Well, it’s happened. Sony has decided to make a Foundation movie.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has been a part of my life for a quarter century; I read the original trilogy when I was a freshman in high school, then Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth the next year. Shortly thereafter, the Robots novels followed. I remember buying Forward the Foundation, and I remember the thrill of excitement at buying Gregory Benford’s Foundation’s Fear — and then being disappointed at what the book was. But Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear was much improved, and David Brin’s Foundation’s Triumph is the best Foundation novel since Foundation’s Edge.
Yeah, Foundation and I go back a long ways. So it’s no surprise that I’ve spent some time thinking about how to adapt Foundation to film.
Short answer. Don’t do it.
Slightly longer answer. Foundation isn’t cinematic, it’s not written to be cinematic, and it’s definitely not structured to be cinematic. It’s going to be problematical.
However, I’m sure that a Sony exec saw that there’s a whole bunch of books, and if the first is successful it could spawn a series, and look at The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter — successful books that spawned successful movie franchises. But that misses the central problem of Foundation — it’s not a unified story in the way that The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter are. It’s an extremely episodic series, with protagonist characters changing not only from book to book but within each book. And that’s a function of how Foundation was written.
The Foundation series was written by Asimov as a series of short stories across the span of a decade. Each short story is essentially independent of the others. Character reappearances are few, such as in the Salvor Hardin and Mule stories; the rest use the universe as the backdrop, and the characters flow from that. As a series of films, this poses few problems — each film could concentrate on one or two related stories from the trilogy. As a single film, the lack of any central character (beyond the Hari Seldon hologram, which has all the character depth of paper) and the span of four centuries the stories encompass, would pose serious structural problems. I should note that the Cinema Blend article doesn’t indicate which approach Sony wants — a single film or a potential series.
But there’s a secondary problem as well. Almost nothing happens in the Foundation stories. The stories are done largely in dialogue — people talk in a room, more people talk in a different room — and all the action occurs off-stage. Characters talk about the action, but they don’t witness it themselves, and they’re very rarely actors in the great dramas. Honestly, you can think of Foundation as the space opera equivalent of a small town barber shop; people sit around, talk about what’s going on, and pontificate on how society’s going down the drain. Any Foundation movie would need to move the events that everyone talks about and place them center stage.
So what would I do? What if Sony gave me the reins and turned me loose? Well…
If I were making a Foundation movie, I believe that I would begin with the Mule story. First, it’s the most dramatic part of the Foundation saga. Second, it actually has characters who are interesting. (Asimov may have been many things. A writer of sharply defined characters he was not.) But I would’t limit myself to “The Mule.” I would take both Mule stories — the second half of Foundation and Empire and the first half of Second Foundation — and develop a single script that combined the two stories into one. The central conceit of Foundation would be explained (Hari Seldon, the creation of the Foundation to protect the galaxy’s knowledge while the Empire collapsed) because the Mule’s rise coincides with a Seldon Crisis, there would be a dramatic plot (who is the Mule, and who can stop him?), it would have a complete story arc (the rise of the Mule and his ultimate defeat at the hands of the Second Foundation), and it actually has some space battles.
Then, if that film were successful, I’d go back and do a film set earlier in the saga. Perhaps the Salvor Hardin stories, or perhaps even further back, to the young Hari Seldon Prelude to Foundation.
I should say, however, that I’m not hopeful that a Foundation movie will happen or that it will be worthwhile.
However, I can’t fault Sony for trying.