountable setbacks for our protagonist are the order of the day when the Princes and Princesses of Amber squabble over the throne. On top of that, Corwin comes across as none-too-trustworthy himself. I'd want to amp up some of the female roles, as Corwin's sisters were all too often relegated to the sidelines, but I think we're at the point where TV-budget SFX could do this world justice. And boy, people seem to love the scheming and backstabbing on GoT—wait until they meet the Amberites!
Full disclosure—I work for WBGames, a subsidiary in the same corporate family as HBO. WB Games is the distributor for the Witcher 2 and 3 games in North America, but that's not why I love them: they're legitimately triumphs! ↩︎