Gormenghast: can Mervyn Peake’s weird fantasy ever work on screen?

Ian Miller, CC BY-SA

Gormenghast: can Mervyn Peake’s weird fantasy ever work on screen?

Following the success of American Gods, which he adapted from his novel of the same name, Neil Gaiman is reportedly working on adapting a new TV version of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy for FremantleMedia.

It’s a daunting challenge. The BBC’s attempt to adapt the books for TV in 2000 was panned by the critics and shunned by audiences. But now that advances in visual effects and green screen technology have made the onscreen depiction of improbable worlds much more convincing, a truly awe-inspiring representation of the Tower of Flints – the ancient city of ruins with its outer dwellings clinging like limpets to Gormenghast mountain – seems fully achievable.

Emerging from British post-war culture, Mervyn Peake’s trilogy is a distant, dark and capricious relative to the epic fairy tale of his fantasist contemporary, J.R.R. Tolkien. It doesn’t fit easily alongside the more traditional medieval fantasies that have succeeded The Lord of the Rings and culminated in George RR Martin’s and HBO’s massively successful Game of Thrones series.

Classic trilogy. librarything.com

Written before the fantasy genre existed as a bookstore phenomenon, Peake’s books avoid most of the tropes associated with the form. There are no magic swords, sorcerers, dragons, orcs, elves or walking dead. Instead, the fantastic – especially in the first two books – is contained in beautifully wrought descriptions of Gormenghast’s labyrinthine architecture and the ancient stronghold’s bizarre, time-crusted rituals. The action is expressed through the melodramatic passions of its grotesque characters such as Steerpike, the Machiavellian kitchen boy, who climbs and kills his way up through the social edifice, briefly becoming its Master of Ritual.

The series begins with the birth of Titus, 77th earl of the self-contained castle. He is still an infant by the end of the first book, which explores Steerpike’s rise to a sort of power through the exploitation of numerous unsuspecting patrons. Titus only becomes an active protagonist during the second book in the series, before venturing out into a very different, almost science fictional, world in the third book, a sort of nightmarish picaresque concerning his search for identity.

A gothic, almost surreal atmosphere pervades these books in a manner that is closer, in many ways, to Franz Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares and Lewis Carroll’s absurdist whimsy than to adventures of wizards, dwarves and knights in armour.

Gothic flavour

Though his fiction doesn’t fit the high or epic fantasy mould, Peake’s influence can be seen in the work of writers of weird fiction as varied as Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe, China Mieville, Philip Pullman, Jeff VanderMeer and, of course, Gaiman himself. Of those writers, Mieville (The City and the City), Pullman (His Dark Materials), VanderMeer (Annihilation) and Gaiman have all recently had film or TV adaptations of their work produced or put into development.

Steerpike as imagined by Mervyn Peake. mervynpeake.org

Moorcock befriended the Peakes during Mervyn’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease and was instrumental in convincing Penguin to bring out the books as “Modern Classics” in 1968. This helped introduce the books to a new audience in the 1970s and coincided with the rise of fantasy as a literary genre.

The hippies embraced and popularised Tolkien in the US, but there is something that pre-echoes punk in Peake’s work. If you compare his illustrations of “his infernal slyness” Steerpike with photographs of the young Johnny Rotten, it is hard not to see a similarity in the two high-shouldered youths.

Would make a good Steerpike: Johnny Rotten. By Koen Suyk; Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, CC BY-SA

Even the characters’ names – Swelter, Flay, Rottcodd, Sourdust, Prunesquallor, Cheeta and Muzzlehatch – have a similar raggedy gothic aesthetic to them.

In his book on fantasy fiction, Wizardry & Wild Romance, Moorcock talks about exotic landscape itself taking on a character function within the genre. Previously, the Gormenghast books have been adapted for radio, stage, and screen – the radio and stage versions proving more effective because they privilege the audience’s imagination over clunky representation. Much of the novels’ power lies in Peake’s descriptive language, and attempts to visualise his prose style have proved disappointing.

Art of the possible

In 2000, the BBC wasted a year’s drama budget on a patchily cast and overly whimsical adaptation of the first two books that had more than a whiff of the school play about it. By its second episode, the £6m budget series had lost 40% of its initial 4.5m audience. But that was before the current rage for fantastic films and TV series and, given the aforementioned advances in visual effects, the onscreen depiction of convincing alternative worlds has became possible as well as fashionable.

Think of the massive wall of ice guarding the North against Wildings and White Walkers in Game of Thrones or the futuristic cities and alien landscapes of The Expanse and Altered Carbon. By employing Gaiman, a prolific and popular modern fantasy writer – as well as a Peake disciple – in the production process, it does seem that the series has a good chance of bringing the author’s unique vision to the screen and capturing the dark majesty of Gormenghast, without straying too far into the pantomime kitsch of its millennial predecessor.