Sunday, July 13, 2014

Seven Ways an Earth's Children TV Show Could Improve Upon the Book Series

In case you didn't hear, Jean Auel's Earth's Children will be headed for a television screen near you in 2015.  Only the pilot, but with a distinguished team behind it (including Ron Howard and Linda Woolverton), a series will almost certainly follow.

While details are sketchy, it is likely that the show's producers intend to portray all six of the Earths's Children books.  That should be a challenge, given that the final three installments received their share of criticism.  But perhaps in skilled hands, even the final installments can become an emotional, exciting viewing experience.  Below are seven ways in which a television series might improve upon its source material.

1.  Better Dialogue.  Linda Woolverton wrote the screenplays for Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Maleficent, so it's safe to say that she knows her way around dialogue.  As will anyone else who comes on board.  While Auel's dialogue could sometimes be stirring, it was frequently wooden (especially coming from Ayla) and drowned out by lengthy descriptions of flora and fauna.

2.  Tension.  Although Clan of the Cave Bear was tense throughout, that wasn't the case for the other novels in the series.  In The Valley of Horses, there was the initial tension over whether Ayla would survive in her valley, but not so much over whether she would get together with Jondalar.  The "tension" in The Mammoth Hunters could have been resolved with one conversation.  There was no tension in The Plains of Passage, save the encounter with Attaroa.  And while The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves had ample opportunity for tension, neither delivered.

Television writers know that they can't leave things idle, so I would expect any opportunity for tension to be fully exploited.  And if the writers are really smart, they will rewrite certain encounters to draw real tension from them.  Imagine if the writers had Ayla confront Jondalar about his jealousy soon after her night with Ranec, only to find that the problem couldn't be easily resolved, thus setting up new tension between them?  Or if the writers actually worked with the ample opportunities for tension in The Shelters of Stone instead of pretending they did not exist?

3.  More Nuanced Characterization.  While television thrives on heroes and villains, good writers know that the best drama comes from characters who are not entirely good or bad.  Which means that some of Auel's characters could be given more complex shading.  One obvious choice would be Marona, Jondalar's ex, reduced to a screeching Mean Girl in The Shelters of Stone.  Imagine if the writers (and actress who played her) gave us the opportunity to identify with her?  Showed that Marona's actions were not driven solely by spite and entitlement?  The entire Ayla-Jondalar-Marona storyline could play differently, including its cringeworthy outcome.

And what about Ayla herself?  Auel presents Ayla as unquestionably "good" throughout the series, only adding some gray in The Land of Painted Caves.  But what if Ayla wasn't simply the good and pure child of nature?  What if she had real failings, such as blindness to the impact of the lessons she was teaching ("Oh crap, maybe I shouldn't have told them that men help create babies")?  Or her self righteousness pushed people down paths that were not the best suited for them?

What if Jondalar had more attributes than "hunky sex machine who worries"?  Game of Thrones has had some success making certain characters from A Song of Ice and Fire more complex, and let's hope it's the same way here.         

4.  Subplots Involving Other Characters.  Though Auel occasionally focused on other characters, her novel kept the POVs squarely with Ayla and Jondalar.  But even a television series with just 10 episodes per season has too many episodes for it to be Ayla and Jondalar all the time.  Therefore, it wouldn't be surprising if some characters received subplots that were completely independent of the Ayla-and-Jondalar main plots.  For example, in Season One: Will Oga ever be able to get beyond the nightmare of losing her parents in an earthquake and learn to love Broud?  Season Three: The other Mamutoi are concerned about Vincavec's growing power.  Season Five: Lanoga struggles with growing up way too fast, having to be a mother to Laramar and Tremeda's other children.

These are just some examples.  Done wrong, these subplots can be silly, but done right, they enrich the texture of the show.  

5.  No Scenery Description.  Imagine instead of pages of description, just a long, lingering shot of the plains.  Bliss.

6.  No "Pleasures" Description.  This is where the choice to air the series on Lifetime gets interesting.  Obviously for television, there can be no pages of description of "Pleasures."  Yet because Lifetime is basic cable, it might also influence how much the viewer is shown.  If the series were on HBO, I would expect weekly scenes of Ayla's naked breasts and Jondalar's naked backside (since HBO seems allergic to showing penis), accompanied by their moaning and grunting in "pleasure."  But basic cable would require the series to be more discreet.  So instead, we would see Ayla mostly concealed beneath the furs during the sex scenes.  That might seem like a more prudish choice, but it might also have the effect of making the sex scenes more intimate, more tantalizing.  We can't see it, so we have to imagine.     

7.  Better Conclusion.  Game of Thrones has shown that some story arcs can be rewritten to be more effective.  See, for example, Gendry taking the place of Edric Storm, or Brienne meeting up with Arya.  Here, the Earth's Children writers will have the opportunity to completely rewrite the final dismal chapter of the series.  Surely they must understand that "Hey, men can make babies, too!" is not a satisfying resolution for anyone not named Jean Auel.  Surely they must be aware of the thousand Amazon reviews slamming The Land of Painted Caves.  Since Auel is likely too old to produce a Book Seven, this may be the last chance to make things right.  Show us Durc.  Let the Zelandonii find out about his existence.  Produce a conflict between the Clan and Others, or at least something more compelling than a tour of cave paintings.  Do it, show.  We need you.

The list above takes into account only the ways the show could improve upon the books.  It doesn't consider how the show might simply be different from the books.  Will the show take note of updated research and have Brun and the Clan speak?  Will the Clan be lighter skinned?  Will the show introduce any research that clashes with Auel's utopian vision of Other society?

It also doesn't take into account how a television series could fail in the same way, or even be worse than the book series.  Clan of the Cave Bear would be the toughest to pull off in terms of creating believable interaction between two races of human.  The movie showed how easily that attempt could fail.  Even if the television producers managed to succeed, they would still need to contend with CGI'd mammoths, lions, and other wildlife.  If it looks cheesy and fake, they will lose the audience, unless everything else about the series is really top notch.

So we await the pilot episode of the new series, and look forward to seeing how well television producers can adapt the Earth's Children novels.

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine. 


  1. Interested in how much will be filed on location as Jean Auel researched it. I picture is worth a thousand words, and a film crew has already been tastefully and carefully allowed in the caves, and the plains can only be described as vast until you have a look.

    The point of doing a film adaptation is to provide a visual of what is written. There is an entire Oscar for Adapted Screemplay. Let's see what you can do!

  2. Yeah I am agree with many of these points. What Earth's Children did good, was to show us how the first steps of mankind may have been, something that no other book, tv or movie did.
    The first books seems almost perfect in the plot, but we notice how the drama and action are highly reduced with the upcomming books, in direct relation with Jean Auel´age, that of course, she is not looking for the same things that most younger people look for.
    So these series has a lot of oportunities to improvement, because the story base and enviroment, is perfect with full of possibilities never exploited by any other series in the past.
    But not sure if I want to be in the screenplay and director shoes. because they have a really complicated job to bring this great story to television.
    There are a lot of things that will be really hard to show in TV.
    Then we have actors which needs to pretend be good at several talents that differ a lot of what we used to, like natural sign-body language.
    About the director, it will be hard to know the best way to tale the story in a order of event to keep the viewers insterest from the first episode.
    Maybe some flash backs will be needed, but I hope not to see many of them, I hate when a series end being a collection of flash backs.