My name is Andrew Miller and I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to adapt the Wild Cards book series into a television show. TWO SHOWS, actually. So… that’s like a half-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or the opportunity of two lifetimes? Anyway, I failed. That’s the point here. For reasons without but also within my control.
As you surely know (and if the mention of “nat” hasn’t already scared you off then you’re on your own), the Wild Cards universe comprises 27 books, 3 graphic novels, a board game and an army of dedicated fans. It was created and edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass and written in mosaic fashion by these two geniuses along with a murder’s row of other writers. It’s alternate universe, speculative science fiction at the top of the form. A series so insightful, inspiring and inherently good it would be impossible to screw it up. Which is where I come in.
I met George (R.R. Martin) after he had already sold the two Wild Cards shows to a premium streaming network. They had even targeted the two books we would adapt, which meant I had jumped the first two television development hurdles while I was still in the locker room putting on my writing hat.
My good fortune started to turn a little when the streaming executive who bought the shows left the streamer soon after it was sold, and the studio executive who brought me onboard left the studio soon after I boarded. Was I daunted? Sure. A little. Developing a series is kind of like having a baby, where the executives and creators and writers are all parents. But the kind of parents who need to see some of their DNA in the baby to convince themselves it’s beautiful (she’s got my chin is like, that plot twist was my idea). So when new executives come in after the baby’s born, they might politely say, “oh, it’s so… cute,” but they say it in a tone that’s objectively fake. Luckily, the parents don’t notice because they love the baby so much they can’t imagine anyone could possibly think otherwise.
But none of this really matters because the fact is, some tv babies are just empirically beautiful. Game of Thrones (as a completely random example) is the baby-Brad-Pitt of tv-shows-adapted-from-books. When you see it for the first time, denying it’s beauty just means you’re a jerk.
The parents who think they have a baby-Brad-Pitt-tv-show when they don’t and assume everyone else will see it the same way are the worst kinds of parents. They’re the ones other parents whisper about at tv-baby-play-dates… Too delusional or too stubborn to accept how wrong they are about their perfect little angel. I’m that parent. And even worse, I’m apparently also the kind of guy who will knowingly beat a metaphor to death, so… continue reading at your peril.
The first book we set out to adapt was FORT FREAK. One of my favorites. Because it’s about Jokertown. And as I began the interview process to build a writing staff, I kept hearing a common refrain. For writers that had felt the sting of marginalization in their lives, Jokertown represented whatever place they felt safe. It was Harlem, Chinatown, Little Armenia, West Hollywood, or the least popular sorority on campus. It was both a ghetto and sanctuary where people (and writers are people, too) could safely celebrate whatever made them different from the rest of the world. And the writer’s room we assembled was a glorious melange of these differences. We were a table of Jokers, and as we dug into the material, the team shared stories of their own encounters with sexism, homophobia, and racism. Moving, sometimes painful experiences that exposed the most cowardly parts of humanity. I felt privileged to be a part of these often difficult discussions and stunned at the glimpse I got into worlds so far from my own. These real world perspectives bled into our fictional Jokertown and, like the Wild Card virus we were writing about, they started to change things.
We filled in the inner lives of our FORT FREAK characters with the vivid details of these contemporary struggles, and in doing so, sometimes nudged attitudes in new directions, sometimes shifted motivations and sometimes changed stories. Our adaptation of Fort Freak was beginning to reflect us.
Now let’s go back to the metaphor you mistakenly believed you’d never have to revisit. Remember the well-meaning executives who came to the hospital for the birth of our tv baby and said she was adorable but maybe didn’t totally mean it? Well now the baby was morphing into something new and they were getting edgy. They barely connected to her to begin with and now she didn’t even look like the thing they had pretended to like. So they started pulling away.
But I refused to believe it. They HAD to love her. We were trying to tell a boundary-pushing story about marginalization that was supposed to reflect our modern day struggle so clearly that everyone could relate. So if people weren’t embracing it had to be because we weren’t being honest enough.
So we tried harder. Stripping away as much pretense and tv convention as we could and aggressively attempted to drill into the Jokertown kinship the writers felt when I first interviewed them. But as we dug deeper to create a show that would reflect our own marginalization, we encountered something surprising… culpability. Because as we were breaking down Wild Cards to it’s brutal truth, we realized that being tyrannized doesn’t stop you from being a tyrant. That some of the most egregious villains in our stories were acting out of fear rooted in their own sense of marginalization that was sometimes real and sometime imagined but, hell even characters who wanted to do the right thing sometimes made things worse. Because subconscious bias can be as insidious as the most brazen forms of bigotry. And none of us were above it. That was the truth we discovered in the room. The brilliant underbelly of the Wild Cards book series. Because the sad reality about modern society is that everyone feels victimized. And while it might be comforting to see and relate to another marginalized group, things can only really change when we’re forced to see ourselves in the victimizer, too. To us, Jokertown had become more than just a recognizable sanctuary for people who were different… It was also the physical and figurative ghetto we subconsciously forced people into when we didn’t know how else to deal with them.
And to illustrate this, we pushed the grotesqueness of the Jokers. We created new ones and shoved them into the forefront, challenging the audience to see and accept them. Twisting the stories in way that would force the reader to recognize their own biases.
It felt incredible. Like our tv baby was growing up right before our eyes. Becoming a relevant adult in our world. And when we turned to the second series, based on BUSTED FLUSH, we created an equally fierce sibling. Armed with all the passion and excitement we had built from the first show, we attacked these same issues, but now from the privileged perspectives of Aces. Glorious superheroes, born from the same virus that created Jokers… and still subjugated by the same traumas that defined them. Well intentioned and also their own worst enemy. It felt like the perfect companion piece.
Because once you (even delusionally) believe you can create one Brad-Pitt-tv-baby, it stands to reason you can create a second. Right? Of the many problems this metaphor presents, I don’t actually know much about procreation but it really felt like a biological inevitability that we’d be able to make a second Brad-Pitt-tv-baby.
So we did. And we loved it just as much as the first. Two shows with the gorgeous features of the Wild Cards book series, and with our new revelations coursing through their veins.
If only we’d kept them home. Where they could be protected and adored. Far away from the world’s harsh glare. But that’s not how tv works. Because what you really want is millions and millions of strangers to fall in love with your babies… Which sounds creepy so screw it, the metaphor’s over.
The point is, when we finally showed everyone what we’d done… They had mixed feelings. But everyone could agree it was different than what they had expected. Some people loved the differences (and I love every single one of those people). Others felt like it was too different from the books (and I completely understand as much as someone without the talent to write a novel can understand). And others just didn’t like the differences at all. They thought it was too ugly. Which was kind of what we thought was so beautiful but…
It doesn’t matter. Because, of the people that loved it, not enough of them were the important tv people. The people who decide what we watch on our tv’s and phones. And their concerns are much different and more complicated than our task of digging for the truth in Wild Cards. And they were paying.
Which is fine. I mean, not really. It’s actually heartbreaking. But also fine. Because I love the shows and scripts we made. My experience with this brilliant source material and the brilliant writers I got to explore it with was completely profound and has permanently changed me. For the way better. The uncertainty we met with over the course of development pushed us to discover things about Wild Cards and ourselves that I never would have guessed when we started. The process set a new standard of truth-hunting in my writing and challenged me to be more accountable to the experiences of others. And while it’s true that by virtue of the fact of me writing this instead of drinking martini’s on set somewhere shooting our first pilot means I failed… The experience has made me a better writer than I was. And a better nat.
And I am truly grateful. To Wild Cards and Melinda and Mike and George and all the other genius members of the consortium who created the best science fiction a writer could ever hope to grow from.