Can the Cowriter of ‘Interstellar’ Pull Off Isaac Asimov’s Unfilmable ‘Foundation’ for HBO?Paramount Pictures
In May 1981, three decades after his 1940s short stories about humanity’s far future were first bound together as The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov picked up a copy of his own half-remembered series — prompted, reluctantly, by a big advance from Doubleday for a fourth volume — and reread it. He wasn’t impressed.
“I read it with mounting uneasiness,” Asimov wrote the next year. “I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did. All three volumes, all the nearly quarter of a million words, consisted of thoughts and of conversation. No action. No physical suspense.”
Asimov’s self-deprecating description of his own series sounds as inviting as a synopsis of Season 1 of The Leftovers. And soon, it might be available for the same subscription price: According to a report at The Wrap earlier this week, Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher, and cowriter of Interstellar) is writing and producing an HBO/Warner Bros. TV series based on The Foundation Trilogy.1
In one sense, this isn’t surprising, since HBO is scouring the universe for a sci-fi tentpole to complement fantasy money-minter Game of Thrones. Nolan is also working on an HBO adaptation of Westworld, Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi/Western film, and David Fincher is directing Utopia, a port of a U.K. series that integrates graphic novels and conspiracy theories involving a shadowy, Syndicate-esque organization. The network has also reportedly explored double-booking Peter Dinklage for a series based on The Beasts of Valhalla, adapting Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, and developing a series called The Spark from the cowriter of Oblivion (not to mention those on-again, off-again Dark Tower rumors). Foundation is just another iron in HBO’s growing sci-fi fire.
The network’s strategy makes sense. While there’s no shortage of shows featuring postapocalyptic settings, comic-book characters, and fairy-tale dramas, there is some space for a strong challenger in the landscape of classic sci-fi. Fringe finished its fifth and final season last year, and some of this year’s more mainstream efforts, like Almost Human and Intelligence, didn’t survive their first, but there are options out there: the decent-but-derivative Steven Spielberg productions Extant and Falling Skies; BBC staple Doctor Who; BBC America’s acclaimed Orphan Black and not-so-acclaimed Intruders; Ronald D. Moore’s Helix and Outlander; and The CW’s The 100, among others. However, since Sci-Fi Channel rebranded itself as Syfy and abandoned the high-brow territory occupied by Battlestar Galactica, no traditional sci-fi TV show2 has attained the same cultural prominence.
That could be about to change. Syfy has come to its senses and commissioned a slate of strong content, with its Ascension miniseries premiering next month, while streaming rival Netflix is getting in on the action with the Wachowskis’ Sense8. HBO is as well positioned as anyone to stake a claim to this potentially lucrative territory: In a genre in which ambitious IPs are easily sunk by budget constraints, HBO has demonstrated its willingness to shell out for the location shooting, special effects, and actors with English accents necessary to sell a complex, fictional world.
As much sense as pursuing a sci-fi property to pair with Game of Thrones might make from HBO’s perspective, though, any attempt to adapt Foundation is bound to invite some skepticism. Both thematically and mechanically, Asimov’s series is one of the most influential in sci-fi history.3 Inspired by The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Foundation chronicles the decline of a galaxy-spanning government that makes the Caesars’ seem puny. Its hero, who appears as a posthumous hologram for much of the series, is Hari Seldon, the foremost practitioner of the science of “psychohistory,” which can predict large-scale human behavior with incredible accuracy. By establishing two scientist-filled foundations to preserve humanity’s learning and shepherd civilization through a series of foreseen crises, Seldon plans to shorten an inevitable dark age between the collapse of the first empire and the rise of the second from 30,000 years to one measly millennium. Unlike most literary heroes, he sleeps with and carries a calculator.
The trilogy was so widely read and revered that it won the one-time-only Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, beating out The Lord of the Rings. Yet aside from a 1970s BBC radio series, Foundation hasn’t made it into other media. Multiple studios and filmmakers have tried to turn it into a movie (most recently Roland Emmerich), but none has come close to succeeding.
It’s a small wonder, since Asimov’s initial reaction after revisiting his earlier work only scratches the surface of what makes the series difficult to translate to the screen. Foundation isn’t a traditional story that incorporates some easy-to-sell “sci-fi elements.” From the first page, it’s full-stop science fiction, starting with an italicized entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica that establishes the setting (more than 12,000 years into the “Galactic Era”) and doesn’t skimp on the strange-sounding names that reliably repel some portion of the non-sci-fi-fan population. The stories were pitched toward a Golden Age audience of genre regulars, not a modern, mainstream audience in search of something to watch on Sunday night.
