On Sony’s Upcoming Foundation Movie

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.

6 thoughts on “On Sony’s Upcoming Foundation Movie

  1. I have a similar history with the Foundation series. I read it in 8th grade and loved it. I had trouble getting into the latter books, and never read the non-Asimov ones, but I’ve been meaning to re-read the entire series.

    And you’re dead on- I don’t know how a movie adaptation would even work. Which means Hollywood will take a lot of liberties with the core material, and mess it up. The Mule would be the most “accessible” (re: potential action), but…. I don’t know. I hope it winds up in development hell.

    1. I’ve been thinking about doing a Foundation re-read, but I don’t know where all of my books are, especially since I’d want to supplement the re-read with the non-Asimov books, even the ones I don’t like. :)

      In high school, instead of writing Star Trek fanfic, I wrote Robots/Foundation fanfic. There was a novella about Aurora’s rebellion from Earth and Earth’s secret agent R.J. “Boke” Washington. (I have no idea where the nickname came from. It just sounded good.) I wrote a Lije Baley story; he had to investigate another murder on the Spacer world of Nova Terra, this time without R. Daneel Olivaw. Then, after graduation I wrote a story called “Foundation and Federation” — Picard’s Enterprise and a Romulan Bird-of-Prey fell into the Foundation universe, they were drawn into a diabolical plot to clone the Mule, and R. Daneel Olivaw gave Data his mental powers.

      It occurs to me that the Bel Riose story could also be quite compelling as a film, and if done well could be quite similar to Star Wars. Start in media res, characters caught up in a galactic war, a military genius on par with Tarkin or Thrawn… Yes, I’d move the focus to Bel Riose and move the Foundationers to the background; they’re not that interesting. :)

  2. The more I think about it, the more I think that Bel Riose would be the place to start, then the Mule, and then Arkady Darrell, because right there you get a three-film structure. Riffing off of this post at TrekBBS:

    If it were up to me, I’d start with the Bel Riose story.

    Like Star Wars, it can start in media res; the Empire’s fleets are already moving against the Foundation. Downplay the Foundationers in the story somewhat — they’re dull as dishwater. And Bel Riose needs to be played up in the story — make him a Tarkin-like or Thrawn-like figure, make him aware of the Seldon prophecies, make him a character who is challenging the universe on his own terms and he’s determined the win.

    Second film, the Mule.

    Third film, Arkady, and make sure she’s a leggy redhead like the Michael Whelan painting. ;)

    Yeah, I’m basically treating the first book as the equivalent of the Prequel Trilogy. If necessary, tell the necessary parts in flashback or like the prologue to Fellowship of the Ring where Galadriel narrates three thousand years of history in five minutes. Otherwise, it’s uncinematic stuff, ill-suited to film.

    The first film — Bel Riose. You have this general go up against the Foundation. Tell it largely from his point-of-view, but leave it open enough that it can go into the halls of power on both Trantor and Terminus, with factions in both capitals trying to take advantage of the situation. You need a Wormtongue-like character on Trantor to bring about the fall of Riose, and you need craven politicians on Terminus who will set the stage for the usurpations of the Hereditary Indburs. Riose needs to be a Thrawn-like character, who knows what he’s up against (the Seldon Plan), and who challenges the prophecies and ultimately fails, making him a tragic character. The film ends with the fall of Riose, the withdrawal of the Imperial fleet, and the restoration of order on Terminus. To most Foundationers, it feels like they’ve been saved.

    The second film — The Mule. Another warlord, another attack on the Foundation. In a lot of ways, the story feels like a retread of Bel Riose, and even they comment on that. But then the Seldon Crisis doesn’t happen like it should, the Mule takes Terminus itself, and suddenly we’re in crazy territory. If the first film was about the infaliability of the Seldon Plan under even the worst of circumstances, the second tears it down. It’s like The Empire Strikes Back compared to Star Wars. The first film builds up the Foundation, the second smacks it around and leaves it for dead. In a universe where the characters have settled the free will versus predestination question firmly on the side of predestination, what happens when their belief in the inevitability of the future is shattered?

    The third film — Arkady Darrell. The Seldon Plan has been shattered. The future looks grim. The Foundation must reestablish itself in the aftermath of the Mule’s short reign. This needs to be a triumphant conclusion, the triumph of the Seldon Plan despite all odds. I’d probably invent a Seldon Crisis just for this story — something was supposed to happen, according to Seldon’s original calculations, but will it really come to pass after The Mule? — while also hanging the whole drama around the discovery of the Second Foundation around it. Much thud and blunder, harrowing space battles, and the like, and it all climaxes with the Chamber opening. Hari Seldon is going to speak, but no one knows what he’s going to say. Will he describe the situation as it happened? Or will he be as off as he was during the Mule crisis? And that’s how you close the film — “I am Hari Seldon!” and a stir of strings. :)

    Is this Asimov’s trilogy? Nope. But it’s something that would work on film, and it’s still something recognizably Asimovian.

  3. I believe the only way Foundation could even be considered visually is as a TV series in the vein of Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine or Battlestar Galactica where characters can be properly developed over an underlying story arc that spans the series and single or multiple part episodes that deal with the front-stage elements.

  4. I tend to agree with you, Harry. I think that Foundation would work best as a television series, not a film. The Trilogy is too diffuse as a story to work as a film, and it avoids putting the drama and action front and center.

    With television, you could almost do it straight, in an anthology-esque format, since your main characters would change from week to week — one week, we’re following Hober Mallow, the next week he’s gone and we’re dealing with Lathan Devers. (I think I have his name right.) Plus, I think that television would allow some room to explore things in the Foundation universe we haven’t seen before, or show the things that Asimov skipped over.

    I’m sure, though, that Sony looks at Foundation, they see seven books by Asimov, and they’re thinking, “We have ourselves a potential multi-film series like Harry Potter.” That doesn’t fill me with a lot fo confidence, sadly.

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