Posted on Wednesday, April 19th, 2017 by Josh Spiegel
In an ideal world, Hollywood would focus entirely on wholly original films, from low-budget dramas to big-budget action/adventure/science-fiction stories. When the industry does go back to original storytelling, it can often yield major successes; we’re only a couple months removed from the low-budget original horror smash Get Out, released by Universal Pictures.
But hoping only gets you so far. Even the briefest look at the summer-movie calendar in 2017 and beyond offers sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, revivals, and everything in between. Some of those movies, no doubt, will be a lot of fun, but that doesn’t mean that something new in the world of movie universes isn’t needed.
So, in the spirit of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” here’s a humble suggestion to the industry: if you want to find the next great franchise, you just need to adapt the Redwall book series. This is an all-but-guaranteed moneymaker that (mercifully) would also be a wonderful adaptation. Why? Let’s explain.
What is the Redwall series?
First, for the uninitiated, Redwall is a 22-book series written by the late British author Brian Jacques, published between 1986 and 2011. (The last book in the series was published posthumously, mere months after Jacques’ passing.) The books were aimed at 8- to 12-year olds, and depicted the adventures of a series of woodland animals in the forests of the United Kingdom. Some of the animals – typically mice, squirrels, moles, otters, shrews, hares, and badgers – are pure of heart, heroic, courageous, and generally good guys. Others – typically rats, stoats, weasels, foxes, and ferrets – are vain, selfish, vicious, and cruel. Within each book, there’s a new struggle between good and evil; the first published book, fittingly titled Redwall, is about how the denizens of the eponymous abbey fend off a group of piratic miscreants led by a nasty rat named Cluny the Scourge. Other books in the series allowed Jacques to expand the world first envisioned in Redwall, introducing readers to the rest of Mossflower Woods, where Redwall Abbey is located, from the badger-ruled mountain of Salamandastron to its surrounding islands.
The short answer is that the Redwall series offers a massive universe waiting to be designed, memorable characters who could become as well-known and beloved as those from franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, an opportunity for jaw-dropping photorealism in animation, and a mythology that doubles back and forth in ways that echo how comic-book movie universes are designed. Just over 30 years after the release of the first book in the series, the question shouldn’t quite be “Is Redwall worth turning into a series of films?” Instead, the question should be “Why hasn’t Redwall been turned into a series of films yet?”
Redwall and Its Long, Complicated Mythology
Let’s start with the last point from that paragraph: the back-and-forth mythology of the Redwall series, specifically embedded within its chronology. For whatever reason, Jacques didn’t tell the stories of the Redwall universe in chronological order, at least for the first 13 of 22 books. After Redwall, Jacques wrote a prequel titled Mossflower; that was followed by a direct sequel to Redwall called Mattimeo, which was followed by Mariel of Redwall. That book took place after Mossflower, but not directly after, nor directly before Redwall. (And so it would go for the next nine books.) This back-and-forth publishing style imbues each story with new life, even as critics would suggest that the series repeated a similar formula. Here, at least, that back-and-forth style would be ideal for a film franchise, specifically in building up the sense of a tantalizing puzzle waiting to be fully pieced together.
There are few things that franchises of any stripe – from the Marvel Cinematic Universe down to the recent Power Rangers – love more than having some kind of mythology cooked into the storytelling. It’s one thing to have a group of heroes banding together; it’s another to have the distinct sense that there is larger, overarching story being told in which they play a growing role. In utilizing a chronology that doesn’t line up with the publication history of the books, Jacques established that the citizens of Redwall Abbey as depicted in the first book are just one piece of a larger, equally rousing puzzle that displays the history of Redwall.
Within the plot of Redwall, Jacques begins to build out that history through the journey of its lead character, a heroic young mouse named Matthias. Though the resourceful members of Redwall Abbey, as well as a group of tribal shrews and a garrulous hare, band together to fend off the attack from Cluny and his gang, Matthias gets something akin to the Joseph Campbell hero’s-journey arc. He has humble beginnings, dreaming of the prospect of adventure outside the abbey walls, only to rise up when adventure comes knocking on his door. Specifically, he follows in the footsteps of the champion and original defender of Redwall who hovers over its past: Martin the Warrior.
Martin is another mouse (though Redwall is home to many anthropomorphized animals, mice often reign supreme), whose exploits are the stuff of legend within the first book. He appears there as a ghostly figure to inspire Matthias, as he does in future books with other champions of Redwall. But the original Redwall leaves the question of Martin the Warrior’s past up in the air: what’s the story behind the legend? The second book in the series, Mossflower, functions as an explanation of how Martin first arrived in Mossflower Woods from reaches beyond. Once in the forest, he helps take down a savage cat (natch) who rules the land with an iron paw. But Martin’s actual origins are primarily saved for a later book, appropriately called Martin the Warrior. (An even later entry in the series, The Legend of Luke, partly tells the story of Martin’s father and his youth.) The doubling back and forth in time highlights one of this series’ many benefits in terms of turning it into a film franchise: there are mysteries to be explored throughout each entry.
Here’s a good example from Mossflower of the kind of mythologizing that Hollywood loves, and of the mysteries inherent in the series: one of its supporting characters, a matronly badger named Bella of Brocktree, offhandedly mentions her missing son Sunflash to another character midway through the book. The brief epilogue of Mossflower reveals that Sunflash is alive and well, and has discovered Salamandastron, the aforementioned, fabled badger-led mountain where he will become its next leader. Jacques would eventually tell Sunflash’s entire story in Outcast of Redwall, the eighth book published in the series. In between, there are no other teases or hints about Sunflash, just the fascinating possibility held out at the end of Mossflower. It’s the equivalent of Nick Fury stepping out of the shadows to recruit Tony Stark into the Avengers.
This is all a lengthy way to emphasize that the Redwall series has its own history just begging to be brought to the big screen. The book-specific adventures are plenty exciting, but the sense that many of them are set-ups waiting to be paid off is even more thrilling. (Mattimeo, the sequel to Redwall, as another example, reveals that its main villain is an older version of one of the side baddies of the first book in disguise, seeking revenge.) In an industry that continues to adapt and expand as many intellectual properties as possible, and as many YA book series as possible, Redwall fits in perfectly; it delivers in spades with the mythology Hollywood wants fans to obsess and theorize over.