Asimov, who was barely into his twenties when he wrote his first Foundation story, was an accomplished futurist4 and scientist, and his prose was, well, scientific. It’s perfectly clear and conveys a sense of wonder, but it lacks nuance and flair. The dialogue alternates between mini-monologues and shorter interactions that must have seemed somewhat stilted even to contemporary readers: “Space, man, have you no respect for science?” one character in Foundation asks, while another exclaims, “Science be damned!”
Complicating the potential adaptation even further, the trilogy is structured as a succession of disjoined episodes whose events are separated by hundreds of years. Most of these stories feature different casts of characters, many of whom Asimov doesn’t devote time to drawing in depth. Not only is there no incest, there’s no conventional sex, and readers accustomed to love triangles won’t find so much as a love straight line. The closest thing the first book has to a protagonist regularly reminds his compatriots that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” and Asimov abides by the same rule in his writing. The characters who allow emotions to govern their actions rarely succeed, and those who seek power are the least likely to attain it. In that sense, the universe of Foundation — or at least the part of it that Asimov is interested in exploring — is basically Bizarro Westeros. Game of Thrones revels in the chaos that reigns after an advanced civilization falls; Foundation’s characters successfully fast-forward through it.
Douglas Adams, who had such a low opinion of Asimov’s prose that he said he “wouldn’t employ him to write junk mail,” nonetheless called Foundation’s ideas captivating. Nolan echoed Adams’s sentiment in an interview with Indiewire this week, saying, “There are some ideas in those [books] that’ll set your fucking hair on fire.” They’re right: In addition to inventing or popularizing many familiar sci-fi tropes, Asimov found time to ask big questions about free will, the limitations of science, and history’s tendency to repeat itself, weaving what James Gunn5 described as a “detective-story fascination with permutations and reversals of ideas.”
The problem is that it’s hard to summon an example of a successful show devoted as purely to ideas (at the expense of the traditional TV trappings) as a faithful Foundation adaptation would be. Asimov’s contemplative leanings explain why only two of his tales have made it to theaters. The first, Bicentennial Man, was poorly received; the second, I, Robot, was a big box-office draw but bore only a passing resemblance to Asimov’s stories.
Nolan’s brother is the visually inventive one, but Foundation isn’t kinetic enough to require Christopher’s brand of movie magic. Foundation’s strength is the scope of its story, not the scope of its special effects. We know that the younger Nolan has the fondness and respect for the source material that the arduous task of adapting it demands, and we know that he’s thought about its themes: The show he created, CBS’s Person of Interest, is also about predicting and preventing catastrophe through science and psychology, albeit on too granular a level for psychohistory to help.
It’s less certain that Nolan’s strengths can ameliorate Asimov’s weaknesses. Emailing with my editor about Interstellar on Sunday, I wrote that the film suffered from some clunky lines that “seemed like dialogue from an Asimov story that should never be spoken aloud.” The next day, we learned that the person who cowrote those lines might be adapting actual Asimov dialogue. That doesn’t seem like a Seldon-approved plan.
However, Interstellar falls short when it tries to fuse its intriguing ideas with underdeveloped personal relationships and a lazy reliance on love. In Foundation, the focus is always on humanity, not humans. Interstellar’s Professor Brand believes that humans are motivated only by the prospect of seeing (or saving) people they know. Seldon disagrees. In Foundation, an official asks the psychohistorian why he cares that the empire will fall, given that no one alive would live to see its last spasms. “Call it idealism,” Seldon says. “Call it an identification of myself with that mystical generalization to which we refer by the term, ‘humanity.’” Brand’s philosophy might be more realistic, but Seldon’s seems like a better fit for Nolan’s knack of making the pieces of an intricate puzzle fall into place. He’s more likely to stumble when he has to explain why his characters feel like putting the puzzle together.
In recent years, TV has become a safer space for the cerebral stories Asimov liked to tell. Even the trilogy’s time-jumps and protagonist swaps seem like less of an obstacle in the age of True Detective. Foundation is in some sense an anthology series, and now it can potentially be told that way. Asimov eventually tacked on two sequels and two prequels6 that tie Foundation to his other fiction, creating an epic that spans tens of thousands of years of faux-future. If HBO’s first Foundation effort works, the network might never need to find another sci-fi franchise.
Adapting Foundation involves a high degree of difficulty, but HBO has already made one mega-hit out of a series whose author intended it to be unfilmable. Foundation seems unfilmable for some of the same reasons that Game of Thrones did — and also for some different, additional ones. However, by striking it rich with its foray into fantasy, HBO put itself in a position to take future high-reward risks, and Foundation seems like a smart one. No one should be shocked if the series returns to development hell, but if Nolan, like Benioff and Weiss, lifts from the series selectively and succeeds where previous writers have failed, HBO might win the high-stakes race for the next sci-fi smash — and generations of readers will finally see what Foundation looks like onscreen.