Last week, Universal broke the news that it had bought rights to the fourteen novels in Anne Rice's vampire series and was planning a movie franchise. Here are seven rules for what should happen next.
Perhaps this decision came in the wake of the unbearable vampire vacuum that loomed after the end of True Blood. But this won't be the Rice vampires' first trip to the screen: in 1994, Neil Jordan delivered the appropriately Gothic and slyly funny Interview with the Vampire, and in 2002, Queen of the Damned appeared like an unwelcome houseguest in cinemas everywhere. What can Universal learn from these outings, and what do they need to know about Rice's work in general as adaptation begins?
It's tempting, of course, to start at Interview with the Vampire and slice right through them in order, and to some degree that makes sense. As the mythology expands, the vampire population eventually becomes its own small town, crossing one another's paths for eternity, which offers great potential for a returning ensemble cast, and each book stands alone just enough to suggest a single film each.
But no matter how much plot's involved, each volume contains so many asides, eddies, and flashbacks that they eventually take on the pace of dream logic, characters floating slowly towards great peril in a land in which everyone's backstory is good for at least a hundred pages. Do what Anne Rice doesn't think is necessary, and edit things down a little. No one's suggesting you combine books (we've seen that, it's terrible), but there's a long game to play here. Introducing the Mayfair Witches is probably inevitable, but the jury's still out on the Taltos thing.
There's no better illustration for this than Tom Cruise and Stuart Townsend's star turns as Lestat in Interview and Damned respectively. Though Townsend did little but glare and sidle in his outing, it was doomed from the beginning: the approaches to the character were so disparate that even a Cruise reprise would have imploded. And this is about more than just consistency. The best-cast movies have a sense of serendipity—of catching everyone at just the right time.
You see it in projects like The Lord of the Rings, and even in the original Interview, there's a remarkable intersection of career paths in the cross-section of a given scene: just-before-megastardom Brad Pitt, largely-unknown Antonio Banderas, and newcomer Kirsten Dunst menacing one another in a particularly Victorian-vampire way carries its own frisson of interest. Even Queen of the Damned had a flicker of it, in Aaliyah's promising presence as Akasha, and Paul McGann as Talamasca scholar David. For a franchise so focused on its characters and their relationships, a versatile ensemble will be the make-or-break creative decision.
Any particular Vampire Chronicle can be so plotty that individual beats disappear in the avalanche of prose, but taken as a series, the books have a lot to say about vampirism as an inherently feudal, imperialist state. Vampirism is referred to as the Dark Gift, but in any given backstory, the turning is almost always an act of violence, delivered against the mortal's will or given when the mortal is past making the choice. It sets up a system of recognized bloodlines and reciprocal obligations straight from the Middle Ages, and vampires survive on the literal blood of the lower classes. (Let's never forget the time Marius made human Bianca into a vampire so she could do his grocery shopping for him.)
Rice's vampires all undergo moral qualms at regular intervals—even Lestat isn't immune to the occasional bout of devastating guilt. But they're often more interesting in their obliviousness, as adventuring, murderous royalty whose lives are endless and whose purpose almost luxuriously useless. Playing up that disconnect could be amazing.
Anne Rice's novels are simply awash in subtext, courtesy of the freeform lust vampires experience in lieu of their biological sexual functions, and their tendency to aesthetic fixation (surprise, most of the vampires were gorgeous even before they were turned). Some of these undertones are deliberate—the uncomfortable, tense dynamic between Louis and his vampire daughter/object of affection Claudia, for example. Some of them are simply serendipitous mistakes—for example, she never thought of Louis and Lestat, the world's longest unhealthy marriage, as being in a relationship with one another. A big-budget film franchise filled with pansexual vampires awash in creepy interpersonal dynamics pretty much sells itself.
These days, a franchise succeeds as much in the gift shop as on the silver screen. No one needs Moping Louis or Bemused Marius action figures, but the books have a built-in cadre of fans, and with the new ones a good franchise could make, there's money to be made in Lestat's band gear and Talamasca ephemera, not to mention that half these vampires are keeping a diary at all times, which just screams for composition notebooks (or tablet covers, whichever).
Of all the things these stories are, "subtle" is not among them. Interview gets off the hook here with panache: even if you don't count Lestat playing spinet with swamp goo still all over him, it still passes muster simply for the scene in which Louis takes four years in real time just to decide to bite the slave whose wrist he's caressing. One of the biggest mistakes Queen of the Damned made was to try and combine so much vampire lore from The Vampire Lestat and its namesake book that there was barely any time for its own lead vampire, much less for the part where Mekare eats the brain of the vampire Queen.
It's too bad, since the best scene in Queen of the Damned is one that gleefully throws off all restraint and revels in its own excess. By the time Akasha's eaten the heart of one vampire and lit all the other vampires in the bar on fire with the powers of her mind , it's hard not to start wondering if, after the True Blood tonal tangle and the slick detachment of the Underworld shoot-em-ups, you're ready for a cabal of ancient drama queens to converge on a rock concert after all.
You have an awkward hill to climb from Queen of the Damned: it's not hard to improve on, and its battle-reunion plot is a perfect franchise entry, but it's got a notorious reputation. Interview's even little harder (see above—the sense of discovery that went with the casting and that Goth lushness is hard to replicate). Plus there are the dozens of vampire books, movies, and TV shows that have flooded the market in the years since Interview, many of which borrowed concepts from Rice's work that now feel like genre givens.
Right now all we know is how deeply they've committed, and maybe that's all we need. When a film company buy up fourteen books, they likely have something ambitious planned, and that's for the best: when you're planning to make your mark on an overstuffed genre, best to go big or go home. (Also I changed my mind about the Moping Louis action figure; please make one.)