In a heartening post at Badass Digest yesterday, Devin Faraci argues that the huge Thanksgiving box office for Catching Fire and Frozen may have the salutary effect of finally getting a female-lead movie from Marvel into production. “With these numbers, with the success of The Hunger Games franchise, there’s no way that Marvel can ignore the fact that there’s a lot of money to be made with a female-led picture,” he argues. “The studio has long been aware of the female market — the Marvel movies are dripping with female gaze — but now they have evidence that this market comes out and spends in force.”
I wholeheartedly agree. But I was even more interested in the point Faraci made in a series of Tweets. “There’s something sexist in the way men discount HUNGER GAMES film popularity because it’s based on a popular book series. Ie, it doesn’t mean anything about female-led movies because the books are popular. Did these people poo-poo superhero movies because Spider-Man was only successful due to a famous comic? Fantasy movies because LOTR only hit due to the books? It’s insidious how well-meaning men say this.” He’s absolutely right. And one of the great arguments in favor of developing more franchises around female characters is the richness of the available source material. There are a very large number of excellent series focused on female characters that would make terrific movie franchises, and some of them have dedicated female fan bases that have cherished the books for decades, and sometimes even across generations. Here are five that both take us beyond superhero comics, and that seem like they might make viable franchises for the studios with the will and energy to pursue them.
1. Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles: Over the Thanksgiving break, I described Talking To Dragons, the first in Wrede’s four-part series about a princess named Cimorene who, eager to avoid a bad marriage, goes to work for the future King of the Dragons, cooking cherries jubilee and organizing treasure rooms, as a detox from princess culture. But it’s much more than that. Cimorene is a terrific, funny, talented person who can fence, cast spells, square off with wizards in geopolitical debates, cook, organize, and bargain with djinns. When she ultimately does marry, it’s for love, to Mendanbar, the Kind of the Enchanted Forest, who is similarly uncomfortable with court protocol and a sense of what’s considered proper. And they fall for each other while on a mutual adventure, rather than out of political expediency. The novels don’t just have good female characters, sword fights, and flashy magic. They’re full of excellent and often very funny supporting characters who could make the Enchanted Forest Chronicles the kind of multi-layered, multi-quadrant movies that Disney and Pixar movies have been in years past.
2. Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper Trilogy: I’ve frequently joked that Pierce’s Beka Cooper series is The Wire with magic and a woman, rather than Jimmy McNulty, as the lead. But you could compare the novels to The Hunger Games as well. Beka is as able as Katniss Everdeen, though her skills with a lead-cored baton and hobbling cords are more urban than rural. She can come across as taciturn, though she’s mostly shy around people she doesn’t know very well. And like Katniss, she’s drawn from an incredibly poor environment into some of the highest echelons of the society in which she lives, though Beka becomes acquainted with nobility and the ruling family of Tortall by virtue of her talents, rather than because she’s been coerced into a vicious blood sport. The Beka Cooper stories tell a more nuanced and effective story about how a civil society becomes a more humane place — it’s ultimately one of executive order rather than revolution — but the novels’ examination of a tipping point when a country decides to end slavery is action-driven, rather than talky.
3. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Sagan: If you’re looking for a role model that could encourage girls to get into STEM fields, or wish that we could have adult women as heroines rather than just strong teenage girls whose stories are over before they reach full maturity, Cordelia Naismith, one of the heroines of Bujold’s sweeping bioethical space opera is the answer to your prayers. A brilliant expeditionary pilot, a canny political operator who helps reconcile warring societies, co-ruler of a planet rather than just a consort to the real ruler, and an empathetic mother who raises a child with an extremely severe disability to participate fully in the society of which they’re apart. Cordelia’s story could be a television series, a movie franchise, or part of a larger epic. Either way, it would be terrific to watch.
4. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina: We’ve only got the first book in Rachel Hartman’s series about a half-human, half-dragon musician named Seraphina so far. But what we have is extremely promising, a story about a young woman who’s tried to hide herself her entire life, only to find that the very things that make her fear being cast out of society — her scales, the memory garden she’s created to organize her tumultuous thoughts — are the things that make her a powerful player as a peace between dragon and human society becomes more fragile. One of the things that I like about Seraphina is that the main character doesn’t have to be an action heroine. She’s brave, and she has the courage to stand up to physical threats to her person. But the things that make her a hero aren’t the ability to deploy violence or to lead a revolution. Instead, it’s skill in the arts that makes her stand out, her ability to negotiate court manners that let her have influence, and her willingness to deny herself what she wants for the greater good that make Seraphina such an important person. We don’t just need stories that originate in places other than comics. We need stories that offer up alternate paths to victory and social change.
5. Justin Cronin’s The Passage Series: I didn’t think much of The Twelve, Cronin’s sequel to his vampire novel The Passage, which devolved into cliche and an action spectacle that didn’t make much sense, and certainly didn’t invoke the spiritual power of the first book, or manage to make the post-apocalypse seem genuinely frightening in a new way. But Amy Harper Bellafonte, the little girl who’s infected with a vampiric virus, but ages slowly and achieves a certain telepathy rather than turning into a ravening beast, could be a way to bring the little-monster vibe of Let Me In to a larger story arc. Amy has the traits of a monster, but the tenderness of a little girl. She’s a terrific character, and would bring some strangeness to the plucky-little-girl with supernatural powers genre.