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Syfy Films, the theatrical division created in December 2010 as a joint venture between Syfy and Universal Pictures, has acquired the screen rights to Wild Cards, a superhero anthology edited, co-created and co-written by Martin.
Melinda Snodgrass, one of the co-creators and co-writers, has been tapped to pen the screenplay for the project, which marks Syfy Films’ first acquisition. Martin and Snodgrass will executive produce.
Wild Cards is a series of books and stories set in a shared universe where an alien virus has been unleashed over New York City. Those who survived were turned into either a class of beings named Jokers, mostly deformed creatures, (or more rarely) Aces, who have special powers.
The first book was published in 1987, around the same time as such work as Frank Miller‘s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore‘s The Watchmen were being hailed as revolutionizing the comics scene.
The tales, written initially by science fiction and fantasy authors who also included Roger Zelazny and Lewis Shiner, among others, provided an alternate history of Earth and told superhero stories grounded in realism, a strategy that would be emulated in both comics and, later, in movies such as the recent Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films.
“We had a love of comics books and superheroes that we grew up on,” Martin, who had fan letter published in a Marvel comic in the 1960s, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But we approached the material differently. We wanted to do it in a grittier, more adult manner than what we were seeing in the ’80s. It’s something that many other people have been doing in the decades ever since.”
One of the unique aspects of the books (the series has changed publishers several times, it is now on volume 22) is the way the characters evolve. Some age, some marry, some die, new ones are introduced, building a tapestry of stories. Meanwhile, on the author front, the senior generation of writers has made way for new ones such as Paul Cornell (Doctor Who) and Carrie Vaughn (the Kitty Norville book series). The many creators were one reason why dealmaking took months to wrap up before THR was able to exclusively report the news of the film project.
Martin says the multiple voices makes the series stand out and allows newer characters to interact with older ones.
“One of the things we have going is the sense of history,” he says. “The comics in the mainstream are doing retcons [retroactive continuity] all the time. [Heroes] get married, then one day, the publisher changes his mind, and then they’re no longer married. To my mind, it’s very frustrating. [Our stories] are in real time. It’s a world that is changing in parallel to our own.”
“This is, beyond Marvel and DC, really the only universe where you have fully realized, fully integrated characters that have been built and developed over the course of 25 years,” says Gregory Noveck, Syfy Films’ senior vp production who joined the division in May and who targeted the books for acquisition. “The trick for us is to find what’s the best movie.”
Martin is revealing little in the way of which stories or characters will be featured in a film script, but he does say the setting would be contemporary. He also lets slip that The Sleeper, a character who is one of the first to become an Ace and whose power consists of having a new face and ability every time he wakes up from a hibernation-like sleep, would be in the roll call.
Syfy Films, which, like Universal, is owned by NBCUniversal, has been tasked to make modest-budgeted movies. Wild Cards may sound tentpole-sized, but Noveck says modest budgeted need not mean small in scope, pointing to such movies such as Neill Blomkamp‘s District 9, the Summit thriller Source Code and even Children of Men as examples of movies telling genre stories on a grand scale but through a tight lens.
Martin says the book series has been optioned before but that this is the biggest step taken so far with Wild Cards.
“We hope this is the first of a long presence in film and perhaps even television down the line,” he says.
That, of course, will depend on the success of the first film.
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Robert De Niro